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Timber Rebellion and the USS Michigan

Iron-Hulled USS Michigan (

In the year 1844, the USS Michigan was commissioned by the U.S. Navy to combat the timber pirates in the great lakes region. The violent timber rebellion involved illegal trading of timber stolen by pirates, ravaging the profitable logging industry in the western great lakes region.

Need for Navy Patrol of the Great Lakes

The American Naval Forces began their formal patrol of the great lakes region in the year 1844. There are two primary reasons why the Navy saw a need for this patrol. The first is the presence of overwhelming criminal activity relating to the timber trade. The other relates to the desired protection of the U.S.-Canadian border. Overall, the size of the force patrolling the great lakes was relatively small. However, the need for military patrolling of the great lakes region remained evident for decades after the start of the Great Lakes Patrol, which was not ended until 1920 when the U.S. Coast Guard took over. Therefore, in 1843, the United States Navy constructed their very first steam-powered warship that possessed an iron hull. This ship was named the USS Michigan.

State of the Country and USS Michigan Involvements         

When analyzing the USS Michigan and its involvement in the Timber Rebellion, it is important to understand the state of the United States at the time. This was a time just prior the civil war when the United States military had a chance to investigate further advancements in military technology relating to naval warfare [2]. Just after the end of the Mexican-American war, the USS Michigan sailed the great lakes region boasting its newer technology in comparison to other naval ships at the time. The great ship never fired a shot on the great lakes however, leaving its history to be focused rather on its involvements in the region rather than naval warfare encounters [7]. The most notable mission of the ship in its early career is its involvement in the Timber Rebellion. Later on in its career, during the course of the civil war, it continued to see little action. This is mainly because it never left the great lakes, and was simply to isolated away from the bulk of the war to be heavily involved. The relatively small-scale set of skirmish’s in the great lakes regions provided needed publicity for the USS Michigan, a center of attention to many. Its sailing of the great lakes, especially during the rebellion, resulted in much attention being drawn to the ships involvements.

Construction of the USS Michigan

Attacks by rebels on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes during the 1837 Canadian Rebellion led the British to arm two steam powered gun boats, stationed to defend their side of the lake. In response, the United States saw a need for an advanced U.S. gunboat of their own on the lakes. For these reasons, the USS Michigan was commissioned. The ship was built in Erie, Pennsylvania and was propelled by the steam powered sidewheel. As was common in early steamers, the USS Michigan also had 3 masts for wind power in addition to the steam engine [6]. The combination of steam engines and wind power was crucial for early steam ships to increase travel range, as well as ensure the ship would not be dead in the water in the event of a steam engine failure. The USS Michigan was built in Erie Pennsylvania to a length of 167 feet long by 27 inches wide [1]. The ship usually sailed the Great Lakes from March to December, after which time the ship returned to Erie to stay for the duration of the winter. The ship was docked in Erie during the winter due to the inability of the ship to travel the frozen Great Lakes. The USS Michigan, commanded by Commander William Inman, served to protect the great lakes from various threats. Operating primarily in Lake Erie to start, the USS Michigan was the one and only Navy gunboat patrolling the Great Lakes. Relating to the Timber Rebellion, the ship saw most of its action in the Great Lakes region during the 1850’s. In 1853, the ship was assigned with the task of deterring the efforts of the pirates and rebels participating in the Timber rebellion.

Technological Advancements of the USS Michigan

During the 1850’ and 1860’s, the United States Military was busy inventing and improving existing technologies relating to naval operations. Britain and France were both well ahead of the United States in terms of naval technology at the time, and it was becoming more apparent to the American people. The most prominent naval technologies relating to warships that were being improved upon at the time were rifled cannons and iron platting [3]. These features allowed gunships more accurate canon fire with longer effective ranges, as well as increased protection from canon fire with armored plating. The USS Michigan, built in 1843, was constructed with an iron hull and was steam powered as well. It is arguable that the USS Michigan did in fact play a huge part in the overall improvement of the United States Navy. Being the United States Navy’s first steam powered and iron hulled warship, its construction marked a large step towards the overall improvement of the Navy’s naval technology. Relating to the Timber Rebellion specifically, the event drew attention to the USS Michigan as it was first put to use in the Great Lakes region in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Steam power was a pre-existing technology at the time, but its efficiency was vastly improved during this time period. In fact, the USS Michigan was subject to testing of expansive and non-expansive steam in relation to the overall efficiency of the early steam boat motors. This testing resulted in further improvements in steam technology. As can be inferred from the first section, “Military and Naval Inventions”, of a 1861 journal titled The Scientific American, the United States Navy was due for an overhaul of warship technology, primarily noticed by comparison to British and French naval advancements [3]. Ultimately, the USS Michigan proved to be a long-term test of recent advancements in naval technology, and its participation in the Timber Rebellion provided for a chance for the ship to demonstrate to Americans that the United States needed to improve its naval technology.

Timber Pirates Goals and Start of the Revolt

During this time period, the federal government owned large scores of land in the western Great Lakes region. These federal lands were heavily forested areas primarily located along the coasts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. The governments intentions with these lands involved harvesting the valuable timber from them for the construction of U.S. warships. An increasingly large assembly of criminals, tagged with the name of Timber Pirates, saw the stockpiles of government owned timber throughout the region as easy profit. These pirates and rebels were a relatively unorganized group of criminals that scoured the Great Lakes region in search of timber to steal from existing government stockpiles. The goal of theirs was to steal and smuggle government owned timber from the region to be sold for profit elsewhere. The governments initial response to timber theft was to confiscate large sums of timber from the pirates. In essence, this is what caused the pirates to revolt, and start the Timber rebellion.

Characteristics of the Timber Rebellion

Chicago and Milwaukee were the central locations of the Timber Rebellion in the Great Lakes region. Both areas relied heavily on illegal economic activities focused on the smuggling of timber for economic gain. Not only was the Timber Rebellion bad because of the smuggling and stealing that occurred, but is also struck fear into citizens at the time. The rebellion involved the destruction of property in the region, as well as numerous occasions of people getting hurt or killed. The fact that federal authorities were called in the help put a stop to the smuggling shows this was not a negligible piece of history, but rather an example of internal conflicts in the United States that can be closely relating with some occurring today. The amount of timber smuggling that took place, as well as the sheer number of people involved, was underestimated by many. In fact, the Navy didn’t even bother making the USS Michigan’s sailing dates confidential, potentially a reason for the large number of rebellion conflicts in which it was involved.

USS Michigan’s Involvement in the Timber Rebellion

The Timber Rebellion marks the time in which the illegal timber trade was booming the most. During this time period in the 1850’s, the Navy saw fit to assign the USS Michigan the task of combating the Timber Rebellion pirates throughout the western Great Lakes region. The most notable incident that occurred involved the pirates burning a large sum of government owned stolen timber, which was loaded on several small boats. Also, in May of 1853, there was a collision between the USS Michigan and an unknown ship in Lake Huron. It appears the unknown ship was controlled by pirates who intentionally caused the crash, badly damaging both ships. The pirate controlled “Buffalo” came up alongside the USS Michigan and suddenly turned 90 degrees, steering directly into the side of the USS Michigan. Commander Bigelow of the USS Michigan had woken up to the sound of the ship crashing into his [4]. The USS Michigan was badly damaged from the collision, as well as the pirate-controlled shipped named the “Buffalo”. The map pin seen below represents the approximate location of this collision, which was noted to have occurred in Lake Huron some 20 to 30 miles north of the St. Clair Rivers mouth. It was presumed that the Buffalo was on its way from the timber rebellion infested Chicago area, and had intentionally rammed the USS Michigan in this incident. A book written by Bradley Rodgers on the USS Michigan describes this encounter in further detail on page 48-52 [4]. It is important to note that the iron hull of the USS Michigan played a huge role in the outcome of this Collison. If the USS Michigan had not had an iron hull, it is likely the ship would’ve been compromised and took on water as a result. The iron hull resulted in most of the damage having been done to the pirate controlled ship. Had the USS Michigan sunk at this point, or be damaged to the point it could not be repaired in a timely fashion, it is likely that its efforts to quench the timber rebellion would be ended. Without the USS Michigan patrolling the great lakes region, the timber rebellion certainly would not have ended when it did. The USS Michigan was the only United States Navy ship patrolling the great lakes region at the time, and without its protection, the great lakes could’ve been further engulfed by the timber pirates.  Although badly damaged, the USS Michigan’s iron hall saved her. Numerous rebels were captured by the USS Michigan after the ship was repaired, which singlehandedly provided naval support against the rebellion. Ultimately the USS Michigan was responsible for the end of the rebellion.

Results of the USS Michigan’s Involvement

During the Timber Rebellion, the USS Michigan proved to benefit society in other ways than crushing the outbreak of timber pirates in the region. The ship and its crew were also responsible for gathering important information relating to the climate and conditions of the great lakes region and the lakes themselves. Westward migration provided the need for raw materials and natural resources to be shipped out west. The USS Michigan facilitated these activities by keeping the Timber Rebellion quenched in the Great Lakes region and keeping the economic activity in the region booming.

Map of Michigan in 1853 (









Primary Sources:           

[1] Wilson, L. F. (1908). “The Oldest Iron Vessel in the World”The American Marine Engineer

[2] The Civil War in Missouri. 1864 Labor Unrest and General Order No. 65

[3] “MILITARY AND NAVAL INVENTIONS.” Scientific American, vol. 4, no. 18, 1861, pp. 281–281. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Secondary Sources:

[4] Rodgers, Bradley A. Guardian of the Great Lakes: The U.S. Paddle Frigate Michigan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996

[5] “Naval History and Heritage Command.” Michigan I (SwStr), 10 Aug. 2015,

[6] “MICHIGAN, U.S.S.; 1843; Naval Vessel; AMERICAN.” Great Lakes Maritime Database, University of Michigan Library Digital Collections

[7] Rubbings. USS Michigan (1843), Find a Grave

For Further Reading: