Here Fishy Fishy: Fish Importation in the 1860s

As I have been going through the purchasing records for the college’s first boarding halls (housed at the MSU Archives), I’ve noticed some interesting purchases that I did not expect. Scattered among the many notations about common veggies and other foodstuffs were the purchasing notes for imported fish, including Lake Superior Whitefish and Halibut. I am particularly interested in the importation of Lake Superior Whitefish because I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, right across the street from Lake Superior. Growing up in Marquette, Lake Superior Whitefish was a staple in our house and is very common at local restaurants in town. I was surprised to find it purchased by Michigan State during the Early Period! The archival records show that during the 1860s, not only was MSU was purchasing Lake Superior Whitefish, but that they were doing it throughout the year. During the Early Period of MSU (1855-1870), I expected to find that almost all food resources that MSU utilized would be local, because of the difficult nature of storing and transporting more exotic/distant food. To be able to transport fish from Lake Superior all the way to MSU in the 1860s, the fish would have to be either transported on ice (more difficult to do during the summer months) or they would have been salted to preserve them.

1861 Purchasing records for the boarding hall (Saint's Rest) - lake superior whitefish highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections
1861 Purchasing records for the boarding hall (Saint’s Rest) – Lake Superior whitefish highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

Now before I dive into the history of fishing on Lake Superior, I want to give you a quick introduction to Lake Superior Whitefish. Lake Superior whitefish are a member of the trout/salmon family (Salmonidae) that live near the bottom of lakes and feed on small fishes and crustaceans, as well as other sources of meat that can be found in deep water. After an a late fall/early winter spawn, whitefish hatch in the spring and grow rapidly, allowing them to reach a body weight of over 20 pounds. Once adults, they can live for over 25 years.  The reason whitefish were and still are such a popular fish is due to its tasty flavor, convenient size, and their schooling behavior, which allows for easier mass catching (DNR).

Whitefish - Image Source: DNR
Whitefish – Image Source: DNR.

Fishing for Lake Superior Whitefish has a long history in the state, and commercial fishing on Lake Superior has had some major changes throughout Michigan’s history (Goniea DNR; Minnesota Sea Grant). Small steamer ships are no longer required to transport fish to the market (Holmquist 1955). Now it is possible to drive the fish downstate using highways throughout Michigan, many of which follow the Great Lake shorelines. One part of commercial fishing that has not changed is the most common method of fishing: gill nets. However, there are now different laws that govern the size of the mesh used by fishermen as well as fishing seasons (Holmquist 1955).

The steamer "Hiram R Dixon" fished regularly along Lake Superiors North Shore. Image Source
The steamer “Hiram R Dixon” fished regularly along Lake Superiors North Shore. Image Source.

According to Holmquist (1955), attempts at large-scale fishing on Lake Superior began during the 1830s and 1840s, but was not as profitable as companies hoped. Commercial fishing in Lake Superior again picked up steam during the 1860s, when a commercial operation was opened at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is possible that this growth in commercial fishing at that particular time, along with an increase in railways, influenced Michigan State’s purchasing of imported fish in addition to the more typical local resources. Through the 1890s, whitefish were a primary target species within Lake Superior commercial fishing, but over-fishing through the early 1900s quickly led the species to the brink of extinction. Now, with the help of more restrictive fishing methods and artificial propagation, whitefish populations have returned to adequate levels for commercial fishing once again (Holmquist 1955).

Fishermen in a Mackinaw boat raising their nets. Image Source
Fishermen in a Mackinaw boat raising their nets. Image Source.

While MSU farms and local businesses provided the majority of the food resources consumed by campus residents during the Early Period, it has been exciting to learn about the non-local resources that are being purchased for the boarding halls. While the purchasing of Lake Superior whitefish does not appear to be a constant throughout the 1860s (archival records indicate sporadic purchasing during three separate years), it is interesting that there was an inclusion of food that would have been more difficult to acquire. Students and faculty were treated to a more varied diet than what their local surroundings could produce. The purchasing of Lake Superior whitefish during this time shows the appreciation of great resources and the wonder of the Upper Peninsula before the building of the Mackinaw Bridge!

Author: Autumn Painter


MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. Agricultural boarding hall.

Commercial Fishing on Lake Superior in the 1890s by June Drenning Holmquist (1955):


Tom Goniea (DNR) – The Story of State-licensed Commercial Fishing History on the Great Lakes:,4570,7-153-10364_52259-316019–,00.html

Minnesota Sea Grant – Lake Superior and Michigan Fisheries: A Closer Look:

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