Stuck in the Ice on Lake Superior

The sources for this example of the challenges of migration are a collection of letters from Peter and Maria Penner, found in the doddy house attic on the former Peter G. Martin farm in Woolwich Township, Waterloo County, and the diary of Elias Eby. Peter and Maria Penner were part of a group of migrants who stayed in Ontario in the winter of 1875-76 before leaving for Manitoba in the spring to settle initially in the East Reserve village of Rosengart.  They were hosted in Ontario by the Peter G. Martin family. Elias Eby, was the son of the pioneer Bishop Benjamin Eby. He was a miller and very interested in the migration of the 1870s.1

From the Diary of Elias Eby

May 8, 1876

“The Russians who stayed here in Ontario last summer gathered in Berlin, from whence they left for Sarnia at 8 p.m. and on Tuesday at 11 p.m. went from there per boat on the lakes to Manitoba, 442 persons. Our son-in-law, Aaron Schantz, who guided 600 Russians there June 4, 1875, was their guide again. He took along his wife, his two small children and Nancy’s youngest son, Henry Clemens. They are all seeking a home there. Besides these, there were over 200 other persons on the same boat. May the dear God attend them on this dangerous trip.”

May 29, 1876

“Today’s mail brought the first news of the above mentioned emigrants to Manitoba, from which I take a short excerpt from Aaron Schantz’s letter:

The steamer Atlantic on Lake Superior of Minnesota Point near Duluth in June of 1874 or 1875. The Penners travelled a year or two later and experienced a lot more ice on the lake than is shown on this photo. Photo Credit: Hennepin County Library Special Collections.

The steamer Atlantic on Lake Superior of Minnesota Point near Duluth in June of 1874 or 1875. The Penners travelled a year or two later and experienced a lot more ice on the lake than is shown on this photo. Photo Credit: Hennepin County Library Special Collections.

May 9, in the evening, the boat left Sarnia, Ontario, having several hours interference from the ice at Manitoulin Island, yet hoping to reach Duluth by Saturday, 13, but in vain. Although they were now on Lake Superior, they were still far from Duluth. The lake is an average of 600 feet deep. In this region stands the 95 foot light house which cost $73,000, and can be seen for 18 miles. Monday 15th they were within 20 miles of Duluth, but were daily hindered by ice, so that they only arrived at Duluth with great difficulty and the help of two other steamers, on the evening of the 24th. The provisions of food were practically exhausted. 26th they went per cars to Moorehead, and on the morning of May 30, they all arrived safely at Winnipeg, where Aaron entered the service of a store with free rent, within a few days.”

Peter and Maria Penner’s letter to their hosts, the Peter G. Martins.

Duluth, May 25, 1876

Dear Parents:

As I promised to send you a card, I will write a few lines about the journey. On May 8 at 8 o’clock in the evening we boarded the ship. That was Tuesday, then we travelled to the Edward Islands, Thunder Bay, that was Sunday forenoon, the 14th at 10 o’clock we left. The 24th we came to the city of Duluth. Dear parents, the journey was distressful, but still better than we feared, since no one died of hunger. But that we lived on 5 potatoes and a quarter pound of bread on the journey; but Wednesday the 24th the Lord opened the way. But some had even less to eat. Monday the 27th, 18 men crossed the ice to the land. The ship was about 20 miles from the harbour. They travelled about 16 hours on foot over ice; thus the Lord showed us how he can punish us and how he can preserve us. But the Name of the Lord be praised we poor mortals cannot praise and thank him enough for his great mercy. Concerning ourselves, we are quite well, God be praised, and wish that this imperfect writing may find you in good health. You perhaps wonder why we call you parents. I can do no else, since you did not accept me as a brother; yes as children you took us up, for which we cannot repay nor thank you. I think the Heavenly Father will repay you.

Second, I must inform you that we leave tomorrow, Thursday.

In closing a hearty greeting to you and your children from us. I promised Henry I would write but have no time. A hearty greeting of love to you.

Peter and Maria Penner

ICE IN LAKE SUPERIOR. – There is ice enough in Lake Superior to block the ports there, so that it is almost impossible for vessels to enter or depart. A dispatch received at the office of the Northern Transit line yesterday, from Duluth, stated that the Nashua had just arrived at her wharf, having lain in the ice for almost a week. In her efforts to effect a release she broke her wheel. The Garden City, of the same line, now on her way to Duluth, will meet the Nashua at Copper Harbor and tow her here. – Cleveland Leader.

ICE AT DULUTH. – A telegram from Duluth of Saturday last reported the steamer Fremont and one or two other boats ice-bound at Duluth. It appears that the northeast wind has driven the ice, of which there remain immense fields, to the head of Lake Superior, blocking up the port of Duluth. The ice is said to extend out ten miles or more.

We suggest that the citizens of Duluth advertise a great centennial skating carnival for the next Fourth of July upon the ice in that harbor. It would attract more visitors than any other entertainment that could be afforded.

Detroit Tribune, June 6, 1876. 


  1. Mimeographed copies of the letters are in the Mennonite Library and Archives Peter G. Martin collection, Hist. Mss. 1.160; the Eby diary is in Hist. Mss. 17. Slightly different transcriptions of the diaries and letters were published in Lawrence Klippenstein, “Old Letters Tell Our Story,” Mennonite Historian 4(4)(December 1978): 1-2 and Isaac R. Horst, “Colonization in the 1870s,” Ontario Mennonite History, 16(2)(October 1998): 19-23. The text used here is from the archival copies.


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