Of the three historic cemeteries on Mackinac Island, one is a military burial ground with graves that go back more than 200 years. Both British and American troops have been laid to rest at the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery, but not every body in the ground belonged to a soldier.
If you walk to one corner of the cemetery, past the tidy rows of soldiers’ graves marked by uniform white headstones, you’ll come to a large marble obelisk set apart and guarded by four chained posts. The monument does not mark the grave of a soldier, nor any military officer. Instead, it is the resting place of “The Chaplain’s Lady.”
The tall marker identifies the grave as that of Charlotte O’Brien, an Englishwoman who died in the spring of 1855 at age 42. And that might have been all we know of her, if not for the letters she left behind.
More than 100 years after her death, Charlotte’s great-grandson, Edward Nicholas, read those letters for the first time. In the letters, Nicholas “discovered living people who had been only names to me before,” he writes in the preface of a book published by Mackinac State Historic Parks. The “events and emotions of a distant past became real again,” and he relived “the long-forgotten everyday life of Fort Mackinac in the 1840s and 1850s.”
Through his book, Nicholas shares excerpts of those letters, from which he paints a picture of who Charlotte was and what her life was like on Mackinac Island. Here is the story of the woman whose body lies in the corner of the Post Cemetery:
- Charlotte was born in 1812 in England about 70 miles from London – two months before the British captured Fort Mackinac from the Americans in the War of 1812. Although her father died when she was only 6, Charlotte’s family was well-off and remained so throughout her childhood. But a generous business loan to an in-law backfired, and the family was forced to sell its home.
- In 1832, when Charlotte was 20, her family emigrated to America in hopes of a more prosperous future. Although Charlotte wanted to remain in England, she came along to support her mother. The family settled in the Michigan Territory in a frontier village south of Detroit.
- The “pious one of the family,” according to Nicholas, Charlotte became attracted to the young Irish preacher who led the little church that had just been built to serve the frontier community of about 500 people. Three years later, Charlotte and John O’Brien married. Not long after, the couple’s first child – Lyster O’Brien, grandfather of the book’s author – was born.
- Charlotte was happy, though still homesick for England, and John longed for a bigger calling than the little church he led. But his ordination was not accepted in England, so he pursued other clergy opportunities in America. Through the influence of Gen. Lewis Cass, a former Michigan governor who would go on to become a U.S. senator and Secretary of State, John was offered the role of U.S. Army Chaplain at Fort Mackinac. In 1842, the family moved into the fort’s Hill Quarters, which you can visit still today. John preached on Mackinac Island at the fort and also at the Mission Church.
- For more than a decade, Charlotte and John lived at Fort Mackinac and raised four boys. With John often traveling to preach at other churches – or just to pick up household goods in Detroit – the couple wrote each other many letters through the years. Through those letters, the book offers insight into the ups and downs of daily life on Mackinac Island at the time, from the beauty of the island and the joy of social gatherings to the toil of housework and the island’s loneliness in winter. Some of the letters are on display at Fort Mackinac, along with some of John’s sermons.
- In the fall of 1854, Charlotte became ill. The symptoms she noted in her diary point to pulmonary tuberculosis or consumption. But the fort’s doctor never identified her condition as such. In the spring, Charlotte passed away. A few months later, one of her sons, Allan, followed her to the grave after succumbing to another undiagnosed illness. They are both memorialized on the marble monument in the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery.
Although she didn’t want to leave England in the first place and seemed to harbor hopes of going back, Charlotte’s life has been tied to Mackinac Island through her gravestone for more than 160 years now. But only her son, Allan, joined her there because just six years after Charlotte died Fort Mackinac troops were called away for the Civil War. With no chaplain’s job, John O’Brien moved the family back near Detroit, where he led an Episcopal church until he died from a stroke in 1864.
Some of Charlotte’s sons made annual pilgrimages back to Mackinac Island to pay respects at their mother’s grave. You, too, can visit “The Chaplain’s Lady” anytime between sunup and sundown on a visit to the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery.