St. Martin went from the fur trade to the medical record books

Time Before Now, June, 1822James Monroe, the last Founding Father to be President, also famously founded the Monroe Doctrine, opposing Europe’s colonial instincts in the Americas.   Gideon Mantell, the son of a British shoemaker, unearthed a tooth from a giant Iguanodon (right) in a  Sussex quarry, eventually leading to the discovery of dinosaurs.  And Hungarian wunderkind, Franz Liszt, debuted in concert at age 11.  A student of Antonio Solieri’s, Solieri is best remembered in this century as the villain in the 1984 movie, “Amadeus,” which falsely claimed he poisoned Wolfgang Mozart. 

June 6, 1822

On this day, Alexis St. Martin, one of the world’s unluckiest Canadian voyageurs, was accidently shot at a fur trading post on Mackinac Island.  Lucky at least to survive, it was the beginning of a life as a human science experiment.

Fort Mackinac in about 1800

The illiterate 28-year-old St. Martin, employed by the American Fur Company, was making a purchase at the company store when the man standing next to him accidently discharged a shotgun loaded for duck hunting.  St. Martin was hit the chest at point blank range.

Enter U.S. Army surgeon, Dr. William Beaumont. (Left)  A talented physician and good samaritan by all accounts, Beaumont treated the wound as best he could, declaring St. Martin would not live more than another day.  But he did.  Remarkably, St. Martin made slow but steady progress, faithfully attended by the good doctor who kept graphic accounts of the patient’s progress. 

Over the course of the next year, St. Martin underwent a number of surgeries at the hands of Beaumont.  Perhaps by fate as much as Beaumont’s intervention, the hole in his stomach adhered to the opening  under his left breast.  

In March of the following year, however, the unfortunate St. Martin was termed by Beaumont to be “miserable and helpless” and authorities designated him a “common pauper.”  No longer able or willing to be responsible for the ailing man, they elected to return him to Canada.   

Enter Beaumont again to save the day.  The surgeon said he feared the frail St. Martin would not survive the thousand mile journey to his birthplace in Berthier, Ontario.  At this  point, St. Martin reportedly became part of the doctor’s household.

Berthier, Ontario, late 18oos

Sometime in 1824, however, the patient instead became an employee.  Restored to “full health,” according to Beaumont, save for the opening in his upper chest, St. Martin served as combination house man and field hand.  By the next year, Beaumont was writing enthusiastically in a medical journal that St. Martin’s condition was “excellent,”  and offered an opportunity to insert “various digestible substances into the stomach, and easily examine them during the whole process of digestion.”  Beaumont’s various writings never suggest he considered repairing St. Martin’s internal injuries and closing the external opening, allowing his patient to return to normal life.

It was at this point St. Martin essentially began a period of bondage, following his employer from one military post to the next.  By 1826, however, the accidental lab rat had apparently had enough.  Returning to Berthier, he married Marie Joly and went back to the fur business, working for a different unspecified company.  

Desperate to locate St. Martin and continue his experiments, Beaumont traced his former subject’s whereabouts through his old employer, the American Fur Company.   Their agents, on Beaumont’s authority, coaxed St. Martin back into the fold, transporting him, his wife and the couple’s first two children to Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.   St. Martin took up his old duties for Beaumont and the doctor commenced his experiments. 

Fort Crawford at Prairie Du Chien

Two years later in 1831, St. Martin took leave once again, paddling an open canoe with his brood which now included four children, up the Mississippi River back to Canada.  But the next year, apparently impoverished, he re-enlisted with Beaumont. 

Now stationed in Washington, D.C., Beaumont was hoping the U.S. military would fund his experiments and persuaded the Surgeon General to allow St. Martin to become a Sergeant in the Army.  Still unable to read and write, St. Martin put his mark on a two-year contract and promised to follow Beaumont to his next post in St. Louis, Missouri.  But he didn’t.  

Technically AWOL, it is unclear if St. Martin as a Canadian, could have been compelled to return.  Beaumont, without his research subject, went on to publish a groundbreaking medical text, “Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion, detailing the nearly 250 experiments conducted on St. Martin.  Resigning his military commission in 1840, he retired to a farm near St. Louis and continued to be active in medical circles.  He reportedly regretted until his death his failure to persuade St. Martin to continue the experiments.

Ironically, St. Martin, believed doomed in 1822, outlived Beaumont by 37 years, dying in 1880 at 78, a considerably ripe old age for the day. (Right, the St. Martins)  Impoverished and “dependent on drink,”  however, he took one more whirl as a science exhibit in 1856.  After shunning a number of earlier attempts by other medical groups to recruit him, he reportedly toured a number of American cities with a “snake-oil salesman” named Bunting.

Denied a measure of dignity in life, St. Martin’s burial was considered unseemly, as well.  It was intentionally delayed, according to family archives, on the fear that he would be exhumed for autopsies.  

Beaumont died in 1853 at the age of 67 after a fall on the ice, apparently  never having questioned the ethics of his conduct toward St. Martin. 

Fort Mackinac, 7127 Huron Rd., Mackinac Island, Michigan, is part of Mackinac Island State Park, which was founded in 1895.  The historic outpost was built by the British during the American Revolution, changing hands in 1815.   It’s strategic location between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron made it an important factor in the War of 1812 and beyond.   A total of  14 original buildings are now part of the museum complex including the commissary, hospital, guardhouse, quartermaster and barracks.  One of Michigan’s most popular tourist destinations, in addition to the fort, the Mackinac area boasts a variety of historic nature sites including the 1814 Battlefield, three historic post cemeteries, the British Landing Nature Center and the grand Governor’s Summer Residence. 

There’s even more to do in nearby Historic Downtown Mackinac.  For more information on all the sites, tours and activities go to, call 906-847-3328;, fax 906-847-3815 or write P.O. Box 370, 7029 Huron Road, Mackinac Island, MI 49757

© Text Only – 2021- Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.