Michigan: Mackinac Island

Originally named Michilimackinac, the island was a pilgrimage and burial site sacred to the area’s Sioux, Algonquin, and Iroquois inhabitants. In 1634, Frenchman Jean Nicolet became the first European to note the area. Over the next two hundred years, control of the site, and the fur trade centered there, passed repeatedly between France, England, and the United States. With the end of the fur trade in the area, Mackinac briefly became the center of the local fishing industry. In 1875, the island was declared the second National Park; twenty years later, it became a Michigan State Park.

Site Office

Mackinac State Historic Parks Visitors’ Center

P.O. Box 370

Mackinac Island, MI 49757-0370

summer ph.: (906) 847-3328

winter ph.: (231) 436-4100

Web site: www.mackinac.com/historicparks

e-mail: mackinacparks@state.mi.us

The history of the upper Great Lakes region, which in the early days of British and French exploration in North America was the northwestern part of the New World, is dominated by the waters. On the lakes, and on the rivers that flow into them, floated dreams of discovery, wealth, and conquest. They were highways for commerce and exploration, the pathways by which France and Great Britain brought their religion to the native tribes, furs to their channels of commerce, and their battles to each other.

Early History

Mackinac (pronounced “mackinaw”) Island, a 3.5-square-mile, high-backed piece of land in the middle of the straits joining Lake Huron to Lake Michigan, was at the center of the waters’ flow, on the path of Europe’s hunt for a water route to China, and in the heart of the fur country that generated substantial interest and principal for the Europeans. As Sault Sainte Marie, fifty miles to the north, was the gateway from Lake Huron into Lake Superior, Mackinac controlled access to Lake Michigan and to exploration of the entire Mississippi River Valley.

The turtle-shaped island of Michilimackinac was a sacred meeting ground to the Native American tribes. Legend said it was there the great spirit, Gitchi-Manitou, made his home among his people. It became sacred to all the tribes, a place to bury their dead and to leave offerings that, if they pleased the spirits, would ensure their prosperity. Gitchi-Manitou, they said, left the island when the white man came, leaving his people under the care of smaller spirits, called Imakinaks.

The island’s name has been translated in a variety of ways: as “Great Turtle,” as “Place of Dancing Spirits,” and as “Turtle Spirits.” In any event, it and the region were referred to by the full name of Michilimackinac until after the British took over.

On the shores of the island camped the descendants of the Sioux, the Algonquin, and the Iroquois, the population mirroring the fortunes of the tribes as war and natural trials of famine and disease diminished one tribe’s grounds and expanded another’s.

The Asseguns, or Bone People, were one of the first to live on the island, having their tribal seat there before 1649. They were displaced by the Ojibwa, called Chippewa by the French, fiercest of the region’s tribes. With the Ottawa and Potawatomi, the Chippewa were the remains of one tribe of Algonquin stock that had divided but maintained an alliance. They were driven from the east by the Iroquois, and in turn they pushed the Sioux west to what is now Minnesota and the Dakotas.

First European Explorers

The first European to pass Michilimackinac came in 1634. Jean Nicolet, traveling at the behest of Governor Samuel de Champlain, had canoes heaped with gifts for the merchants of Cathay (China). Champlain, who had founded the first permanent French colony at Quebec in 1608, was convinced from tales told by the native tribes that the Chinese lived on the edge of a great sea to the west of Lake Huron. While that “sea” later turned out to be the Mississippi River Nicolet’s trip was the first of several expeditions through the Straits of Mackinac to find a trade route to the Orient. Although Nicolet was aware of Michilimackinac from tribal legend, and, when passing the island, noted it and the obeisance of the tribesman who were rowing his canoes, he did not stop there. He crossed Lake Michigan to become the first European to meet the tribes of eastern Wisconsin and Illinois, extending French influence to the region.

The next European to reach the Straits of Mackinac, in 1669, was Father Claude-Jean Allouez, a Jesuit missionary. The Jesuits were in the forefront of French exploration and often made first contact with native tribes. They were pathfinders, explorers, mapmakers, recordkeepers, and reporters. For the French, the expansion of their commercial empire was by necessity tied to the expansion of Christianity. The Jesuits were responsible for the first French structures on the island: a cross and a bark chapel, named the Mission of St. Ignace (after St. Ignatius Loyola), which was erected by Father Claude Dablon in 1669.

Father Jacques Marquette

Father Jacques Marquette, who came to Michilimackinac in 1671, arrived in North America in 1666 and went to Sault Sainte Marie. The next spring, Father Claude Dablon joined him. In 1669, Marquette replaced Allouez at La Pointe at the western end of Lake Superior when Allouez traveled into Lake Michigan to establish a mission at what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin.

At La Pointe, Marquette was given a captive Illinois tribesman by a sick Ottawa he had healed. From this tribesman, he learned of the Mississippi. Thereafter, he wrote to his superior in Quebec of these new lands to explore and new tribal nations to convert. When the Sioux tribesman at La Pointe rejected his efforts to convert them and threatened war with the Ottawa and Huron who accompanied him, he and his supporters fled back across Lake Superior and he carried on to Michilimackinac. There, he lived for almost a year, conducting services in the chapel built by Dablon. After an isolated winter, Marquette moved to the north shore of the strait, where the Huron built a village, French traders raised cabins, and Marquette built a new mission church also named for St. Ignatius Loyola, from which the town took the name of St. Ignace.

Louis Jolliet

On December 8, 1672, Louis Jolliet, Nicolet’s nephew and an acquaintance of Marquette’s from the Jesuit College at Quebec, arrived at St. Ignace with orders that Marquette join him for a voyage to the Mississippi. The following spring, they set off, eventually following the great river to points south of the Ohio. Two years later, on his way back to Michilimackinac along the eastern coast of Lake Michigan, he died. His companions buried him and went on to the island; the following year tribesmen from St. Ignace retrieved his bones. In June, 1677, he was buried under the chapel at St. Ignace.

In 1679, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, arrived at St. Ignace aboard the Griffin, a two-masted cargo ship he had built to further his dreams of a trading empire. The ship, the first to sail Lakes Erie and Huron, arrived there on its maiden voyage, producing awe in the native tribes and anger among traders who disputed La Salle’s right to do business there.

The Griffin was loaded with pelts collected the year before by voyageurs La Salle had commissioned. It was sent back to Niagara while La Salle and his men continued down Lake Michigan, where the ship was to meet them the following year. It was not until the Griffin failed to arrive at the Chicago River that La Salle would realize it had sunk in a storm shortly after setting sail.

By the 1680’s, St. Ignace was the center of France’s North American enterprise, a way station through which every traveler in the region eventually passed. Surrounding the Jesuit chapel were a Huron village and the cabins of some fifty French traders and their native wives. An Ottawa camp and a second chapel overlooked the bay. The populace survived on fish, abundant in the straits. Each spring and fall, the beach was filled with the canoes of trappers, traders, and tribesmen from outlying places, and in the summer hundreds camped on the shore. Europe’s culture had already changed that of the native, with cloth, iron, guns, and whiskey displacing skins, flint, spears, and self-sufficiency. Scattered villages were left vacant as the tribes clustered around the French stations, even as many of the traders adopted native customs.

British Intrusion

By 1690 the straits had become a target for the British. Governor Louis de Buade, Comte de Palluau et Frontenac, decided to secure the French position there and sent Louis de la Porte, Sieur de Louvigny, there with one hundred fifty soldiers. Louvigny built Fort de Buade near the St. Ignace mission. Although he said it was to protect the mission and the traders, the military was there to impress the tribes with French might and to regulate the fur trade. The latter failed, as the soldiers themselves began to trade, exchanging garrison supplies for pelts and selling the pelts to unlicensed traders, who in turn sold them to British traders on Lake Superior for shipment to Hudson Bay.

In 1694, Antoine de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, took over the military command, cleaning up the fort and enforcing order. Despite his efforts, however, illegal trade continued. To combat this and centralize fur traffic, France closed all its western posts two years later, revoked trading licenses, and encouraged the tribes to bring their furs to the St. Lawrence, where they had traded years earlier. Cadillac had urged this decision, proposing that a fort be built at Detroit to block English access to the northern region. In 1701, he built Fort Pontchartrain, which attracted Huron, Ottawa, and Potawatomi tribesmen from St. Ignace and Lower Michigan. St. Ignace shrank, and in 1706 the Jesuits withdrew, setting fire to their chapel so it could not be desecrated.

Though the first European settlement at Michilimackinac was no more, the straits continued its centuries-old role as a gathering place. A few French traders and small bands of Native Americans shifted their settlements to the south side, as the British sought to divert trade away from Detroit toward the north.

French Fortifications

By 1713, the French decided to rebuild a fort at the straits, and in 1715 Constant Le Marchand de Lignery arrived with soldiers and workmen. At this fort, eventually called Old Mackinaw to distinguish it from Ancient Michilimackinac at St. Ignace, the tribes built their brush huts and the priests their chapels. By 1722, there were thirty French families inside the fort and thirty traders’ families outside. A band of Chippewa had settled on Michilimackinac Island and came regularly to trade. Commerce and politics flowed through the fort as tribal wars erupted and England and France fought to control the New World.

By 1750, the British were striving to separate Canada from Louisiana. Crossing the Pennsylvania Mountains with packhorses, British traders established a shorter trade route, and one that did not freeze in the winter, and were able to charge less for rum and gunpowder.

At the same time, tribal violence increased with reports of traders being killed, French property being seized by Miami and Ouitenon tribes, and word of plots against French posts by the Shawnee and Miami.

French government incentives to settle in the West attracted few families and an expedition into Ohio by the Canadian-born French commander Pierre Joseph de Céloron de Blainville to win back the tribes was met by chiefs who accepted gifts but refused alliances. Céloron de Blainville found British traders firmly entrenched.

Coming of the French and Indian War

Meanwhile, at Old Mackinaw, Charles de Langlade, who was born in a Michilimackinac trade house in 1729 to a French trader and the sister of an Ottawa chief and had been accompanying war parties since he was ten, had entered the French Army and devised a way to restore the allegiance of the Ohio tribes to France. In spring 1752, he took a dozen French soldiers and 250 Ottawa and Chippewa warriors, painted for war, to the south. In June, his troop reached Pickawillany, a Miami town whose chief, known to the British as Old Britain, had rejected Céloron de Blainville’s overtures three years earlier. The Miami warriors were away on a summer hunt. Langlade laid siege to the town and its stockade. After six hours, during which fourteen tribesmen including the chief were killed, he offered to leave if the English traders in the stockade were surrendered. The old men agreed and Langlade took five English prisoners to Quebec, while his raiders went back to Michilimackinac.

The next summer, France sponsored a general council at the Straits of Mackinac with tribes coming from the Canadian prairie, Illinois, and the Wabash. More than twelve hundred warriors gathered and pledged to support the French against the British.

In 1755, British forces, headed by General Edward Braddock, were marching on Fort Duquesne, at the present site of Pittsburgh, while Langlade was gathering Ottawa, Chippewa, and Huron tribesmen. Langlade and two hundred warriors paddled to Fort Duquesne, where they decided to ambush the British on the Monongahela River. They succeeded in routing a superior British force in what was the first battle of the French and Indian War, which paralleled the Seven Years’ War in Europe. Langlade went on to command victorious troops in battles against the British over the next four years until the fall of Montreal.

The first Englishman to arrive at the straits after the surrender was Alexander Henry, a young man who had heard that Michilimackinac had the richest supply of furs in the world. Forewarned that he would be killed if the Indians there recognized him as British, he disguised himself. He settled next to Langlade’s home and sought to stay secluded, but was betrayed and accosted first by the few French traders left there, and then by the Chippewa, who wanted his trade goods.

Late that summer of 1761, Henry and two other British traders who had arrived were threatened by a band of Ottawa warriors, who demanded to be paid immediately for furs to be delivered the next season. The traders asked for a day to think over the ultimatum and were pleasantly surprised the next morning to see the Ottawa leaving. By noon, British troops had arrived to take possession of the fort, which they formally did on October 1.

As the French and British fought for control of the continent, the Ottawa chief Pontiac saw an opportunity to draw together the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi against the British, whose soldiers treated the tribes with contempt, whose traders swindled them, and whose settlers moved onto their lands. In 1763, Pontiac’s plan was implemented. On May 10, thirteen of the fourteen forts across the territory were attacked by the Indians. Detroit alone did not fall that day but became the object of a bitter siege. Eventually, when the French support that Pontiac had expected failed to materialize, peace was restored.

At Michilimackinac, to which word of the plan had arrived late due to the long winter, the massacre came three weeks late, on June 2. When news of the victories arrived by drum, the tribes’ warriors moved to the fort from the surrounding area. All day, warriors streamed into the trading houses, looking at jewelry and buying knives and hatchets. On the field near the fort, they played baggatiway, a game with webbed rackets and a deerhide ball. The British were toasting the king’s birthday and the tribesmen joined in the celebration. Ultimately a ball was lobbed into the fort and the warriors raced to get it, grabbing weapons from their women on the way in and slaughtering the troops and the British traders as the French traders looked on.

Alexander Henry was one of the few to survive, saved by his relationship of brotherhood with the Chippewa chief Wawatam. After a winter in the wilderness with Wawatam and his band, Henry returned to Michilimackinac to find two French traders’ houses surrounded by a scattering of Indian lodges. Still threatened, he headed west with a trading canoe to lead a long and adventurous life that he described in a book, published in 1809.

The British Take Over

It was September, 1764, before the British returned to the straits. Captain William Howard and two companies of the Seventeenth Regiment received the keys to the fort from a trader as the Jesuit priest and a few Indians and traders watched. Over the following months, they rebuilt the fort. There would be ten commanders at the fort over the next thirty-five years, most prominent among them Major Robert Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian War. He took over the fort in 1766, at which time he was also named Superintendent of the Indians. Rogers planned to use the position as a springboard to his dream of claiming the standing twenty thousand-pound award posted by the British Admiralty for discovery of a water route across North America.

Unlike his predecessors, Rogers sought and won the goodwill of the native tribes. Under his orders, an older war veteran named Jonathan Carver set out to explore the Northwest and get to know its tribes, and invite them to a great council at the fort the next year. Rogers’s great council brought together tribes from all directions. It included a peace council between the Sioux and Chippewa and trade councils to bind the tribes to Britain. In his comments afterward, Rogers pictured Michilimackinac as Britain’s strategic outpost in America and proposed that it be made an independent province. In New York, General Thomas Gage heard reports of Rogers’s extravagance and that he planned to establish an independent province, and ordered him relieved of his command and arrested for high treason. He was acquitted but not returned to duty, and eventually died in poverty in London in 1795. Carver, too, died in poverty in London, in 1780, after writing a book on his travels but before it became popular and the source of material to such writers as Vicomte Chateaubriand, Friedrich von Schiller, and William Cullen Bryant.

The American Revolutionary War

In 1774, the British Parliament created the Province of Quebec, stretching from the Gulf of the St. Lawrence to the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers. One of its western districts was to be governed from Michilimackinac and, on April 7, 1775, Patrick Sinclair was commissioned the lieutenant governor and superintendent of that district. Because of the American Revolution, it took him until 1779 to claim his post. Until he arrived, Major Arent Schuyler de Peyster commanded the fort, which had scant information about what was going on elsewhere in the country and was besieged by a general shortage of support of any kind. Fort life had been deteriorating since the arrest of Major Rogers. Requests to Quebec for help brought only the advice that the garrison should be self-sufficient.

Sinclair examined the rickety fort he had inherited and the surrounding countryside, and within four days he wrote Quebec pointing out Mackinac Island’s natural defenses, fine harbor, and plentiful natural building materials and asking permission to move the fort there. While he awaited formal permission, he put his men to work preparing for the move. In the winter, he had the Church of Sainte Anne de Michilimackinac in the fort yard pulled down, its materials dragged over the frozen strait, and the building reassembled on the island.

Permission arrived in May, 1780, after the spring thaw. That summer, the traders moved their homes, salvaging such necessities as nails, doors, and windows, but it was not until the next year that Sinclair finished bargaining with the Chippewas for purchase of their traditional council and burial grounds at a cost of five thousand pounds. On July 15, 1781, the Eighth Regiment held the last parade at Old Mackinaw and transferred the colors to the island.

As work continued on the new fort, a rumor arose that some of the Chippewas were reconsidering the sale. Sinclair sent to Detroit for artillery. One of these field guns was fired as the ship carrying it entered the harbor. Its echoing report ended all threats.

Meanwhile, questions were developing in Quebec about the amount Sinclair was spending, and three officers were sent to examine his accounts. They found sloppy bookkeeping, and in September, 1782, he resigned. His successor, Captain Daniel Robertson, completed the fort, one of the strongest military sites in the country.

As part of the treaty ending the American Revolution, Fort Mackinac was ceded to the United States. Because of the fort’s remote location and the political maneuvering to keep the lucrative fur trade in British hands, however, it was another thirteen years before the American flag flew over Mackinac Island.

Problems with Indian Communities

The Native Americans posed a further complication. Though they signed a treaty with the British, the Americans neglected to negotiate with the tribes, treating them as hired mercenaries rather than free agents. The tribes sought to protect their land and continued to fight a guerrilla war until 1794, when General Anthony Wayne won the Battle of Fallen Timbers in northwestern Ohio. As part of the treaty signed the following summer, the tribes ceded substantial lands in the Ohio country to the United States plus such strongholds as Chicago, Detroit, and the Mackinac Island area in exchange for a lump sum payment of twenty thousand dollars and the promise of eight thousand dollars a year in future payments.

The arrival of American troops in October, 1796, did not mark the final change of ownership for Mackinac. Before that change took place, the British, now at St. Joseph’s Island in the lower St. Mary’s River, made another contribution to the lore of the area. As winter 1811 fell, the inability of the season’s final shipload of supplies to reach St. Joseph’s left the troops without winter coats. The newly arrived commander, Captain Charles Roberts, went to storekeeper John Askin, requisitioned the pile of brightly colored blankets he had in stock, and had them made into the short, belted coats since known as Mackinaw coats.

The War of 1812

As the coats were being made, the Indians of the Wabash country were fighting U.S. troops at Tippecanoe Creek in the battle that unofficially started the War of 1812 and would lead, in July, 1812, to a British assault that would capture Mackinac Island.

To carry out his assignment to capture the island, Captain Roberts claimed the trading schooner Caledonia, gathered guns and supplies from the local traders, and recruited three hundred Chippewa, Menomini, Winnebago, and Sioux warriors. They set out on July 16 to cover the thirty-five miles to Mackinac.

Meanwhile at Mackinac, the small garrison toiled quietly, unaware that war had been declared. Concerned by the lack of news and rumors of tribesmen gathering at St. Joseph’s, Lieutenant Porter Hanks decided to send Captain Michael Dousman to investigate. Dousman left on July 16, but his boat passed the Caledonia on its way to attack the fort and he was captured. He told the British of the weaknesses of the fort, and Roberts, fearing that he would be unable to control the three hundred tribesmen, let Dousman go ashore and warn the townspeople of the danger of massacre. Dousman gathered the townspeople in a stone-walled distillery, while the British landed on a sandy beach behind the fort and began positioning artillery above it. They were already in position by the time the U.S. troops were alerted and preparing to fight. When Lieutenant Hanks saw his position was untenable, he surrendered the fort and its guns, which had been captured from the British at Yorktown in the final battle of the American Revolution.

After the peaceful capture, troops and citizens who would not pledge allegiance to the British were sent to Detroit, those who shifted allegiance remained on the island with life little changed by the new command.

The Fall of Mackinac

The fall of Mackinac, with its mythical significance for the tribes, encouraged them to ally with the British. The Potawatomi attacked Fort Dearborn, at the site of present-day Chicago, massacring its departing residents. Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, with British support, captured Detroit. The following year, with the victory on Lake Erie of U.S. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the tide of the war turned. Tecumseh and the British retreated toward Canada but were caught at the Thames River by General William Henry Harrison, who quickly and decisively defeated them.

Harrison returned to Detroit and embarked for Mackinac, but was turned back by the approaching winter. The winter was harsh at the island, where the troops were building Fort George, a rugged blockhouse to command the entire island on the heights above Fort Mackinac. In the spring, a relief fleet arrived from the British officials on the St. Lawrence, who knew that control of the island meant control of the northern tribes and the northwestern fur trade. In late July, an American fleet from the east arrived at Mackinac.

On July 28, the American ships fired on Fort Mackinac, but they could not tilt their shots high enough and the shells fell harmlessly. Fog set in and the American ships backed off. A week later, they landed at the same spot where the British had landed two years earlier, but had to retreat under heavy fire. Among the dead was Major Andrew Hunter Holmes, for whom Fort George would be renamed after the war.

The battle over Mackinac continued, with subterfuge and fighting, until the British prevailed in mid-August. They still held the straits when the Treaty of Ghent, signed December 24, 1814, ended the war and restored the international boundaries established after the American Revolution. U.S. troops again, and finally, reclaimed Mackinac Island on July 18, 1815.

Postwar Prosperity

With the war over, the United States for the first time controlled the area’s fur trade. For the next two decades, Mackinac was the northern capital of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company and the heart of the American fur trade, as it had been the center of the French and British trade and the headquarters for the North West Fur Company, the Mackinac Company, and the South West Fur Company. Astor, a young German immigrant, had first come to the straits area in 1788 with the help of Alexander Henry, who was then living in Montreal. After his visit to the British posts, he established himself in New York as a fur merchant. In 1808, he founded the American Fur Company to compete with the British merchants. Eight years later, after Congress passed legislation making trade with the Indians the exclusive right of American citizens, he began sending traders throughout the region. By the mid-1820’s, he had co-opted all the independent traders in the area and monopolized the fur trade.

Mackinac was now a boomtown, bustling with traders. Missionary fervor also returned to the region. The Mission Church, the oldest Protestant church in the Northwest, was built in 1829, causing consternation among the Catholics and setting the stage for the sects to contend for the souls of the islanders.

The local tribes, meanwhile, had become destitute and dependent on the settlers. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, geologist, scholar, and Indian agent based in Sault Sainte Marie and Mackinac from 1822 to 1841, dispensed the government’s largesse. In 1836, he helped arrange a conference in Washington, D.C., at which tribal leaders agreed to cede substantial lands in Wisconsin and the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. In return for nearly twenty million acres, they received two million dollars and perpetual annuities from the government, which also agreed to support schools, shops, and model farms in their villages. The treaty also called for a dormitory to be built on Mackinac Island, where the chiefs could stay when they received the annual support. The first annual disbursement was made in 1836 and continued there for years. In 1841, Schoolcraft moved his family to New York, and in 1845 the Indian Agency was moved to the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. Schoolcraft’s writings provided the inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic The Song of Hiawatha (1855).

With the decline of the fur trade, the economy of the island turned to fishing, which had a short boom period. At the same time, Mackinac Island, which had become a popular resort by 1838, developed as a popular tourist destination. In 1875, Congress reserved the island as the nation’s second National Park, and in 1895, the National Park, and the fort, reverted to the state of Michigan.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Today, the island is predominantly a tourist destination. Approximately 80 percent of the island is occupied by the Mackinac Island State Park, within which are located the fourteen original buildings of Fort Mackinac (the oldest dates to 1780). The rest of the island is the province of some 550 year-round residents. Automobiles are banned from the island under laws first passed in 1896. The Mackinac State Historic Park also includes two sites on the mainland: Colonial Michilimackinac, located in Mackinaw City, and Historic Mill Creek, an excavated sawmill town from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, located three miles southeast of Mackinaw City.

For Further Information

  • Armour, David A. One Hundred Years at Mackinac: A Centennial History of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, 1895-1995. Mackinac Island, Mich.: Mackinac State Historic Parks, 1995. A history of Mackinac Island and the park. Illustrated with new and old photographs.
  • Havighurst, Walter. Three Flags at the Straits: The Forts of Mackinac. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. Takes a detailed look at the flow of events through the Straits of Mackinac, with particular emphasis on the personalities involved and their involvement in westward exploration and the changing balance of power between France, England, and the United States.
  • Piljac, Pamela A., and Thomas M. Piljac. Mackinac Island: Historic Frontier, Vacation Resort, Timeless Wonderland. Portage, Ind.: Bryce-Waterton, 1989. In addition to providing information on current sites, places additional emphasis on the Native American tribes and includes period vignettes of life in the area at various points in its history.