Fort Michilimackinac

by Jonathan Granskog

What is Fort Michilimackinac?

Mighty Mac, Fort Michilimackinac, stable URL; http://www.mightymac.org/michilimackinac.htm

Fort Michilimackinac is a colonial fort built on the Straits of Mackinac and is located on the shoreline near present day Mackinac City in Michigan. Despite housing a military garrison and sporting military architecture, the fort “was more of a fortified community than military outpost…” and served as a permanent residence for families, trappers, traders, and the installed garrison.[1] As explained by author Keith Widder in his book Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow: Michilimackinac and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763, the inside of the fort contained an estimated forty houses, a church, the local priest’s house, a soldiers barracks with separate housing for officers, a garden, parade grounds, and a blacksmith shop.[2]

 

Beginnings (1671-1706)

The history of Fort Michilimackinac starts further north with St. Ignace. In 1671 a Jesuit priest named Father Jacques Marquette helped establish a mission called St. Ignace located at the present-day town of St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula. In the years leading up to 1696, St. Ignace and the surrounding areas became fur trading hotspots. With the increase in trade and commerce the French King, Louis XIV, decided to regulate the fur trade with a license system, even going as far as sending troops to police the trade and to discourage illegal trading. By 1696, all trading posts in the area were shut down, all trading licenses were revoked and garrisoned troops withdrew from St. Ignace. With the construction of Fort Pontchartrain in 1701, large portions of French fur traders and Native Americans began to move away from Michilimackinac and closer to Detroit. By 1706, the French Jesuits packed up their belongings and left, abandoning St. Ignace.[3]

A Fort for the French (1713-1761)

Keith R. Widder, Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow: Michilimackinac and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 9.

Although the French garrisons had left Michilimackinac, the fur trappers and traders did not. Around 1713, the French decided to build a fort on the straits of Mackinac as a way to “check possible incursions” into French territory. The Fort was completed in 1715 and was a place of both military power and a center for trading in the Great Lakes. The Jesuits returned to Michilimackinac and established a parish in the fort to continue their missionary work with the Native American tribes.[4] By 1760, thanks to the French and Indian War, the French had lost much of its former territory. In Fort Michilimackinac, Captain Louis de Beaujei and his garrison left the fort and headed towards the French settlements in Illinois to await the recovery of lost territory by the French. Word never came, and in September of 1761 Acting Captain Charles de Langlade surrendered the fort and its inhabitants to the British.[5]

Fort Michilimackinac During Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763-1765)

Emaze, Fort Michilimackinac, Stable URL; http://ardecol.inforoutes.fr/indian_webquest/michilmackinac.jpg

Fort Michilimackinac was one of the many British outposts attacked during Pontiac’s Rebellion. The mastermind behind the capture was the Native American chief of the Chippewa tribe, Chief Minavavana. In 1761, he became friends with. In 1763 the chief suggested to Captain George Etherington that they should celebrate King George III’s birthday with a game of baggataway (a game similar to lacrosse), outside the gates of Fort Michilimackinac.[6] The game was played on a very hot day on June 2nd 1763 and many spectators came to watch the festivities. By wrapping themselves in blankets, the women from the competing Chippewa and Sauk tribes concealed a number of weapons from the English soldiers. Eventually the wooden ball was hit over the wall and into the fort. After receiving permission to retrieve it, members of the Chippewa tribe grabbed weapons from their women and ran into the fort.[7] The soldiers were caught completely off guard and fifteen English soldiers died before they could defend themselves.[8]  By the end of 1763 Pontiac began to lose support from the other tribes, and a year later the rebellion drew to a close.[9] The fort was re-occupied by the British on September 22 1764.[10]

Abandonment and Migration to Mackinac Island (1779-1781)

Around the time of the American Revolution, the British feared that the Continental Army would attack Fort Michilimackinac. In the fall of 1779 the new commander of the fort, Major Patrick Sinclair, decided that the fort was too old and in a terrible position to defend against American attacks.[11] In the next two years, the fort was dismantled and relocated to southern Mackinac Island. Building materials were scavenged from the old fort and entire buildings, like the Catholic Church, were taken in pieces or in their entirety over the ice during the winter to be used in the new fort. By 1781 the new fort, Fort Mackinac, was completed. The remains of Fort Michilimackinac were burned and left behind.[12]

Fort Michilimackinac as a Historical Land Mark (1857-Present Day)

Mighty Mac, Fort Michilimackinac, stable URL; http://www.mightymac.org/michilimackinac.htm

After the British relocated Fort Michilimackinac and burned what was left, the area remained vacant for close to 80 years. After 1815, ownership to the land was passed to the United States.[13] In 1857 the upcoming community, Mackinaw City, set aside the land to be used as a park. In 1904 the city gave the land to the State of Michigan, who turned it into the “Michilimackinac State Park.” Restoration of the fort began in 1932 as a WPA project that built replica walls along the lines of the original fort.[14] Archeological research started in 1959 and with the help of $125,000 in bonds from the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, a historically accurate reconstruction was started.[15] Thanks to archeological findings, a number of buildings have been reconstructed in their original locations. Archeological work continues every summer to this day and the Fort serves as a tourist attraction for visitors.

Conclusion

Fort Michilimackinac is a Michigan colonial fort that was owned first by the French who used it primarily as a fur trading outpost, but also as a military encampment. After the French lost control of the fort during the French and Indian War, it was passed on to the British. By the time of the American Revolution pieces of the original fort were relocated to Mackinaw Island, the rest was burned. As a U.S. State Park, the fort has been lovingly reconstructed for the enjoyment of tourists and historians, and stands as an important monument to our frontier days.

NOTES:

[1] Mighty Mac, Fort Michilimackinac, stable URL; http://www.mightymac.org/michilimackinac.htm

 

[2] Keith R. Widder, Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow: Michilimackinac and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 8.

 

[3] Ibid., 46.

 

[4] Willis F Dunbar, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. 3rd revised ed. Revised by George S. May. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1965, revised 1995), 48.

[5] Walter Havighurst, Three Flags at the Straits: The Forts of Mackinac. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1966), 58.

 

[6] Willis F Dunbar, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. 3rd revised ed. Revised by George S. May. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1965, revised 1995), 67.

 

[7] Ibid., 68.

 

[8] Keith R. Widder, Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow: Michilimackinac and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 143.

 

[9] Willis F Dunbar, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. 3rd revised ed. Revised by George S. May. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1965, revised 1995), 70.

 

[10] Keith R. Widder, Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow: Michilimackinac and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 203.

 

[11] Willis F Dunbar, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. 3rd revised ed. Revised by George S. May. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1965, revised 1995), 82.

[12] Ibid., 82

 

[13] National Park Service, Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings: Fort Michilimackinac, stable URL; https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/explorers/sitec31.htm

[14] Mighty Mac, Fort Michilimackinac, stable URL; http://www.mightymac.org/michilimackinac.htm

 

[15] National Park Service, Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings: Fort Michilimackinac, stable URL; https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/explorers/sitec31.htm