The first fort on the Straits of Mackinac, Fort Du Buade, was constructed in about 1690 by the French near the St. Ignace Mission on the north side of the Straits of Mackinac. It was closed in 1697. By the early 1700s the French began to refortify the area. In 1715 they constructed Fort Michilimackinac on the south side of the Straits (present day Mackinaw City ). The fort became the main trade depot of the upper Great Lakes fur trade. The fort functioned as both a military post and a civilian community. Michilimackinac remained a French outpost until 1761 when British soldiers took control after their victory in the French and Indian War (Seven Years War).
By 1776 the American Revolution was underway. With the successes of George Rogers Clark in capturing British posts in the south, and American forces moving northward, the British grew anxious that Fort Michilimackinac , a wooden fort built on the beach, was vulnerable. Consequently, British Commandant Patrick Sinclair chose to relocate the fort to Mackinac Island where the high limestone cliffs and good harbor provided a more defensible location. Between 1779 and 1781 many buildings were taken apart on the mainland and reassembled on the island. What was not moved was burned. The civilian community was built around the bay below the fort. One of the first new buildings to be built on the island was the Officers' Stone Quarters, the oldest building in the State of Michigan today.
The fort and island became United States territory as a result of the American victory in the Revolution. However, it took thirteen years for American troops to arrive and finally take control of the fort from the British. The latter were reluctant to leave the island, as British merchants continued to dominate fur trading, even in American territory. After leaving Fort Mackinac in 1796, the British went to St. Joseph ’s Island , at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River and established Fort St. Joseph .
War of 1812
War broke out between the United States and Great Britain in the summer of 1812. Under the cover of darkness, a 300-man force of British soldiers and Native American allies embarked from Fort St. Joseph and landed on the north shore of Mackinac Island . They dragged their cannon to the high ground behind the fort, took positions in the woods and prepared to attack. American soldiers, about 30, were completely surprised and outnumbered by the British invasion. They quickly surrendered without a fight following a single warning shot by the British. This was the first land engagement of the War of 1812 in the United States . British troops garrisoned the fort and built a new fortification, named Fort George (later renamed Fort Holmes ) at the highest point on the island to act as defense on the weak north side. Two years later American soldiers tried to recapture Fort Mackinac.
Invading from the north, they were met by British soldiers at the center of the island. The Americans were badly defeated in the only battle ever fought on Mackinac Island . Following the battle, British soldiers also captured two American vessels that were blockading the harbor.
From Furs to Fish
By December 1814 the war was over. American peace negotiators accomplished what their troops failed to do, as the Treaty of Ghent restored the island and Fort Mackinac to the United States . John Jacob Astor established the American Fur Company northern department headquarters on Mackinac Island and by the 1820s the fur trade was flourishing. Furs from the company’s winter camps in Illinois , Michigan , Wisconsin and Minnesota flowed to Mackinac every summer. Here, on Mackinac Island ’s Market Street , the furs were counted, sorted and baled for shipment to the East Coast and Europe . Millions of dollars worth of furs passed through Mackinac Island in the 1820s.
Commercial fishing replaced fur trading as Mackinac Island ’s primary industry in the 1830s. The transition was smooth. The region’s waters teemed with a rich bounty of whitefish, lake trout, pickerel and cisco. The burgeoning populations of Chicago , Detroit , Cleveland and Buffalo provided a ready market for the fishermen’s catch. Trade routes which once carried canoes filled with furs now served as shipping lanes for a growing fleet of schooners and steamboats that connected centrally-located Mackinac Island with its markets. The island’s wharfs, warehouses and workforce that so effectively served the fur trade were easily adapted to commercial fishing.
Fort Mackinac stood sentinel over the village throughout the transition from the fur trade to the fishing industry. It became an increasingly obsolete military station in the years before the Civil War. No longer on the fighting edge of the United States frontier, the fort contributed little to national defense as the country expanded west. It was abandoned at times as soldiers were withdrawn to support the Second Seminole War (1837-40), the Mexican War (1848) and the Santee Uprising (1857-58). At the outbreak of the Civil War, Fort Mackinac soldiers marched south in support of the Union and the island post was abandoned once more, except for a single caretaker soldier. During the summer of 1862 the fort served as a prison for three wealthy and influential residents of Tennessee who were sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
Victorian Resort and the National Park
United States soldiers returned to Fort Mackinac after the war. Following in their footsteps were great crowds of tourists longing for romantic and peaceful summer places to escape hot, congested cities and forget the tragedy of war. An expanding railroad system and improved passenger steamships linked urban travelers with the country’s rustic vacation spots. Mackinac Island , with its historic charm, scenic beauty and healthy environment, was a natural summer resort. In response to the island’s growing popularity, the federal government created Mackinac National Park in 1875. This was America ’s second national park, established just three years after Yellowstone . There was no National Park Service at this time. The only federal personnel available to care for the park were U.S. soldiers at Fort Mackinac . The new role gave Fort Mackinac a new purpose, and a second company of soldiers was dispatched to help care for the park. The fort’s commanding officer served as park superintendent.
Closure and Later History
In 1895, after 115 years of service, the United States Army closed Fort Mackinac . With no strategic importance, the fort could no longer escape budget cuts. Concerned citizens, working with forces in Washington , D.C. , worked to have the Mackinac National Park transferred to the state of Michigan . Thus, Michigan ’s first state park and the Mackinac Island State Park Commission were created. Many of the fort’s buildings were leased as summer cottages for the next 60 years in order to generate revenue to maintain the park. In 1914 a portion of the Stone Quarters was set aside as a museum. During the 1930s a number of buildings were restored. In 1958, following the establishment of a revenue bond program to generate funds for preservation purposes, Fort Mackinac became a fully-functioning historical site. Over the next several decades the buildings were restored, exhibits were installed and interpretive programs established. Today, visitors to the fort see things much as they were when the soldiers departed in 1895.
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