On the North Side of the Straits
Jean Nicolet, the first Frenchman to see Mackinac Island, paddled his birch bark canoe through the Straits of Mackinac in 1634 enroute to Green Bay. From then on, the French recognize the significance of Mackinac where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan join only a short distance from the entrance to Lake Superior to the northeast. These lakes provided access to the vast western wilderness, home of numerous Indian tribes for fur bearing animals. Furs, to make into beaver hats and luxurious coats, were in great demand in Europe.
In the 1660’s, a number of illegal traders called coureurs de bois established a fur trading settlement at St. Ignace. There a band of Ottawa had a fortified village, and a band of Huron, fleeing the Iroquois, were soon to join them. On nearby Mackinac Island, Jesuit missionaries Claude Dablon and Jacques Marquette began their ministry to the Huron during the harsh winter of 1670-71. A few months later, Marquette moved the mission to St. Ignace where a mission to the Ottawa was also founded.
Lured by tales of a vast river to the west, Louis Jolliet, Father Marquette, and five men set out from St. Ignace in two canoes on 17 May 1673 in search of the legendary Mississippi River. Their discoveries broadened knowledge of North American geography and spread French influence among Indians living in the upper Mississippi Valley.
On 27 August 1679, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, aboard the Griffin sailed into East Moran Bay. Previously, everyone came to St. Ignace by canoe. The Griffin proceeded on to an island in Green Bay, picked up a load of furs, and disappeared mysteriously on her return. Over eighty years passed before another sailing vessel plied the Straits.
The English also coveted Michilimackinac’s fur trade riches. In 1685, Johannes Roseboom came from Albany, New York by way of Lake Huron, bringing English trade goods to exchange for Huron and Ottawa furs at St. Ignace. To the Indians delight, the Englishmen gave more for pelts than did the French.
Fearing that the Huron and Ottawa might ally themselves with the Iroquois and English, Governor of new France Jacques Brisay Denonville took strong counter measures. He sent Daniel Greysolon Duluth to block the English route by building Fort St. Joseph on the St. Clair River (near Port Huron, Michigan). Several hundred western warriors led by Olivier Morel de La Durantaye from St. Ignace were dispatched to intercept and capture Roseboom on Lake Huron when he returned in 1687.
England’s attack on the French during King William’s War (1689-1697) interrupted the flow of furs to Montreal from the west. To protect their post at St. Ignace, the French Commandant Louis de la Porte de Louvigny built Fort de Buade about 1690.
This fort was short-lived. Antoine de la Mothe Sieur de Cadillac assumed command in 1694; Alphonse de Tonty relieved him in 1697. The next year, due to the depressed fur market in France, King Louis XIV ordered the post abandoned and all trade halted. Even though soldiers and officials departed, the coureurs do bois continued to trade illegally, and the Jesuits also remained.
To permanently block English expansion into the upper Great Lakes, the king authorized Cadillac to found Fort Pontchartrain at Detroit in 1701. Several thousand western Indians, including the Huron from St. Ignace, were lured to settle along the Detroit River. The Ottawa chose to remain at the Straits.
Michilimackinac Re-established on the South Side of the Straits
French officials soon returned to the Straits. Hoping to stabilize Indian relations and to prevent English intrusions from Hudson’s Bay, Governor Philippe de Rigaud Vaudreuil dispatched Constant Le Marchand de Lignery to Michilimackinac in 1712. Lignery, however, had no troops and could not control the forty coureurs de bois trading there. He did issue a few trade licenses to demonstrate the government’s authority.
Lignery probably began building the new fort after twenty French troops reached Michilimackinac in 1715. He erected the post on the south side of the Straits near the Ottawa, who had recently moved their village to cultivate new fields. Following close behind, the Jesuits re-established the mission of St. Ignace de Michilimackinac.
Despite a popular myth that the French and Indians were the best of friends, the French fought many battles with various Indian tribes. Michilimackinac frequently served as a staging point for military expeditions. In 1715, Lignery prepared for a campaign against the hostile Fox Indians. Several years before, during the winter of 1711-1712, Ottawa and Huron warriors, with French approval, annihilated the Fox village at Detroit. Seeking vengeance, the survivors and their relatives west of Lake Michigan attacked French traders and their Indian allies. The Fox attacks had to be stopped if the fur trade was to continue.
In May 1716, Louis de la Porte Louvigny left Montreal with over 400 Frenchmen and Indians. At Michilimackinac, he recruited the coureurs de bois by granting them royal amnesty, and additional Indian warriors. Having secured provisions, Louvigny proceeded to Wisconsin and laid siege to the Fox fort. In the face of a superior force, the Fox agreed to stop fighting. Louvigny, claiming victory, returned to Quebec, but he had achieved only a lull in the hostilities.
Throughout the 1720’s, the Fox continued on the warpath, and all efforts to make peace failed. In 1728, Lignery led 1,200 Indians, including 300 Ottawa and Chippewa from Michilimackinac, and more than 400 Frenchmen into Wisconsin to defeat their hated foe. The Fox shrewdly avoided open battle, frustrating the expedition.
After five more exasperating years of conflict, an angry Governor Charles de la Boische de Beauharnois ordered Nicolas Antoine Coulon de Villiers, commandant at Green Bay, to exterminate every Fox. Villiers and Commandant Jean-Baptiste-René Legardeur de Repentigny assembled at Michilimackinac a force of French, Ottawa, Menominee, and Chippewa warriors and paddled on to Green Bay.
Their numbers now depleted, the Fox took refuge in the fortified Sac village at Green Bay. When he arrived, Villiers demanded that the Sac surrender the Fox. They refused. Villiers’ men attacked and were repulsed leaving both Villiers and Repentigny dead on the battlefield. Finally, in 1737, Beauharnois gave up his futile attempt to wipe out the remnant of the Fox nation.
Michilimackinac also served as a base for a French expedition south of the Ohio River against the Chickasaw who had been pillaging French boats on the Mississippi. To destroy the Chickasaw, Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville, commandant at Michilimackinac, and some Ottawa accompanied a Canadian contingent that rendezvoused with troops from Louisiana at Fort L’Assomption (near Memphis, Tennessee) in 1739. Despite some success, the French forces never decisively defeated their enemy.
Not all expeditions leaving Michilimackinac were military. Pierre Gautier de Varennes de la Vérendrye and his sons outfitted at Michilimackinac some of their exploring excursions into the northwest between the 1720’s and 1740’s.
Michilimackinac was the major depot for the northwestern fur trade. Large canoes, weighted down with brandy, trade goods, and munitions, arrived from Montreal. Traders and voyageurs carried this merchandise on to Indian customers in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ontario, and beyond. Many traders, known as hivernants, spent the winter among Indian hunting camps. In spring, they brought their furs to Michilimackinac for shipment to Montreal. At the Straits, they rendezvoused with their friends and recent arrivals from Montreal and spent their wages in a few days of wild celebration.
Since most traders wintered among the Indians, few Frenchmen lived at Michilimackinac all year. In 1749, only ten families and a garrison of about twenty soldiers resided at the fort. Few bothered to raise vegetables. Instead, they subsisted on corn, deer or moose grease, and fish purchased from Indians. Winters, when ice made canoe travel impractical, were long, cold, and lonely.
The Ottawa exhausted their corn fields near the fort after thirty years of cultivation and, in 1741, decided to relocate. To keep them nearby, the French promised to help them clear fields at L’Arbre Croche, twenty five miles to the southwest on Lake Michigan’s shore. Since traders at Michilimackinac purchased canoes and large quantities of corn and fat from the Ottawa, the French did not want them to live too far away.
Father Pierre Du Jaunay transferred the Mission of St. Ignace to L’Arbre Croche and ministered there to the 180 warriors and their families. He continued to say mass and to administer sacraments to voyageurs and inhabitants in Ste. Anne’s Church. To meet the growing community’s spiritual needs, Joseph Ainsse constructed a new edifice in 1743. Du Jaunay financed his mission in part by employing Jean-Baptiste Amiot, a blacksmith, who repaired muskets and iron implements brought in by visiting Indians.
The continuing struggle between the French and English erupted in 1744 into King George’s War. In those troubled times, only a few merchants were willing to buy trade licenses. Few trade goods reached Michilimackinac, causing alarm and financial hardship. Fearful of Indian trouble, French soldiers erected a new palisade around the fort.
Their fears were not without foundation. Three years later, Chippewa warriors stabbed two Frenchmen on Mackinac Island, and Ottawa and Chippewa killed cattle and plotted to capture the garrison. The French discovered these plans and barred all Indians from the fort. When Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre assumed command later in the year, he managed to restore order.
War ended in 1748, but aggressive English traders from Pennsylvania pushed into the Ohio country to trade with French allies. George Croghan established a post at Pickawillany (Piqua, Ohio), a Miami town in the heart of Ohio. To end English trade with these Indians, Charles Langlade, nephew of Ottawa Chief LaFourche, led a party of Ottawa and French 400 miles from Michilimackinac in a brilliant raid against Pickawillany in 1752. The dauntless Langlade was a central figure at Michilimackinac during the next half century.
Michilimackinac frequently was the site of large Indian councils. Twelve hundred chiefs and warriors from sixteen tribes, including Huron, Ottawa, Chippewa, Fox, Sac, Miami, Winnebago, Menominee, and Sioux, gathered in 1753 on the ground outside the fort walls. Commandant Louis Liénard de Beaujeu, speaking through interpreters, promised friendship and encouraged the Indians to fight the English. He exchanged strings of wampum and presents with the chiefs. Each nation vowed to follow its French father, but the careful Beaujeu ordered his men to carry their weapons and to have the cannon loaded with grape shot.
The western tribes were essential to the French in their final struggle with Great Britain. Warriors from Michilimackinac helped defeat General Edward Braddock at Fort Duquesne in Pennsylvania in 1755, and the following year Charles Langlade led them east to fight along the frontier from New York to Virginia.
In summer 1757, French and Indian forces captured Fort William Henry, located on the southern tip of Lake Champlain, New York. The joy of victory soon turned to despair. Smallpox from infected English captives was carried back to Michilimackinac and nearby Indian villages. The register of St. Anne’s Church contains the names of many men, women, and children, Indian and French, who died from the epidemic.
General James Wolfe struck the fatal blow to New France on the Plains of Abraham at Quebec in September, 1759. The fall of Montreal a year later doomed King Louis XV’s Northern American empire. Langlade and his Indian warriors from Michilimackinac acquitted themselves well at both battles. Canada surrendered and subsequently the Treaty of Paris, 1763 gave all of Canada to Great Britain.
At Michilimackinac, Commandant Beaujeu evacuated the garrison in October 1760 and headed towards Louisiana where the French flag still flew. Charles Langlade was left in command. In less than a year, he had the dubious honor of surrendering Michilimackinac to his lifelong adversary – the English.
The British Take Control
Shortly after the conquest of Canada, General Jeffery Amherst ordered Robert Rogers to take possession of Detroit and Michilimackinac. Rogers reached Detroit in late November, but ice on Lake Huron blocked his passage northward to Michilimackinac. The fleur-de-lis would fly another year.
The people of Michilimackinac did not welcome the newly arriving Englishmen. In September 1761, disguised as a French Canadian, Alexander Henry was the first English trader to venture to the Straits. James Stanley Goddard and Ezekiel Solomon soon joined him. Hostile Ottawa threatened to kill them unless they offered favorable trading terms. Fortunately for Henry and his companions, Captain Henry Balfour and a contingent of British troops soon arrived. When Balfour reached Michilimackinac, Charles Langlade turned over the command to him. Balfour informed the villagers that the peace terms permitted the French to retain their property and to practice their Roman Catholic faith. A few days later, Balfour departed, leaving Lieutenant William Leslie of the Sixtieth Regiment, or Royal Americans, in charge of twenty-eight soldiers.
The northern tribes soon became disenchanted with the English. Not understanding the importance to the Indians of exchanging gifts, Amherst, to save money, reduced the quantity of presents and powder given by British officers. At councils, chiefs and warriors sensed an aloofness in the British. Also, English traders seemed intent upon cheating their Indian customers.
Even more ominous to the natives were the white settlers pushing west over the Appalachian Mountains. If they cut down the forest to make farms, the hunting rounds would soon disappear. Some Frenchmen encouraged their former allies to throw off the English yoke.
In spring of 1763, the unrest exploded into a major frontier war known as Pontiac’s rebellion. Pontiac was the Ottawa Chief who attacked Detroit and urged his brethren to wipe out the hated English. Indian war parties swiftly captured Fort St. Joseph (Niles, Michigan), Sandusky (Ohio), Fort Miami (Fort Wayne, Indiana), and Fort Ouiatenon (Lafayette, Indiana). Pontiac laid siege to Detroit, but the British, reinforced by troops led by Robert Rogers, held out.
At Michilimackinac, Laurent Ducharme, a Canadian trader, warned Captain George Etherington that local tribesmen planned trouble. Haughtily, Etherington disregarded his advice.
The fort’s cannon boomed a salute to commemorate King George III’s birthday on 2 June 1763. As part of the celebration, the Chippewa engaged visiting Sac from Wisconsin in a game of baggatiway. Etherington and many of his thirty-five soldiers watched the lively contest outside the land gate, but the Chippewa Chief Matchekewis had a surprise for them.
Suddenly a player threw the ball over the fort wall. Warriors raced through the land gate, grabbed weapons from beneath the blankets of the Indian women watching the game and attacked the British troops. Within minutes, they killed sixteen soldiers and captured the rest. Alexander Henry tried to hide in Charles Langlade’s garret, but he and the other English traders were apprehended, except for Mr. Tracy who was murdered. Five captured soldiers were late killed, but the remaining captives survived. The French villagers, watching in horror, were unable to help since the Indians quarrel was not with them.
For over a year, the Canadians managed the fort without the arrogant British. But on 22 September 1764, Captain William Howard re-garrisoned the fort with two companies of the Seventeenth Regiment. The English had come to stay.
Possessed by a burning desire to discover a northwest water passage to the Pacific Ocean, Robert Rogers arrived at Michilimackinac on 10 August 1766. While in London a year earlier, he had secured a royal commission as commandant. Rogers, his wife Elizabeth Browne, and two companies of the Sixtieth Regiment came on board the Schooner Gladwin to Michilimackinac in 1764 – the first sailing vessel to call at the Straits since the ill-fated Griffin.
Rogers dispatched James Tute and Jonathan Carter, French and Indian War veterans from Massachusetts, to search for a passage to the Orient. Carver departed for the Mississippi on 3 September; and two weeks later, Tute and James Stanly Goddard followed. They rendezvoused at the Falls of St. Anthony (Minneapolis, Minnesota) where Tute assumed command with Carver serving as cartographer. Failing to explore any new territory or to find the elusive passage, they returned a year later to a disappointed Rogers at Michilimackinac.
Troubled by the debt from Tute’s mission, Rogers was beset with a more serious problem. On 6 December 1767, Captain Frederick Spiesmacher and a file of soldiers arrested him. Accused of treasonable plotting with French and Spanish officials, the famous hero spent the winter in the guardhouse. In spring Rogers again rode the Gladwin, this time his legs in irons, enroute to Montreal for trail. Though he was acquitted, is reputation was ruined.
Even though Great Britain controlled Michilimackinac, French traders continued to trade in the northwestern wilderness. From the Spanish port of new Orleans they imported goods and exported furs by way of the Mississippi. British regulations prohibited traders from wintering among Indians and required Indians to bring their pelts to Michilimackinac. This caused losses for English traders and great inconvenience for Indians. Finally, in 1769, the traders were allowed to winter in Indian country.
For years, rich copper deposits near the southern shore of Lake Superior enticed explorers. French attempts in the 1730’s to exploit this wealth proved futile. Hoping for more success in the early 1700’s, English businessman Alexander Baxter teamed with Alexander Henry, Henry Bostwick, and Jean Baptiste Cadot in a mining enterprise. They also failed by 1774.
For the fur trade to prosper, it was essential that Indian tribes be at peace with each other. When disputes arose, the post commandant tried to settle them before they resulted in bloodshed. In 1774, hostilities broke out between the Chippewa and their ancient foe, the Sioux. Captain Arent Schuyler De Peyster, the new commandant, ordered Peter Pond and other traders who wintered among these tribes to bring chiefs and warriors from both nations to Michilimackinac for a council.
When they arrived, De Peyster held a “Grand Council.” He handed out presents to his visitors and extracted promises from both sides to live peacefully with each other and to protect the traders among them. The commandants at Michilimackinac found conducting Indian diplomacy to be their most difficult and frustrating task.
Skirmishes between British troops and angry colonists at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts in the spring of 1775 portended trouble for Michilimackinac. As the rebellion spread, it threatened Michilimackinac’s existence. American rebels captured Montreal in November 1776, and it seemed likely that no trade goods would be sent west. British troops drove the invaders out of Canada and sufficient merchandise reached Michilimackinac to avert economic disaster.
The American Revolution profoundly affected life at Michilimackinac. Each year, John Askin and his fellow traders struggled to import sufficient goods to meet Indian demands. Except for declines in 1776 and 1779, trade flourished throughout the war. In 1778, 128 canoes brought over 2,100 kegs of rum and brandy, 1,500 muskets, 28 tons of gunpowder, 35 tons of shot and ball, and hundreds of bales of trade goods to be exchanged for furs. In addition, the Welcome, Felicity, and Archange carried provisions from Detroit . Thousands of pelts were sent back to Montreal for export to Europe .
Keeping the trade routes open was essential to British interests at Michilimackinac, for an active trade kept Indians loyal to the British. George Rogers Clark, a Virginian, led a rebel force into Illinois and Indiana and aided by pro-American French inhabitants, captured the posts of Vincennes , Kaskaskia, and Cahokia and threatened Michilimackinac. He swiftly gained the active support of neutrality or neighboring tribes. West of the Mississippi at St. Louis , the Spanish, too, encouraged Indians to oppose Britain .
The British boasted that only they could supply Indian needs for blankets, kettles, muskets, lad, and gunpowder. Yet they saw some old friends – Potawatomi, Sac, and Fox turn against them. Even the nearby Ottawa and Chippewa wavered in their devotion to King George III.
Both DePeyster and his successor, Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair exhausted themselves trying to keep the Indians loyal. Their agents, Charles Langlade and Charles Gautier recruited war parties from the Sioux, Menominee, Winnebago, Sac, Fox, Ottawa, and Chippewa nations. These warriors traveled great distances to fight the American rebels:
1776 – to Montreal to help defend Canada
1777 – to aid General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York
1778 – to fight in Canada again
1779 – to St. Joseph (Niles, Michigan) to resist an anticipated rebel advance against Detroit from Illinois
1780 – to attack unsuccessfully the Spanish post at St. Louis
1782 – to help defeat Daniel Boone at blue Licks, Kentucky
War parties numbered in the hundreds, and the Kind paid dearly for their services. The Crown outfitted the warriors, provided provisions for their families, and re-supplied the men when they returned. In addition, they provided expensive presents to the chiefs.
Despite the tremendous expense of the Indian allies, the military accomplishments were small. by the time the Indians arrived in Canada in 1776 – 1778, they were no longer needed; and when they took the battlefield, British officers found them undisciplined. British authorities in Canada, strapped for funds, complained bitterly about expenditures for Indians at Michilimackinac. Finally, they forced Patrick Sinclair to relinquish his command in 1782.
When Sinclair relieved De Peyster in October 1779, he had already decided to move the community to Mackinac Island. If George Rogers Clark launched a naval assault from Lake Michigan, the wooden stockade could not withstand cannon fire. Even more threatening, the Ottawa and Chippewa were showing contempt for the English, and the memory of 1763 still lingered. Although the French inhabitants remained loyal to the British Crown, British officers worried they might embrace the rebel cause when France, in 1778, became an official ally of the fledgling United States.
Mackinac Island possessed a fine natural harbor. On the mainland, ships had to drop anchor several hundred yards away from shore to unload passengers and cargo into bateaux. In winter 1779-80, the residents of Michilimackinac dismantled their church, transported the logs over the ice, and re-erected it on the island. On the island, the civilian community was separated from the fort, Ste. Anne’s church and all private houses were located along the shoreline beneath the bluff where the fort stood 150 feet above the water. For the next few years, the move continued. The Welcome ferried over inhabitants and their possessions. Sinclair employed voyageurs to assist his soldiers in constructing Fort Mackinac. Among the fort’s buildings were the barracks, guardhouse, and provisions storehouse which were brought over from Michilimackinac.
In July 1781, one-half the garrison moved into Fort Mackinac. The remainder followed a short time later. Two years later, all the effort expended in this transfer appeared to be in vain for the peace treaty ending the Revolution gave Mackinac Island to the new United States. British troops, however, occupied it until 1796 when American soldiers took possession as a result of Jay’s treaty. During the War of 1812, British forces recaptured the Island but returned it at war’s end. Since 1815, Mackinac Island has been undisputed American territory.
Michilimackinac was abandoned. Only a few crumbling buildings and rotting palisades remained. Windblown sand gradually covered the remnants of the once thriving community. In 1857 when the present day village of Mackinaw City was platted, the site of the fort was designated a public park. The village turned over the land to the state in 1904. In 1909 it was declared Michilimackinac State Park, the second in the state after Mackinac Island State Park. It was placed under the care of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission. Park workmen discovered remains of the palisades, and the stockade was reconstructed during the 1930’s. The commission launched an ambitious historical program in 1958 and a professional archaeological excavation began on the site of the fort in 1959. This excavation has continued every summer since that time, making it the longest ongoing historical archaeological dig in the country. The accurate reconstruction of the fort is based on archaeological evidence and historical research, which continues to this day.
© Mackinac Island State Park Commission. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be reprinted in any form without permission.
Adapted from: David A. Armour and Keith R. Widder. Michilimackinac: A Handbook to the Site. Mackinac Island: Mackinac Island State Park Commission, 1980 (Revised Edition, 1990).