Mackinac Indian Agency

Mackinac Island Community Hall, formerly an American Fur Company building.

  Modern visitors to Mackinac Island still have a chance to see numerous reminders of the community’s heyday as a center of the Great Lakes fur trade. Walking down Market Street, it’s hard to miss the large cream-colored buildings that once belonged to the American Fur Company (today the Community Hall and Stuart House Museum) or the original Michilimackinac County Courthouse, built in the late 1830s. Fort Mackinac still looms over the town and harbor. However, just below and east of the fort, there once stood another complex of buildings which reflected Mackinac’s key role in not only the regional economy, about also in the federal government’s relationship with the Anishnaabek and other indigenous people of Michigan. Although largely gone today, the Mackinac Indian Agency was a critical part of the island community for much of the early 19th century.

  In the 1780s and 1790s, after a series of stinging defeats at the hands of the tribes of the Great Lakes, the new United States government adopted a broad policy of conciliation and treaty-making with indigenous groups. Rather than automatically attempting to subjugate the tribes with military force, the government embarked on a program to “civilize” Native people and transform them into white American citizens. Treaties with the Anishnaabek and other indigenous groups, in which the tribes ceded land to the federal government in return for goods and services, were a key feature of the civilization program, which continued in some form well into the 20th century. To carry out treaty provisions and distribute the goods and annuity payments promised in negotiations with the tribes, Indian agencies were established around to the country to act as the primary point of contact between indigenous people and the federal government.

View of the Agency House with the Indian Dormitory beyond it.

  The first agency in Michigan opened on Mackinac Island in 1815, shortly after the island returned to American control following the War of 1812. The first agent, William Puthuff, concentrated on diminishing British influence among the tribes of northern Michigan, many of whom fought against the United States during the war, and enforcing trade regulations, which drew the ire of the powerful American Fur Company. Puthuff was soon replaced, but subsequent agents continued the work of providing government goods and services to the regional Anishnaabek, thousands of whom visited Mackinac every summer. The Mackinac Agency was centered around the agent’s house, which served as a residence for the agent as well as a warehouse for government goods. A sprawling structure with two wings, it was surrounded by well-tended gardens. Writing in 1835, a traveler described it as a “very comfortable house,” which presented a “conspicuous figure, being well situated at the fort of the hill, with a good garden in front.”

Henry Schoolcraft

  In 1833 perhaps the most consequential (and controversial) of the Mackinac Indian agents arrived on the island: Henry Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft previously served as agent at the Sault Ste. Marie Agency, where he married into a prominent Ojibwa family. He used his position to ensure that his wife Jane’s extended Anishnaabek family reaped federal benefits, and wrote extensively about Anishnaabek history and culture. As the Mackinac agent, which also served as Michigan’s superintendent of Indian affairs after 1836, Schoolcraft oversaw negotiations for the 1836 Treaty of Washington. This agreement saw the Anishnaabek of northern Michigan cede 14 million acres of their land in return for annuity payments, regular distribution of food and supplies, payment of debts, and other provisions. The treaty helped clear Michigan’s path to statehood, but left the Anishnaabek unsure of their future in northern Michigan.

The Treaty of Washington ceded nearly 14 million acres to the federal government. This territory, which makes up just under 40% of the state of Michigan today, is colored yellow on this map.

  With the new treaty grudgingly ratified by the Anishnaabek on Mackinac Island in the summer of 1836, the agency continued to serve as a critical point of contact with the federal government. In 1838 Schoolcraft supervised the construction of a dormitory building to house visiting Native people (the building went largely unused, as they preferred to camp on the beach). By 1839 the agency employed several people: a dormitory keeper, a physician, two interpreters, four blacksmiths, a gunsmith, two carpenters, three farmers, and Schoolcraft himself. Workshops lined the base of the bluff behind the dorm. In keeping with federal policy, these employees were to provide services and education in an effort to force the Anishnaabek to abandon their traditional culture and adopt the lifestyle of white American farmers.

  Despite its importance in the 1830s, the Mackinac Agency gradually fell into obsolescence as federal policies changed and the government focused more on tribes of the far west. Since the agents were always political appointees, they came and went as presidential administrations changed (Schoolcraft lost his post in 1841). Indian affairs were consolidated at the Mackinac Agency through the 1850s, and the Michigan superintendent’s office moved to Detroit in 1851. Agents only returned to Mackinac to distribute summer annuity payments, and the old agent’s house was rented out and gradually fell into disrepair. The house was described in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s 1880 novel, Anne, and several of her other writings, which were partially set on Mackinac Island. The dormitory served as the island’s public school beginning in the late 1860s.

The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum.

  Today, the Mackinac Agency is largely invisible on the landscape. The site of the old agency house and gardens is now occupied by summer cottages. A playground and the Mackinac Island Peace Garden sit where blacksmiths and gunsmiths once worked. Only the 1838 dormitory, now open to the public as The Richard and Jane Mannogian Mackinac Art Museum, remains standing. Next time you visit Mackinac, stop by the art museum and consider the building’s previous life as part of the agency. If you would like to learn more about the agency, join Chief Curator Craig Wilson outside the art museum at 5:00 PM on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 for a free walking tour describing Mackinac Island’s bustling community of the 1830s.

She Lived Here, Too: Sally Ainse

. Sally Ainse was one of many people drawn to Michilimackinac in the 18th century. During her life she worked as an interpreter, fur trader, farmer, and real estate investor. Her work in the fur trade gives us insights into how women moved through the Great Lakes during this era of business and opportunity.

  Ainse was born in the 1720s along the Susquehanna River to a family belonging to the Oneida Nation. In her early childhood, she was almost certainly exposed to the fur trade business. Nearly all Indigenous communities worked with traders from England, France, or Canada to purchase supplies in exchange for beaver, otter, muskrat, and any number of other furs. She grew up speaking her native language while also likely learning the European languages spoken around her.

  By the age of about 18, Ainse married a fur trader named Andrew Montour. He and Ainse did not remain lifelong partners. When they separated he received custody of their older children, while she was able to keep the youngest. To support herself and her baby, she worked at a variety of jobs. As an official Indian Interpreter, Sally was able to use her highly valuable language skills to assist government officials in negotiations with various Indigenous nations. At the same time, she also bought and sold merchandise to make money in the fur trade business.

An interpreter at modern Colonial Michilimackinac, dressed as the historic residents of Michilimackinac, like Sally Ainse, would have dressed.

  To tap into more lucrative markets, Ainse moved from the New York region further west to Niagara, Detroit, and then, in the mid-1760s, to Michilimackinac. By that time, the area was under British military control, although the trade was still being largely run by French-Canadians and Anishinaabek people. Most people at the straits were transient, which created a very diverse population, and Ainse’s own history growing up elsewhere would not have been in any way remarkable at Michilimackinac. She rented or purchased a unit in a rowhouse and clearly had the means to support herself.

  Her activities at Michilimackinac were likely typical of other fur traders. While she did not leave records herself, her name does appear in a few documents related to the Michilimackinac community. In April 1774, John Askin wrote about her in his journal when she left Michilimackinac for the Grand Traverse area to meet with the Odawa living there. This meeting was likely a trading event, although Askin did not specify the exact purpose of the trip. In any case, she was not gone long and came back just a few short days later, seemingly successful in whatever she had traveled there to do.

  In another instance, a British soldier named William Maxwell wrote about his interactions with Sally. Maxwell served in the British Army during some of the most well-known campaigns of the Seven Years’ War. After the war ended, he served in the western Great Lakes as commissary, and that is when he and Ainse met at Michilimackinac. In a letter between Maxwell and one of his acquaintances he described a proposal he made to Ainse:

till I was better Convinced of her Sincerity, I was willing to a small settlement for a year, and in that Time if her Temper would please me I would have pleased her if I could, but she would not trust me with her so she walked off and I did not hinder her, for she had tried me heartily, (I mean with her Tongue and Hands both) I believe on the Whole Socrates need no more be quoted for his patience with his Wife where my Storey is known.

A rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac, similar to where Sally Ainse would have lived.

  The length of Sally and William’s relationship is unknown. Maxwell left Michilimackinac in 1772 and by 1775 Ainse had left Michilimackinac to live at Detroit. By 1779 she owned at least two houses near the city as well as livestock and enslaved people. She traded in a variety of items including fur, rum, and cider, perhaps from her own orchards. She continued to do business with John Askin, who similarly had relocated to the area from Mackinac. Ainse was well-known by Major Arent DePeyster and in 1780 when the commanding officer made a list of assets at Detroit, he included two bateau loads of merchandise as belonging to her.

  Much of Ainse’s later life was spent petitioning the government. Shortly after moving to Detroit, Ainse began purchasing land on what would become the Canadian side of the Detroit River. Eventually, Sally’s ownership of many of these properties came into question, and she fought a long battle to keep them. In the end she lost most of her property after the government of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) refused to acknowledge her ownership of the land.

  Sally Ainse died in 1823 after a long life of consistently being involved in the fur trade. Her diverse work as a fur trader, interpreter, diplomat, farmer, and real estate owner was typical for the time and gives us a better understanding into how women successfully worked in the Great Lakes fur trade. Visit our website for more information or to visit the recreated fort at Colonial Michilimackinac that Ainse, Maxwell and many others called home.

Education Outreach Brings History to Life

Presenting a program at the Gros Cap School near St. Ignace.

Our historic sites may be closed for another two months, but right now small teams of interpreters are traveling around the state to bring Mackinac’s history to life in elementary school classrooms. Since its creation, the Historic Mackinac on Tour program has visited schools and presented to nearly 250,000 students. (more…)

Biddle House Update

As you may have heard, we’re currently in the process of updating the Biddle House to include the Mackinac Island Native American Museum. This new exhibit, which tells the continuing story of the Anishnaabek on Mackinac Island and in the surrounding Straits of Mackinac region, will open in early summer 2020. To get the building ready for the new exhibit, the Biddle House itself is currently undergoing a variety of restoration work. (more…)