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.

Card Games on Mackinac Island

The Mitchell House, home of David and Elizabeth Mitchell.

Studying the lives of 19th century people on Mackinac Island often brings us to the work that they did. We know there were soldiers, fur traders, and families living and working together on the island, but what did they do for fun? Luckily for us there are a few clues.

In 1830, a woman named Juliette Kenzie traveled to Mackinac Island on a steamship from Detroit. She was originally from Connecticut and was an experienced traveler. She wrote an account of her excursion and mentioned that while the boat “the ladies played whist” to pass the time.

While on the island itself, Juliette noted that there were many whist parties held at Mrs. Mitchell’s home. Elizabeth Mitchell, a prominent Ojibwa and French-Canadian woman, was very much involved in the work of the fur trade with her husband, Dr. David Mitchell. While David mostly remained in British Canada after the War of 1812, Elizabeth supervised their business on Mackinac Island, and was a leader of the local society. Going to her house for a whist party was probably an event that many Mackinac Island residents in their circle experienced and enjoyed.

Agatha and Edward Biddle lived across the street from the Mitchells, and cards were part of social life in the Biddle household as well. Retail records indicate that Edward purchased cards from the American Fur Company store, located down Market Street. Other Mackinac Island residents also picked up a deck or two from the American Fur Company store, including Fort Mackinac post surgeon Dr. Richard Satterlee and his wife Mary. Other items sold at the store, like violin strings, remind us that early 19th century life on Mackinac Island wasn’t all work.

A rear view of the home of Edward and Agatha Biddle, across from the Mitchells and down Market Street from the American Fur Company store.

If you would like to try you hand at whist and experience a popular Mackinac Island card game of the 1820 and 1830s, grab a deck of cards and follow the instructions below. Visit mackinacparks.com for more information about planning your own visit to Mackinac Island, and please consider joining Mackinac Associates, who make many of our programs possible.

– Rules of Whist:

You will need 4 players and a standard 52-card deck. The cards rank from highest to lowest: A K Q J 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 in each suit. The players play in two partnerships with the partners sitting opposite each other. To decide the partnerships, the players draw cards and the players with the 2 highest cards play against the two lowest. Any comments on the cards between partners is strictly against the rules.

– Shuffling and Dealing:

Any player can shuffle the cards, though usually it is the player to the dealer’s left. The dealer can choose to shuffle last if they prefer. The player on the dealer’s right cuts the cards before dealing. The dealer then passes out 13 cards, one at a time, face down. The last card, which belongs to the dealer, is turned face up and determines trump. The trump card stays face-up on the table until play comes to the dealer. The dealer may then pick up the card and place it in their hand. The deal advances clockwise.

– Play:

The player left of the dealer starts. They may lead with any card in their hand. Play continues clockwise with each player following suit if they can. If they cannot follow suit, any card may be played. The trick is won by the highest card of the suit led, or the highest trump. After each trick is played, its stack of cards should be placed face down near the player who won that trick. Before the next trick starts, a player may ask to review the cards from the last trick only. Once the lead card is played, no previously played cards can be reviewed. The winner of each trick begins the next round. Play continues until all 13 cards are played and then the score is recorded.

– Scoring:

The partners that won the most tricks score 1 point for each trick after 6. The first team to score 5 wins.

Making Charcoal: A Blacksmith’s Experiment

Charcoal is one of the few things that we know for sure would have been produced at Michilimackinac in the 18th century. Join Michilimackinac blacksmith Justin Popa as he attempts to make charcoal the same way the historic residents of Michilimackinac would have. Enjoy!

Ezekiel Solomon at Michilimackinac

With Passover underway, let’s take a closer look at one of Michilimackinac’s merchants: Ezekiel Solomon, who was probably Michigan’s first Jewish resident. (more…)

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…)

The Winter Table at Michilimackinac

Michilimackinac in the 18th century was an important transshipment point for the fur trade. With the abundance of material goods and huge shipments of supplies coming through the Straits of Mackinac on the waterways all summer long, there were many opportunities to source fresh and tasty foods. Some items were sourced from the farms at and around Detroit, while others came through the Great Lakes from Albany, New York and beyond.  Once the lakes and rivers froze, however those shipments stopped and the eating habits of the Michilimackinac population had to change. (more…)

The Wharf at Michilimackinac

The Wharf at Michilimackinac

The fort’s water gate, as seen from the lake. Although not yet reconstructed, the wharf would have occupied this space in the 1770s.

Situated on the Straits of Mackinac, Michilimackinac was ideally located to serve as a major transshipment point and resupply hub for the Great Lakes fur trade. Every summer, dozens of canoes and a few small sailing vessels filled with tons of fur, trade goods, food, and other supplies called at the shoreline community. To facilitate movement between water and land, by at least the mid-1760s Michilimackinac’s residents relied upon a wooden wharf. (more…)

Preparing for the Season

Preparing for the Season

The site (between the barrels) buried under several feet of snow.

After the spring melt.

Ready to excavate.

Spring has sprung in the Straits of Mackinac region, and with spring comes the preparation for another archaeological field season. Regular blog readers will remember that at the end of last season we lined the site with heavy plastic sheeting and bales of straw. The long snowy winter was very good for preventing the wall from slumping too much. When we removed the straw and plastic last week, the site was in fairly good condition. (more…)