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.

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!

At Last…

The site being prepared for the field season. The plastic containers protected wood posts under the plastic sheeting and straw over the winter.

   After a very long wait, MSHP archaeologists were excited to remove the straw and plastic sheeting from the archaeological site and begin preparing the site for excavation. Unfortunately, there was a lot of slump, especially along the north wall, so there is a lot of clean up ahead. The next step is to re-establish the grid strings used to record where features and artifacts are found relative to the overall master map.

   This will be our fourteenth season of excavation at House E of the Southeast Rowhouse. The rowhouse was constructed in the 1730s and this unit was owned by Charles Gonneville for most of the French era at Michilimackinac. By 1765 the house was owned by an as-yet-unknown English trader. Our initial research question for the project was how does an English trader’s house look different from a French-Canadian trader’s house? The early answer is that there is more trade silver and ceramics. This trader not only had fashionable furnishings, but dressed stylishly as well, based on the sleeve buttons and other adornment items we have recovered.

   Our main goals for this summer relate to the deep features previously exposed. We think we are nearing the bottom of the root cellar in the southeast corner of the building and hope to complete its excavation this season. There are two more deep features, which intersect, in the west and south-central areas of the house. We hope to better define them this season.

   As with any archaeological excavation there will be surprises that raise new questions. You can come watch history being uncovered at Colonial Michilimackinac every day from June 12 – August 22, from 9 am until 5 pm, weather permitting. You can also follow along all season on the MSHP blog and social media channels.

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…)

On This Day: Battle of Mackinac Island, August 4, 1814

American soldiers from the 17th, 19th, and 24th Infantry Regiments joined men from the Corps of Artillery, the Marine Corps, and the Ohio militia during the battle.

On August 4, 1814, war came to Mackinac Island. The island, which had been captured by the British in 1812, was now the focus of an American campaign to reclaim the region. That campaign reached its zenith as hundreds of American troops landed on the island’s north shore, marched inland, and encountered well-entrenched British, Canadian, and Native American troops. (more…)

Archaeology Update

Archaeology Update

The first half of the archaeology field season has been very productive. The root cellar in the southeast corner of the house has continued to be rich in information. A few more planks from the west wall of the cellar have been exposed. The final piece of the feather-edged creamware plate that was exposed last summer was removed in mid-June. Two large pieces of plain white tin-glazed earthenware have also been recovered. One appears to be from a tightly curved bowl. The other appears to be from a straight-sided vessel partially excavated from the cellar last summer. Other interesting finds from the cellar include a trade silver circle brooch, the fourth one from this house, and a leg bone and hoof from a pig or sheep.

Creamware plate reassembled

Tin-glazed earthenware bowl fragment

Straight-sided white tin-glazed earthenware from side

White-tin-glazed sherds from 2018 and 2019

2019 trade silver brooch

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Patrick Sinclair

Patrick Sinclair

This silhouette is the only known image of Sinclair. The star on his coat may be the badge of the 15th Regiment, in which he served from 1761 to 1773.

Today, if Patrick Sinclair is remembered at all, it is as the somewhat inept British officer who established the fort and permanent community on Mackinac Island. However, Sinclair enjoyed a long career before he arrived at the Straits of Mackinac. (more…)