Fort Michilimackinac Michigan Informational Historical Marker

At the very northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula on the Straits of Mackinac
at the Lower Peninsula foot print of the
Mackinac Bridge

This is a National Historic Landmark

Jacques Cartier was born in 1491 in Saint Malo on the northern coast of France.  In 1524, the French king, Francis I, encouraged the Florentine explorer, Giovanni de Verrazzano to sail to the eastern coast of North America and claim that area for the French.  Cartier apparently accompanied Verrazzano on that trip.  In 1534, Cartier received a commission from the French crown to seek a passage across North America to Asia.  He departed from France on April 20, 1534 and, just 20 days later, reached what is now Newfoundland.  He took possession of that land for the French thinking that he had reached Asia.  He returned to France, and the following year, the king commissioned him to lead three ships and 110 men to explore more of North America.  They sailed into the St. Lawrence River and progressed as far as the rapids at the Indian village of Hochelaga, now the site of Montréal.  On this trip, Cartier claimed more of North America for the French.  Cartier hoped to return to France in 1535 but his fleet was frozen into the Saint Lawrence and they did not sail back to Europe until 1536.  In 1540, King Francis I decided that there should be a French colony in North American and once again dispatched Jacques Cartier to lead the effort.  He led five ships on this settlement voyage, but by this time, he knew that he had not reached Asia, only Québec.  Cartier was not successful in establishing any permanent colony in what is now Canada.  Originally, the Iroquois were quite friendly to the French, but by the time Cartier sailed back to France, they were quite hostile.  Many of the first French who tried to settle Canada found that environment extremely challenging and returned to Europe if they survived for a winter or two.  In his middle and later years, Jacques Cartier apparently earned his living in France as a Portuguese interpreter and translator.   Cartier was the first to use Canada as a name for the area he explored.  There were several attempts, but no French colony was established in what is now Canada until 1600 when a small settlement was established at Taddoussac, Québec.  A larger settlement was established by Samuel Champlain in Québec City in 1608 but the population grew slowly and by 1630 there were probably no more than a couple of hundred French people living in North America. 

Within 60 years of Champlain’s founding of a settlement on the North American mainland, French explorers had traveled throughout the Great Lakes, and by the early 1680s, they found that with relatively little portaging, it was possible to follow the lakes and rivers and travel from Québec to the mouth of the Mississippi.  Gradually, the French began to settle this area.

There were three groups of French settlers with distinct interests.  The French crowns tried to micro manage their emerging colonies and all who settled there but that was a challenge because of the difficulty of communication and the unknown nature of North America and its native people.  Governmental officials and the military wished to claim the area for France in hopes that it might include both a gateway to Asia and vast riches including gold.  French missionaries came in considerable numbers to sustain the religion of the colonists and to convert natives to French Catholicism.  The priests were among the most highly educated settlers.  All were literate. They kept journals or diaries and also sent numerous reports back to France that may now be found in archives.  Many of them were also explorers who provided the first written descriptions of the Upper Midwest.  Then there were those who came to New France to get rich.  Quite quickly it became apparent that there was no short cut to the Orient and if there were gold in Canada, it was hidden.  However, animal pelts from the New World could be sold for great profits in Europe.  Antoine Cadillac was one of many Frenchmen who intended to trade with the Indians for furs that might make him a rich man.  Quite frequently, the interests of the governmental officials, the clergy and the entrepreneurs clashed.

In the mid 1600s, another group of Frenchmen emerged and were given the derogatory name of coureur des bois—men who run in the woods.  Some French soldiers and other immigrants found that there was profit to be made in going to Indian settlements in remote areas, trading guns, liquor or other stores that had, perhaps, been stolen from the Crown’s warehouse, for furs that were subsequently sold to the entrepreneurs who took them to Paris.  Government officials tried to stop this and insisted upon getting a license before trading with the Indians but that it was difficult or impossible to enforce such a regulation.  And there was another issue for the coureur des bois.  A few French military officers and entrepreneurs successful persuaded their wives to leave the comforts of France for the rustic and dangerous New World.  Madam Cadillac arrived in Detroit less than one year after her husband founded the great city.  But this was rare and most of the French immigrants were men.  The coureur des bois apparently found it very easy to cohabit with Indian women and, in a few cases, they married them.  The educated French immigrants generally looked down at the coureur des bois since they were not only violating the orders of the Crown but were rejecting French civilization and adopting the uncivilized life of the aborigines.  Nevertheless, there were quite a few well known coureur des bois whose names are memorialized throughout the United States and Canada including:

Étienne Brûlé-Valiquette who was the first explorer to discover how to easily travel from Lake Superior to the upper Mississippi River.

Samuel de Champlain who founded the French colony in North American in Québec City in 1608 and became the first French explorer to reach Sault Ste. Marie.  He got there in 1604.

Médad des Groseillers who was the first or among the first French explorers of Lake Superior in the 1650s.

Louis Joliet who discovered the Mississippi River and then traveled its length for the French in 1673.

Jean Nicolet who was the first French explorer to cross Lake Michigan in 1634.  He then explored present day Wisconsin.

Jacques de Noyon who was the first European to explore the boundary waters area lying west of Lake Superior, an exploration he conducted in 1688.

Pierre-Esprit Radisson who, in about 1660, became the first Frenchmen to explore the vast region between the northern shores of the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay.  The hotel chain now bears his surname.

Recognizing that the fur trade was booming and that it would be impossible to control coureur des bois, the French crown began, in 1681, to provide official approval for such trading with Indians.  And they also tried to upgrade the status of the group by giving them the more upscale name, voyageurs.  The coureur des bois fathered a very large interracial population, although many felt their descendents were much more Indian than French.  They also spread French across the upper Midwest as the first European language learned by many Indians.

To control and superintend the French population, the crown established numerous forts ranging from Québec in the Northeast to Minnesota in the West and to the Gulf Coast in the South.  They were loosely joined, and during the summer, a water journey of a couple of months could take a traveler throughout the network of forts.  Apparently many of them were quite small and garrisoned by a dozen or fewer soldiers for just a few years.  I do not have a complete or authoritative list, but I believe the French forts in Michigan included the following.

List of French Forts Established in Michigan

Fort de Baude – Established in what is now St. Ignace in 1680. Pere Jacques Marquette established a mission at this point in 1671 after being chased from western Lake Superior by Indians.  When the French military built this fort they used the family name of the man the French had appointed to govern their North American colonies: Governor Fontana.  This was, I believe, the first French settlement in what is now Michigan.  I believe that the fort was abandoned in 1701.

Fort Miami – Established at the mouth of what was then known as the Miami River by   René-Robert Chevalier de la Salle in 1679.  He progressed to this point with the intent of exploring the west in hopes of finding a way to the Orient but, quickly learned that this was unlikely.  He went back to Montréal but returned to For Miami in 1681 to begin his highly successful trip down the Mississippi toward its mouth and then returned.  The French abandoned this fort shortly after de la Salle returned from his trip on the Mississippi River.

Fort St. Joseph – Established in what is now Port Huron in 1686 by explorer Daniel Graysolon Sieur de Duluth in 1686.  It was located in present day Gratiot Park on Grand Avenue in Port Huron at the intersection with Forest close to the United States foot of the Blue Water Bridge.  It was intended to prevent the British from sailing North into Lake Huron and may be the second French settlement in what is now Michigan.  However, it was abandoned in 1688.

Fort St. Joseph – French Jesuit Jean Claude Allouez established a mission on the St. Joseph River near or in present day Niles in 1680  Eleven years later the French built a fort at this location and garrisoned it until it was surrendered to the British in October, 1761. The Pottawatomie Indians attacked this fort on May 25, 1763 and killed all the 15 British soldiers. We seldom recall that the Spanish once claimed Michigan as part of their empire.  Spanish raiders briefly expelled the British from this fort in Niles in 1781 and claimed, unsuccessfully, the area for Spain.

Fort Pontchartrain – Established by Antoine Cadillac in present day Detroit on July 23, 1701and named in honor of Louis Phélypeau, Comte du Pontchartrain and surrendered to the British in 1761.

Fort Michillimackinac – Established by Marchand de Lignery in present day Mackinac City in 1715.  This was the dominant French fort in the upper Great Lakes region providing assistance to fur traders and missionaries who passed through the Straits of Mackinac on their travels.  It was surrendered to the British in 1761.  The British generally had much more difficulty with native tribes than the French.  After being attacked by Ojibwa Indians in Pontiac’s uprising, the British abandoned this fort in 1781 and established a stone, rather than a wooden fort, on Mackinac Island presuming they would be more secure if surrounded by water.

Fort Chevalier de Repentigny – Established by the French at present day Sault Ste. Marie in 1750 and surrendered to the British in 1762.

State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Listed February 18, 1956
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place 1958
National Register of Historic Places: Listed October 15, 1966
National Historic Landmark – Declared a National Historic Landmark
October 9, 1960.  There are only 32 National Historic Landmarks
in the entire state of Michigan.
Use in 2009:  Historic Landmark
Photograph:  Ren Farley; September 14, 2009
Description Prepared:  October, 2009

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