Mackinac Island

Located in the Straights of Mackinac between the Upper and the
Lower Peninsula of Michigan

Mackinac Island is a National Historical Landmark—one of just 35 in the entire state of Michigan.  Why would an island of just 3.8 square miles located in a remote area be a National Historic Landmark?   Read on.

The first European to sail through the Straits of Mackinac was, quite likely, Jean Nicolet, the French explorer and fur trader who visited in 1634. In 1660, a Jesuit priest, Claude Dablon, established a mission to minister to Indians on the Island and the first European to spend a winter at this location.  Shortly thereafter, Pere Jacques Marquette replaced Claude Dablon as the missionary priest.  He moved the mission to nearby St. Ignace on the northern peninsular.

By the late 1600s, quite a few French men were traveling through the area.  The French who came to North American had a variety of different and sometimes conflicting interests.  One group included governmental and military officials.  By the late 1500s, the French had established productive colonies in the Caribbean.  Later they realized that the English- and Spanish—were colonizing the Atlantic shore that would much later become the United States.  The French made an effort to colonize the northern section of North America that we now know as Québec.  The French also establish an outpost near the mouth of the Mississippi River.  Indeed, they laid claim to the entire Mississippi basin and, when President Jefferson obtained that area for the United States, he bought it from the French.

In additional to governmental officials, French priests came to North American in hope of bringing Roman Catholic religion and French civilization to the natives.  They established numerous mission outposts and were quite successful in getting many Indians to speak French.  Many of the missionaries were also experienced explorers who wrote extensively about what they found when they traveled through the waterways of the New World. 

Then there were Frenchmen who sought to prosper in the fur trade.  Pelts from the Upper Great Lakes region brought great price in Paris so quite a few French men who came to North America with the military, finished their service or left their obligations to enter the fur trade.  Quite a few of them lived with the Indians, spoke their languages and established relationships with Indian women.  Apparently, many of the more highly educated French migrants disparaged their countrymen who adopted the cultures and practices of the native and saw them, more or less, as trading in French civilization for the ways of the natives.  These men were key to the increasingly prosperous fur trade.

By the late 1600s, French leaders developed grandiose plans and imagined a large French colony in North American than would surround the English colonies on the Atlantic Coast.  This French colony might stretch from present day Québec in the northeast to Louisiana in the South— a colony that would include a great deal of Canada and much of Midwestern United States.  There were at this time, no roads, so all commerce from one part of northeastern part of the French colony to the southern part would have to pass through the Straits of Mackinac.  By about the 1740s, the French had established three key forts for their prospective empire: Fort Niagara on the Niagara River, Fort Ponchartrain at Detroit and Fort Michilimackinac in present-day Mackinac City.  The area around Mackinac Island developed into an important point for trade routes, especially for those in the fur trade.  But it also had military significance.

In the late Seventeenth Century, the French built a fort on the mainland of the Lower Peninsula, primarily one designed to protect them from the Indians.  Indeed, Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac was appointed the military leader of this remote fort in the 1690s.  While serving there he was accused of inappropriately using government resources to engage in the fur trade.  Cadillac thought that the Straits of Mackinac were too remote and returned to Paris to secure approval to open a new fort and trading post at much more centrally located Detroit.  He founded Detroit in 1701, and by that time, the French gave up their fort at Michilimackinac. 

By the mid-Eighteenth Century, it became clear that the French-English competition in Europe would play out in North America.  The French and Indian War—1754 to 1763—represents this. By the 1740s or so, the French had established three key forts for their prospective empire: Fort Niagara on the Niagara River, Fort Ponchartrain at Detroit and Fort Michilimackinac in present-day Mackinac  City.  The area around Mackinac Island developed into an important point for trade routes, especially for those in the fur trade.  But it also had military significance. French armies were defeated by English armies at Quebec in 1759 and near Montréal the following year.  The French lost their claim to colonies north and east of the Great Lakes.  The British took over the fort at the Straits of Mackinac in 1764, but sent very few men to staff it.  In the fall of 1779, the British government in Montreal appointed , Patrick Sinclair to command the fort.  He realized that the location on the mainland was not very secure so he moved the fort to nearby Mackinac Island. The British began building the massive fort that we see today when we visit the Island.

The British were unwilling to recognize that the American’s victory in the Revolutionary War meant that they had to give up their forts in Detroit and at Mackinac Island.  Indeed, from time to time, the British encouraged the Indians to be unfriendly to the few American settlers and the American military forces that came into the Upper Midwest.  To settle such disputes about boundaries and other issues, the United States and England signed Jay’s Treaty in London in 1794 and it was approved by Congress the next year. Among other issues, the British agreed to peacefully relinquish Fort Michilimackinac to the United States in 1896.  They then established a new fort on St. Joseph Island in nearby St. Mary’s River.

The United States lost Mackinac Island and the Fort during the War of 1812.  Lieutenant Hanks commanded a force of about 55 men in the summer of 1812 at Fort Michilimackinac.  He was not promptly informed about the June 18, 1812 declaration of War by President Madison and Congress.  His British counterpart, Captain Charles Roberts, however, was informed by fur agents in the employ of John Jacob Astor about the declaration of war by British General Brock.  He was given permission to take appropriate action.  He quickly assembled a force that included his few British soldiers from St. Joseph Island, perhaps 200 Canadians and several hundred Indians.  The sailed to Mackinac Island and forced Lieutenant Hanks to surrender on July 17, 1812 without firing a shot.

General William Hull, leading the North West Army at Detroit, was assigned the task of invading Canada in the summer of 1812.  He did so on July 12 but remained on the eastern shore of the Detroit River.  He intended to attack the British fort at present-day Amherstburg, Ontario.  Hull ran into many difficulties.  Late in July, he learned of the British capture of Fort Michilimackinac and feared that the Indians who fought with the British there would soon sail to Detroit to attack his forces.  Indeed, the local Wyandot Indians had been on the side of the Americans until they learned of the defeat of Lieutenant Hanks at Mackinac Island.  They promptly changed their allegiance and joined the British.  On August 8, General Hull withdrew American troops from Canada.  The British invaded Detroit on August 15 and General Hull surrendered his fort and the city to the British the next day without firing a shot.

In July, 1814, a United States force sailed north from Detroit with the aim of removing the British from Mackinac Island.  The force included five ships with about 700 troops.  Captain Author Sinclair apparently thought that artillery from his ships could damage the British Fort Michilimackinac.  He quickly learned that the guns from his ships could not damage the fort.  Troops led by Major George Groghan landed at a northwest corner of Mackinac Island in hopes of capturing the fort.  The British, however, were very well prepared and, along with their Indian allies, quickly drove the Americans back to their ships.  Thirteen American soldiers were killed, including one officer, Captain Andrew H. Holmes who is commemorated with a Michigan Historic marker.

After the Treaty of Ghent—December 24, 1814—ended the War of 1812, the British peacefully relinquished Fort Mackinac once again to the United States, this time in July, 1815. The British moved their fort to nearby Drummond Island and the Astor fur trading organization moved their area headquarters to Mackinac Island. The United States expanded the fort several times in the 1800s.  New officers’ quarters were erected in 1816 and a guardhouse in 1828.  Then, in 1835, additional officers’ residences were added to the campus.  In the 1840s, British-American disputes came to the fore once again.  Boundary disputes were important.  The State of Maine claimed their northern boundary should be the St. Croix River but the British claimed that Canada extended as far south as the Penobscot River.  The Maine legislature considered declaring war on Britain and demanded that Washington take action.  The northern boundary of Minnesota was also in dispute. In the West, the British claimed that the land now in Washington and Oregon was part of the British Empire but the United States rejected that idea.  And in Michigan, there were disputes about the ownership of islands in and near the St. Mary’s River.  Congress was so concerned about another possible war with England that they commissioned the building of Fort Wayne on the Detroit River.  Fortunately, most of these disputes were settled peacefully when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed on August 9, 1842.

That pretty much ended the military importance of the fort on Mackinac Island.  Indeed, when the War department was short of personnel, such as during the three Seminole Wars, they did not staff Fort Mackinac.  However, some additional buildings were added, including a post headquarters in 1853 and a new barracks in 1859.  Until the final year of the Civil War, it seemed possible that Confederate troops might invade the North and occupy Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.  Perhaps for that reason, some high-value Confederate prisoners were housed at Fort Mackinac during the Civil War.  Rebel troops were most unlikely to reach the Straits of Mackinac to free prisoners.

The United States military continued to staff the fort until 1895.  In 1875, Congress declared Mackinac Island the nation’s second national park.  Shortly thereafter, major efforts were made to promote Mackinac Island as a summer resort for those prosperous individuals in the Midwest who could afford to get away from cities for long spans.  Not surprisingly, the firms that promoted the construction of railroads to Mackinac City also promoted Mackinac Island as an ideal summer resort since, in that era, the passenger business was profitable.  A Pennsylvania Railroad affiliate, the Grand Rapids and Indiana, reached the straits in 1882 and the Michigan Central—affiliated with the New York Central—got their rails laid to the tip of the Lower Peninsula one year later.  Michigan senator Francis B. Stockbridge had the great idea of building a massive and very elegant hotel that would effectively symbolize Mackinac Island as the quintessential summer resort of the Midwest.  With the help of the railroads and the prosperous Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company—a leading Great Lakes shipping firm—he commissioned Detroit architect George Mason to design what may be the most distinctive and recognizable hotel in the United States today—The Grand Hotel which was completed in 1887.

Designed by Detroit architect George Mason, this is one of the most spectacular hotels in the nation with a 627-foot veranda offering views of the Straits and the surrounding countryside.  Other hotels include the Island House (1852), the Lake View House (1858), the Murray (1882), the Chippewa (1902) and the Iroquois (1902)—all of them still in summer operation.

In 1895, the federal government agreed to turn the National Park at Mackinac and the military fort over to the State of Michigan.  The state established Mackinac Island State Park, en entity that continues to exist today.  No funds, however, were appropriated to restore the deteriorating fort.  During the Depression Decade, the Works Project Administration assigned some workers to begin repair the long-inactive fort.  And then, in 1958, the State of Michigan issued bonds to rebuild the fort to serve the function it has today—a major tourist attractive for the many visitors who come to the island every summer.  Several other developments helped to popularize Mackinac Island as a summer resort.  The Big Mackinac Bridge was completed in 1958 and, by 1962; almost the entire I-75 highway from Mackinac City south was opened making it easy for residents of the entire Midwest to drive to a dock where people—but not their cars—might board a ship for the island.

One of the most unusual features of the island is the absence of motorized vehicles.  Trucks are used for fire and medical emergencies but all other vehicles are prohibited. Deliveries are made using teams, the road repair crews use horse-drawn vehicles and, if you lived on Mackinac Island year round, you would need a horse or two along with a carriage for the summer and a sled for the winter.  Census 2010—taken in late March of that year—enumerated 1,002 housing units on the island.  Only 240 of them were occupied, meaning that the winter resident population that year was 528.

What is the correct name of this island?  Apparently the Ojibwa Indians who lived in their area before the arrival of the French thought the island looked like a big turtle.  So they gave the site the words they used for “Big Turtle.”  The French priests and explorers wrote about this in the Roman alphabet as Michilimackinac.  The English settlers, however, decided to save letters and gradually used the term Mackinac.

National Historic Landmark: Listed in 1960
National Register of Historic Places: Listed October 15, 1966
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Listed July 19, 1956
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place: December 7, 1956
Website for Mackinac Island:
Use in 2012:  A residential island primarily focused upon tourism
Photographs: Ren Farley, Fall, 2010
Description prepared: May, 2012

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