Fort Michilimackinac

By Peter White [1]For memoir of Peter White, see Vol. XXXVII, pp. 620-639.
Paper for the annual meeting, June, 1907, but not read owing to the illness of Mr. White. This is the last of several valuable papers given by him to this society.

Old Fort Michilimackinac, (Mackinac) is known to more of the people of these United States than any other fortification now standing. Its snow-white walls have for 125 years attracted the attention of the passing voyager, and as he approached the shore below he marveled at the strange picture on the heights above, the mixture of medieval and modern. In these happy days of peace it is the Mecca of thousands of visitors from every state of the Union and, although no blue coated sentinel meets one at its gates, the feeling of security is impressed as soon as one passes over the drawbridge and enters the sally-port.

For over 230 years the name of Fort Michilimackinac has been known from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the most northern inhabited point of this continent to the Gulf of Mexico. Ove.r its walls, in its several locations, has floated the flags of France, England and the United States. For its possession wars and intrigues have, up to the close of the war of 1812, been going on. Indian massacre and starvation have depleted the ranks of its brave defenders and could all the records of councils of the Indians and the councils of the French and English colonial departments become known, it would be found that this post was considered of more value than any other two posts controlled by the countries interested.

To the hardy French, with .their love of adventure, religous zeal and trading instinct, we are indebted for the early exploration and final settlement of this region. The traders, pushing out from the settlements along the St. Lawrence River in small barques and batteaux, manned by the half-breed inhabitants of that region, reinforced by soldiers in search of fortune and renown, always had a member of the Society of Jesus along with them. Starting out with sword in one hand and the Bible and Cross in the other, they intended to form new empires and expected to open and control, with the contents of one island or the other, the commerce and trade of the unexplored regions beyond. Meager indeed were the facilities of transportation and communication. Few members of these expeditions took the trouble to record their adventures and from mere fragments of piecemeal journals, the later day historian has not been able to give as concise a story as we could wish. A correction to the above can be made in part when we refer to the records of Marquette, La Salle and Joliet. In fact, it is to the writings of these that we are able to form an idea of this region at the time Fort Michilimackinac was established.

In 1671 Father Marquette had established a mission at St. Ignace and had attracted to him the friendly Indians near there. La Salle came in the year 1673, during the month of August, after a stormy passage up the Lakes, in the barque Griffon in which he noted the woody cliffs of the turtle-shaped Isle of Michilimackinac standing out in the clear air, a guardian sentinel of the harbor of St. Ignace.

Anchor was cast in the little bay, now the busy scene of shipping and, with many a salute, the entire party landed to offer up, in the little rough chapel built some years before by Marquette, thanks for their safe voyage. La Salle found a palisaded fort built and occupied by the friendly Hurons. After the religious ceremonies were over the trading spirit was preeminent and La Salle was able to secure from the country around a cargo of furs. The Griffon, under the command of the pilot set sail, it being the intention of those on board to return the following spring with fresh supplies and rigging for another boat. But in her passage down the lakes, she somewhere was struck by one of those September storms common to this region even to this day, and found an unknown grave. La Salle remained and built the first Fort Michilimackinac, overlooking the Bay of St. Ignace, where he had cast anchor a short time before. On a tall staff at the gate floated the flag of France.

From this time on trade flourished and in 1694 Cadillac [2]See Vol. XXXIII, p. 72, this series. came with a detachment to strengthen the fort and protect the increasing number of traders. At this time it was looked upon as one of the strategic points and to conciliate all parties was the immediate task Cadillac found before him. Under successive commandants a garrison was kept here, but the government of New France desiring to make the settlement at Detroit the center of the fur trade offered such inducements as to cause most of the friendly Indians to migrate there followed by the ever-present trader. A settlement having grown up on the south side of the Straits ,the fort was moved over there in 1712 and the flag of France again raised over its walls. Thus was established the second Fort Michilimackinac.

With the surrender of Canada and its dependencies after the battle of the Plains of Abraham, the province of Michilimackinac and the fort was transferred to England and the French domain in this region was extinguished forever. The Indians did not take well to the new garrison. The English traders were not as liberal in their dealings as the French had been and one complaint brought on another. Wampum belts were circulated and when, early in 1763, they found that in truth their French father had ceded them to the English King, their indignation was boundless. Messengers were sent from one tribe to another and it was resolved that upon a set day attacks should be made simultaneously upon the English forts. [3]Pontiac’s war. See Vol. XIX, this series, second edition. June 4 was the birthday of the English King and in honor of the day the Chippewa Indians offered to play a game of ball with the Sacs outside the gates of the fort. The offer was accepted and that the garrison and traders could see the game the gates of the fort were left open and all were free to enter. A vast crowd had assembled and during the game the ball was purposely thrown over the stockade into the fort. In an instant 300 screaming savages were crowding through the gates into the Fort, drawing their tomahawks and filling the air with their war cries. But few of the garrison and inhabitants were saved and the trials and sufferings of the survivors were such as to keep others away from the place for a few years. The fort was without a garrison until 1767 and during the early years of the Revolution the walls were strengthened and the garrison added to. But fearful of attack by the forces of the United States, Major De Peyster, in November, 1779, sent over men and supplies to the Island of Michilimackinac for the erection of the third Fort Michilimackinac.

It was first occupied by the English troops on the 15th of July, 1780. While the fort was not completed at that time, enough had been done on it to make it safe from surprise and to serve as a good depot for supplies. The walls with the blockhouses were built and buildings for the officers and men were erected as fast as the material was ready. After the close of the Revolution the surrender of this fort to the United States was the subject of much correspondence and it was not turned over until 1796.

Until the opening of the war of 1812 it was occupied by a small detachment of United States troops and, when the British forces came down from St. Joseph’s Island on the 17th of July, 1812, demanding and receiving its surrender, they found only fifty-seven men, including officers, in the garrison. Porter Hanks, the commanding officer, in his official report to General Hull, calls attention to the small garrison and to the fact that the opposing force was from 900 to 1,000 strong, the greater part of whom were savages. Again the Flag of England was floating over the walls of Fort Michilimackinac. The British at once set in to add to the defenses of the island and, when the forces of the United States, under the command of Colonel Croghan and Major Holmes, attempted its capture, they were defeated and the greater part of the attacking force with Major Holmes were killed. No other attempt was made to effect its capture and, after the war was over, it was surrendered to the forces of the United States and was the last place occupied by the British troops and the final act of the drama. The Stars and Stripes were raised on the 18th day of July, 1815, and have ever since floated from the walls. Although the garrison was removed in 1895, it is still kept up ready to defend the liberties and rights of the people of the land of the free and the sunrise and sunset guns awake the peaceful retreats of this Fairy Isle.

Today we have the same walls, blockhouses and buildings that were erected years ago. There are but five original blockhouses of that period standing in the United States and we have three of them here, grim remainders of the days of savage warfare. The old stone quarters built and used as officers’ quarters since 1780 are standing and, with the care given them, will stand for 125 years longer. The old sally-ports, with the attendant drawbridge and portcullis, call attention to the days when the foe most dreaded was near at hand.

Three forts and three flags are all within sight of each other and today the ruins of the other two forts can be traced in the crumbling Avails at St. Ignace and Mackinaw City.

Source: Collections and Researches made by the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, vol. XXXVIII. Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., State Printers, Lansing, Michigan, 1912.


1For memoir of Peter White, see Vol. XXXVII, pp. 620-639.
2See Vol. XXXIII, p. 72, this series.
3Pontiac’s war. See Vol. XIX, this series, second edition.

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