Old Fort Holmes

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.

There is something about the magic words fort, fortress, fortification, that attracts the attention and arouses the curiosity of most of us. To those who have been permitted to live or travel in the region of the Straits of Mackinac the words have a deeper meaning. A circle described with its center on the Island of Mackinac and its diameter reaching to the Soo will include more historic spots than any other territory of equal size in the United States west of the Alleghany Mountains.

Since 1679 there have always been stationed within this area detachments of troops either under the flag of France, England or the United States. The establishment of the palisaded fort at St. Ignace by La Salle in 1679 under the name of Michillimackinac, from which floated the Flag of France, its transfer to the south side of the Straits in 1712, [2]Late in the fall of 1712, Vaudreuil sent out Sieur de Lignery with three boats to re-establish Fort Michilimackinac. When the fort was again mentioned it was located on the south side of the strait. … Continue reading where it was the scene of the Pontiac massacre in 1763, and its transfer under the flag of England to the Island of Michillimackinac in 1780, [3]Transferred to the island: Correspondence relating to this will be found in Vols. IX and X, this series. still retaining its same name, its surrender to the U. S. in 1796, its capture by the British, in 1812 to be again surrendered in 1815, and its abandonment by the United States in 1895 are the connecting links in the long chain of historic years. It is not my purpose to dwell on the circumstances leading up to the building of the several forts or their abandonment, but I wish in a few words to throw some light upon the history of the grass grown moat and walls of old Fort Holmes, now the property of the State of Michigan and under the control of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, of which I have the honor to be the president.

After the close of the Revolution, or to be exact, in 1796, the forts and posts along the Northwest frontier were surrendered, and under orders fr,om the War Department, Uriah Tracy made a trip of inspection and reported on their condition and needs. His letter which is on file in the War Department in so far as it relates to this territory, reads as follows:

Washington, D. O., Dec. 20th, 1800.

Hon. Samuel Dexter, Sec. of War:

In consequence of your predecessor’s request to visit the posts in the Western territory, I proceeded to Plattsburg, and on to Port Michillimackinac.

Our Fort at Michillimackinac from every consideration is one of the most important posts we hold on our western frontier. It stands on an island in the strait which leads from Lake Michigan into Lake Huron four or five miles from the head of the strait. The fort is an irregular work partly built with a strong wall and partly with pickets; and the parade ground within it is from 100 to 125 feet above the surface of the water. It contains a well of never failing water, a boom (bomb) proof used as a magazine, one stone barracks for the use of the officers, equal if not superior to any building of the kind in the United States: a good guardhouse and barracks for soldiers and convenient storehouse for provisions, etc., with three strong and convenient block houses. This post is strong, both by nature and art, and the possession of it has great influence with the Indians in favor of the United States. The whole island on which the fort of Michillimackinac is situated belongs to the United States and is five or six miles in length and two or three miles in width. On the bank of the strait adjacent to the fort stands a large house which was by the English called “Government House” and kept by the British commandant of the fort which now belongs to the United States.

The Island and country about it is remarkably healthy and very fertile for so high a northern latitude.



The breaking out of the war of 1812 found the Fort garrisoned by only fifty-seven soldiers, ignorant that war had been declared and consequently wholly unprepared to defend itself. From the report of Capt. Roberts commanding the British forces, we learn that he utilized the heights above the fort for the mounting of his cannon and was able to force immediate surrender of Fort Michillimackinac. In fact the Articles of Capitulation are headed: “Heights Above Fort Michillimackinac.”

We have not been able to find in any of the correspondence that anything further was done upon these heights for over fifteen months. Capt. Bullock, the commandant, in a letter to Noah Freer, [4]See Vol. XVI, second edition, this series, note in appendix, p. 40. Military Secretary, Montreal, under date of Oct. 3, 1813, says, “Mr. Dickson [5]See Vol. XVI, second edition, this series, note in appendix, p. 1. (Indian agent) and I have consulted together as to the means of defense for the security of Michillimackinac and we are all of the opinion that a reinforcement of at least 200 men, with an officer of Engineers and twenty Artillery men would be required; a stockaded blockhouse (with a well inside stockade) would also be most essentially necessary to be built on an height about 900 yards in rear of the fort. This height completely commands the Fort and should an enemy with cannon once get possession of it the fort must consequently fall.”

His recommendations evidently bore fruit, as a letter to Gen. Drummond, dated July 17, 1814, signed R. McDonald (McDouall) [6]McDouall. See Vol. XVI, second edition, this series, note in appendix, p. 27. says: “I am doing my utmost to prepare for their reception (the American forces). Our new works on the hill overlooking the old fort are nearly completed and the blockhouses in the center will be finished this week r which will make this position one of the strongest in Canada. Its principal defect is the difficulty of finding water near it, but that obviated and a sufficient supply of provisions laid in, no force that the enemy can bring will be able to reduce it.”

There is no evidence to show that it was used at the time of the battle on the north side of the Island except as a reserve point.

Later, through a letter written to Capt. Bulger by Lieut. Col. McDouall, we learn that by the 1st of March, 1815, he says : “Fort GeorgeThis was called Fort George by the British as a compliment to their king. greatly improved and in a progressive state of improvement; the blockhouse to be unroofed and lowered and the long gun mounted on a circular pivot, the ditch still more widened and deepened, and the glacis raised to a height that will nearly cover the Fort. With immense labor stores and magazines have been excavated in the hill close to the entrance of Fort George, and neatly finished, which are bomb proof, and will hold all our provisions and valuables, a bakery now going on, also undertanks for 400 bbls. of water, making in case we do not find spring, and the hill itself surrounded by an abattis of great extent. Depend on it that the greatest difficulties insensibly diminish on being resolutely encountered.”

After Fort Michillimackinac was restored to the United States in July, 1815, the name of the fort on the heights was changed to Fort Holmes in honor of Major Andrew Hunter Holmes, who was killed in the attempted recapture of the Fort a year before. It was garrisoned for a few months, when it was abandoned and later the blockhouse was taken down and used as a stable in front of Fort Michillimackinac. Major Holmes Maj. Holmes of the 32nd Regiment, was second in command in Col. George Croghan’s attack upon Mackinac in 1814. His body was sent to Detroit and was buried in the old cemetery on the corner of Lamed street and Woodward avenue. Later it was removed to the Protestant cemetery near Gratiot, Beaubien and Antoine streets. Meade C. Williams in Early Mackinac says that he was a promising young Virginian and knew Thomas Jefferson. Heitman’s Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army states that he enlisted in Mississippi. Annals of Fort Mackinac by Kelton, pp. 47, 51. was a Kentuckian, a very popular and gallant officer, and belonged to the 32nd Infantry. He was shot in five (5) places at once.

Capt. C. Gratiot [7]Charles Gratiot was born in Missouri in 1788 and died in St. Louis, May 18, 1855. He graduated at the United States military academy in 1806. He was chief engineer of Harrison’s army in 1813-14 … Continue reading gives us some light on both forts in his letters and also with the plan he made and forwarded at the time of his visit here in 1817. Writing from Detroit on Feb. 10th, 1816, he says: “Your letter relating to Michillimackinac came safely to hand. The importance of its possession has been fully demonstrated during the late war and it has also proven that it has secured to those in possession an uninterrupted intercourse with the Indian tribes residing on the borders of Lake Michigan and the waters of the Illinois and Mississippi river. Had it not fallen, as it did in 1812, the enemy never could have been able to call together such large bands of Indians as he kept engaged on the frontier prior to the recapture of the country by Gen. Harrison; and it is also well known that to the condition of these Indians the disasters which attended our arms in these quarters may be attributed. Its geographical situation is admirably fixed to intercept all intercourse between Lake Huron and Lake Mich. Permanent possession of it by the government ought, in my opinion, to be considered of immense importance for the future safety of the whole northwest territory.”

On the 25th of November, 1817, he writes as follows: “The present work on the heights (Fort Holmes), the plan and section of which are herewith enclosed, consists of a wooden blockhouse enclosed by a thin rampart refitted with small pieces of timbers mounting four pieces of traveling carriages.

“This work was thrown up by the English whilst in possession of the Island during the late war as an important rallying point in case of attack. Its dimensions, together with its construction, does not present a sufficient defense to recommend its reconstruction in permanent material.

“Fort Mackinac, a plan and section of which are also enclosed, requires no further repairs than the renewal of its platform. This post must necessarily be kept up as it is in the channel of communication between Ft. Holmes and the harbor.”

The following year Capt. Gratiot made a study of the fort and drew up a complete plan for rebuilding Fort Holmes, which plan (consisting of fifteen sheets) is now on file in the War Department. In 1820 the buildings were used for other purposes and Fort Holmes became the prey of the relic hunter. Three years ago when the Commission started to create a park in front of Fort Mackinac, it was necessary to remove the old buildings there and among them was the old blockhouse. The timbers were saved and this spring the old building was restored to its original position. The last legislature appropriated the sum of $800 toward the work of restoration. The War Department has kindly arranged to furnish guns of as near the pattern of that period as they have and when all is completed we would ask and invite the Society to hold a meeting within its historic walls.

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.
2Late in the fall of 1712, Vaudreuil sent out Sieur de Lignery with three boats to re-establish Fort Michilimackinac. When the fort was again mentioned it was located on the south side of the strait. Vol. XXXIII, p. 571, this series, and Early Mackinac by Meade C. Williams, p. 18.
3Transferred to the island: Correspondence relating to this will be found in Vols. IX and X, this series.
4See Vol. XVI, second edition, this series, note in appendix, p. 40.
5See Vol. XVI, second edition, this series, note in appendix, p. 1.
6McDouall. See Vol. XVI, second edition, this series, note in appendix, p. 27.
7Charles Gratiot was born in Missouri in 1788 and died in St. Louis, May 18, 1855. He graduated at the United States military academy in 1806. He was chief engineer of Harrison’s army in 1813-14 when he was breveted colonel. He was in the defense of Fort Meigs in 1813 and the attack on Fort Mackinac in 1814. In 1815 he was appointed major of engineers and steadily rose through the ranks. In 1828 he was in charge of the Engineer Bureau of Washington, D. C. In May of that year he was breveted brigadier general and was appointed inspector of West Point. Dec. 6, 1838, he was dismissed by the President for having failed to pay into the treasury money entrusted to him for public purposes. He was a clerk in the land office in Washington from 1840-1855, when he died, destitute. Fort Gratiot was named after him, also Gratiot villages in Wisconsin and Michigan. Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography.

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