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Fort Michilimackinac Origin and Importance 1715-1781

Aerial view Fort Michilimackinac
Overhead view of Fort Michilimackinac

On the shores where two Great Lakes, Michigan and Huron, meet, Frenchmen Constant Le Marchand de Lignery built a wooden fort in 1715. It was named after the Native American name for the area, Michilimackinac. Michilimackinac’s meaning is somewhat contested, but mainly thought to mean “the Great Turtle”, which is thought to be a reference to the shape of Mackinac Island. Another theory is from Andrew J. Blackbird of the Odawa tribe. He states that Michilimackinac stands for an ancient tribe that inhabited the land in an earlier time. [8] Nevertheless, the Fort was established as the end plan for a French expedition planning to return to the area after abandoning many Natives and traders to establish present-day Detroit. The expedition was to subdue the disgruntled Fox Indians north of the area, with part of the expedition returning to Quebec and part remaining to garrison the Fort. The Fort was established on the site of a Jesuit Mission to help protect and facilitate trade in New France. When the fort was built, it stood 380 feet by 360 feet, and contained within its walls a parade ground, Commanding Officer’s house, Indian Council House, trader’s houses, guardhouse, and many more (See Layout Map). [2]

Fort Migration

Over the years many Commanding Officers presided inside the Fort’s stockade. With every new CO a common theme presented itself. The Fort was found in disrepair and in need of major renovations. Because Fort Michilimackinac was a wooden fort, the maintenance requirements were constant, yet because of the operator’s nation’s budget limits, it was often neglected. By 1778 the Fort had expanded to enclose over 100 buildings. However, the high cost of operation and the Fort’s relative lack of defensibility caused British Senior Caption Patrick Sinclair to decide to tear down the Fort and move it, piece-by-piece, to nearby Mackinac Island. [4] The moving process took over two years, moving materials over the ice in winter and via ships in the spring and summer. [2]

After the completion of the move, the old Fort was stripped of anything of value and burned to the ground, to be lost to history until it was re-discovered in 1959, as the target of a professional archaeological dig site. From then to the present, digs continue and new discoveries are made every year. Only an estimated sixty percent of the Fort has been uncovered. [4] The Fort was very unceremoniously retired from service, but throughout its over sixty years of service it acted as an important refueling and resupplying station, a great beacon of trading strength, and a valuable center for military action in the region.

French Trade Importance

To begin, Fort Michilimackinac was the premiere refueling and resupplying station connecting the French’s western trading system with New France. [7] The Fort was not primarily a military fort, but a connection in a chain, to spread French influence from Montreal to Lake Winnipeg and beyond. [9] At the turn of the seventeenth century, the French outlawed the fur trade at the request of the Jesuits. This, however, failed to stem the tide of fur trading. In 1715, the date of the creation of the Fort, the trade was legalized again. [3] Probably with the influx of fur inventory, the French purposed Fort Michilimackinac to handle the influx of fur, as well as the influx of traders and ships on the Great Lakes. The Fort was uniquely positioned to be a forward base for trading from New France to far away destinations like the western country. [9] Being so far from French rule did leave the Fort vulnerable to attack. In order to combat these risks, the French used trading goods and other gifts to befriend local tribes in order to gain trust, but more importantly to gain allies against their greedy European neighbors. [9]

Now, the fur trade was very susceptible to loss as ship and over-land routes could be easily ambushed or they could be naturally treacherous. But a more important aspect of the fur trade was that it relied on peaceful relations, as well as individual and regional peace to be successful. [3] Peace however was rarely seen for long and virtually impossible to maintain. There were now individual tribes vying for trade deals, plus individual tribes had been warring for many thousands of years before European intrusion. Now that the Europeans were involved in the region tribes would pit nations against one another to help secure the deals and trades for themselves. The Europeans perceived the natives to be unintelligent and incapable of being manipulated by them. That was not the case. Both the French and British rule of the Fort had clear examples of the resourcefulness and cunning of the local tribes.

Through the prime location of the Fort on the Straits of Mackinac, the trade in the region not only flourished, but most of its volume passed through Fort Michilimackinac. It was a local hub for traders, which not only boosted the Fort’s revenue but the burgeoning village inside the walls prospered from the high traffic. The Fort was important to the French fur trade since the French had set up their trade system in the western and largely unexplored lands. The French established a system of “voyageurs” across the area in such a way that they could efficiently move furs from Native American trappers to hubs to be shipped. A “voyageur” would take his goods to a drop-off point, where a bigger canoe would carry it to another point and so on until the fur reached a trading post that could handle shipment. [6] The Fort, as mentioned before, was the biggest hub at a choke point between New France and the western lands. Thus, the Fort handled and controlled almost all the trade that came out of the western areas. It would then send the products either down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico or over to Quebec and Montreal. [3]

By 1742, New France was in dire need of money and needed the fur trade to regenerate. The problem with that was that Indian Wars in the West rendered that highly improbable of happening. To combat the lack of resources, the French decided to change up the fur trade a little bit. They offered leases on the many hubs of trade to the highest bidder. The bid would be the money owed to the French yearly, and the buyer could keep the rest. The plan worked on the first fort, La Baye. But once its lease was up in four years, it was not renewed and not bought up by another party. The initiative failed, but later after a re-vamping, it became a system of favors by the governor of New France. This time the plan worked, and yielded New France the money it needed to keep operating its trading system, for the time being. [3]

British Trade Importance

After the end of the French and Indian War, Fort Michilimackinac was seceded to the British. When the British took over, the area had already been established as an essential and profitable trading locale. The French System of “voyageurs” was left untouched; moreover, the Fort was even said to handle a quarter of the continent’s trade. Even though the Fort changed hands, the Peace of Paris in 1763 left the trade industry mostly untouched for French and Indians who had been in the area. French trader’s goods were treated with the same respect as if it were a British citizen’s goods, allowing the area’s major industry to continue uninhibited. [1]

When Major General Thomas Gage evaluated the trade at Fort Michilimackinac, he had two main criticisms of the way the French had operated their fur trade; the sale of total monopolies and permits as well as the extension of trade to local native villages. Gage surmised that monopolies increased cost to the natives and restricted the trade itself. Also, Gage felts the system of permits was an easy target for abuse. Since the trade had spread to the villages, the government had no way to track what individual traders did there, and did not have the man power to enforce the permits. Gage had some solutions to these problems. He proposed removing all monopolies, removing all restrictions on trade, and limiting the western trade to five posts to negate rouge traders in Indian villages. Then the crown could still gain money through importation taxing of the furs, a system that was already going full-fledged in the colonies on the eastern seaboard. [1]

After some early growing pains of the transfer of power and policy to the British, the fur trade found life again and flourished under British rule. As the news of the opening of new British territory spread, many new traders came to the area of the Fort, some from the southern colonies and some from Great Britain. [1] During this time a group of English trade agents discovered old French currency and held it in order to trade once the French King redeemed them. When that happened they made over $3 million in today’s money. After the money scheme, the British went back to fur trading. However, it was somewhat different than in the time of the French. On the whole, the French respected the natives and their lands, while the British were very greedy and sought not only trade but native lands. The natives fully expected the French to come back and rid the land of the British. This led to an added element of danger in an already dangerous trade area. Now the British had to watch out for unfriendly natives. [1] Following the first decade of British rule, wars and skirmishes with natives had died down, but the Indians were still unhappy at having to travel to the Fort to trade and that their credit was often revoked. They could not, unfortunately, stop trade because they had become so dependent on it that it was now a part of their way of life. [1]

Military Importance

Even though Fort Michilimackinac was not primarily a military fort, it had some military importance: resupplying troops and providing a meeting place for war parties. The Fort saw limited action, never direct, in various native wars up to 1756. Then the French and Indian War broke out, and the Fort was used as a meeting place for war parties to gather and re-supply to attack the British. The Fort was never attacked directly, but when the French surrendered at Montreal, Fort Michilimackinac was given to the British. [4] The treaty, however, gave the French inhabitants their land and allowed the traders to continue as if nothing had changed. When the British arrived, they were surprised to learn that they had to pay rent to house their soldiers. [2]

Until June 2, 1763, the Fort had never seen any direct military action. On that day, as part of the ongoing Pontiac’s Rebellion, the British were tricked, surprised, and slaughtered. June 2, 1763 was the British King’s birthday, and in celebration of this, members of the local Ottawa and Chippewa tribes invited the British soldiers to watch a game of “baggat’iway”, which closely resembles Lacrosse, outside the walls of the Fort. This proved to be a costly lapse of judgment of the British fort commander, Captain George Etherington. The game was a ruse to surprise the British. At some point in the game, the ball flew into the Fort. At this time the Chippewa’s revealed hidden weapons and massacred 22 people. They killed or captured all British, leaving French citizens alone. The Fort remained under Indian control for a year until the rebellion ended and the British returned. The Fort had been taken and lost in its only look at military action. The British would remain in control of the Fort until is deconstruction in 1781. [5]

Layout Map of Fort’s buildings [2]
Ultimately, Fort Michilimackinac was utilized to refuel and resupply ships and traders on their way in or out of the western country, it was a vital part of the French and British trade empire, and provided military support in times of war. Through its strategic trading location on the Straits of Mackinac, it was irreplaceable for fostering trade and keeping peace in the region between natives and other European powers. However, with the fears of attack during the American Revolution, the Fort was deemed much too vulnerable and not very useful as a military fort, causing it to be relocated to Mackinac Island in 1781. It lay hidden and buried to the world until 1931. When full excavation began in 1959, the lost fort of the Straits was revealed.

Primary Sources

  1. Jackson, Marjorie Gordon. “The Beginning of British Trade at Michilimackinac.” Minnesota History 11.3 (1930): 231-70.
  2. Maxwell, Moreau S., and Lewis H. Binford. “Excavation at Fort Michilimackinac.” Michigan State University Cultural Series, vol. 1, no. 1, 1961, pp. 1-137.
  3. Ross, Frank E. “THE FUR TRADE OF THE WESTERN GREAT LAKES REGION.” Minnesota History Magazine, 1938, pp. 271-307

Secondary Sources

  1. Colonial Michilimackinac History.” Mackinac State Historic Parks. Mackinac Associates.
  2. Cohen, Kenneth. “A mutually comprehensible world? Native Americans, Europeans, and play in eighteenth-century America.” The American Indian Quarterly 26.1 (2002): 67+.
  3. Lavey, Kathleen. “Michilimackinac Brings 1700s to Life.” Lansing State Journal, 2015.
  4. MSHDA. “Fort Michilimackinac.” MSHDA. State of Michigan.
  5. Psenka, Charles. “Michilimackinac.” Sleeping Bear Organization.
  6. State of Michigan. “FORT MICHILIMACKINAC.”, STATE OF MICHIGAN, 2009.

For Further Reading