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Patrick Sinclair and Fort Mackinac

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 ended the Revolutionary War, establishing the United States of America, a new nation free from British rule.  The treaty also gave rights to land far beyond the 13 original colonies.  What is now the state of Michigan, was British controlled territory that they were forced to withdraw from under the terms of the treaty.  One of the last areas to be forfeited by the British was Fort Mackinac in 1796.  This is due to the great importance of the fort.  The fort was a strategic advantage due to its location on top of Mackinac Island, allowing it to overlook and protect all of the Straits of Mackinac.  Building Fort Mackinac on top of Mackinac Island was no small feat, and was possible only because of the commanding leadership of Patrick Sinclair.[5]

Limestone Walls of Fort Mackinac (From

The Straights of Mackinac had been a location of logistical interest since the 17th Century when the French established Fort Michillimackinac as a location for a fur trading outpost.  Under the Treaty of Paris in 1763 (ending the Seven Year’s War) the British took control of the Straights of Mackinac and were determined to use the natural bottleneck of the waters to engage in trade as well as regulate what ships could travel through the area.  The lieutenant governor of Fort Michillimackinac, Patrick Sinclair, deemed the wooden fort built by the French nearly 100 years prior as unfit to stronghold the waters.  “If we were to be attacked by any considerable force, Mackinac Island would be our place of greatest safety… on Mackinac Island there is an abundance of stone easily raised and cut or shaped at pleasure… the upper grounds for officers’ and soldiers’ barracks, powder magazines and provision storehouse, and the lower part (of the Island) for traders and the persons who manage the Indians.”[1]  Under Patrick Sinclair’s command, the British built a new fort made out of limestone in 1780.  Today, the fort still sits on top of the island shaped like a turtle’s back, referred to by the local Odawa tribes as ‘Mackinac’.  “The accomplishment of this removal was the most important development of the Revolutionary War in the Straits of Mackinac territory.”[6]

Aside from a strategic location for a military outpost, the straits of Mackinac were in the center of the fur trade.  The interaction between the British, French, and Native Americans centered around the fur trade.  As a military presence became more evident, Native American tried to resist the construction of forts, unlike the previous trading outposts.  It would be vital to the construction of a fort to minimize the disturbance of the status quo with the natives.  It was clear that the leader of the construction of a fort needed to be someone with experience interacting with the natives and a positive reputation with them as well.  Patrick Sinclair played this role and proved that his leadership was key to the development of Fort Mackinac.  “In connection with his duties while stationed on the Lakes he made a trip of exploration down in the Indiana Country along the Wabash river, thus acquiring considerable knowledge of the French settlements in that vicinity… Sinclair seems on the whole to have got along with the Indians very satisfactorily, and to have obtained their respect and liking and to have established a widespread reputation to that effect.”[1]

The military officer given this assignment also needed to be seen as a confident leader by the men under his command.  This attribute held true for Patrick Sinclair, as he was highly regarded among his colleagues and the men below his rank.  “The love and regard we bear for our friend Lieut. Patrick Sinclair and for the love and esteem the whole of our said nation has for him for the many charitable acts he has done us, our wives and children.”[1] A strict, yet forgiving leader, Sinclair was able to expect a great deal from his men due to his example of commitment to duty that the garrison was able to follow.  “through the good nature of Sinclair who though quick to anger was equally quick to relent.”[7] With any good leader, the success and moral of the group takes priority over success and moral of any individual, including the leader.  “In remembrance of the encouragement experienced upon all occasions by the merchants in the Indian countries from Capt. Patrick Sinclair of the Naval Department, not as a reward for his services, but a public testimony of their gratitude this is presented instead of a more adequate acknowledgement which his disinterested disposition renders impracticable. Dated the 23rd September, 1767.”[1]  Sinclair extended his reach beyond his military ranks.  He made his presence known among everyone in the Mackinac area.  This reputation he carried among the various groups of the region made it possible for the British to build Fort Mackinac without causing uprisings internally or externally.

Through the construction of the fort, delays due to inconsistent funding caused internal doubt about the significance of the work on the island.  As tempers flared, it was up to Sinclair to be sure that the laborers felt their voices were being heard and any skirmishes were quickly put out to prevent disagreements to develop into more serious questionings of authority.[2]  One account from a surgeon on the island wrote about the events he saw during such skirmishes.  “a people beset by violence, lawlessness, tyrannical officers, petty bickering, and assorted other problems”[3].  Although a surgeon would have patience from these types of events, his view of the disposition of the settlers can be skewed as he would have seen only the effects of these outbreaks.  Without the ability by Sinclair to settle these disputes, the construction of Fort Mackinac may have never been completed.

British Royalty noticed the growing concerns by local tribes as the development of the island progressed.  At the same time, moral of the laborers decreased and internal disputes continued.  Sinclair realized they would not be able to fend off external threats while simultaneously dealing internal complications. Sinclair brought this to the attention of the British Royalty so that something could be done.  “After much negotiation, a treaty was made with four important Indian chiefs, under the terms of which they sold “forever the Island of Michilimackinac or as it is called by the Canadians ‘La Grosse Isle’”[1], to King George the Third of England for the cash sum of five thousand pounds…  This document was executed with the totems and seals of the four Indian Chiefs named in the first paragraph of the deed, and was signed for King George by Lieutenant Governor and Commandant “Patt” Sinclair.”  With the land legally acquired and the native tribes appeased, it was important that the internal worry on the island was acknowledged.  “The fort was not yet entirely completed.  A careful survey made at the time by an engineer indicated the extend of the work done, and estimated that with 100 laborers and the necessary artificers the fort could be put into safe condition in about two months.  As nearly $300,000 had then been spent upon its construction without serious objection by the English authorities it may be easily convinced that they regarded the post as of high importance.”[1]  For treaties to be signed and large amounts of funding sunk into the construction, an obvious pressure was on Sinclair as the leader.  This amount of pressure may have deterred many men, but Sinclair held fast and saw the project through.

Fort Mackinac (From

Patrick Sinclair is credited with the building of Fort Mackinac due to his ability to hold everyone and everything in place during the process.  He was able to level with the workers and garrison, while fulfilling duties to his chain of command.  All while deterring the possibilities of attacks by native tribes, the French, and American rebels.  Many recognize his Scottish roots and the culture of Caithness where he was born that helped make him so successful in his military career.  “In the extreme Northeast of Scotland lies the Shire or County of Caithness… From this shire, forbidding in its natural aspects, but like so many other places in Scotland, furnishing an abundant supply of young, energetic, capable and courageous men, came the subject of this sketch, of interest to this part of Michigan, not alone because of his connection with Mackinac, but because he was the first man to establish a permanent foothold in the way of occupation, erecting buildings and cultivating land along the St. Clair River.”[1]

The Mackinac Straits, as well as most of upper Michigan, are areas that try men’s souls.  They deter the weak, as only the tough relish in such conditions.  Fort Mackinac is symbolic of the men who built it as it still stands today through a rich history and various flags being flown above it.  Patrick Sinclair and the British who built it are remembered, even after is ceased to be under British rule.

Fort Mackinac was officially relinquished to the United States of America in 1796, yet it was still used as a hub for fur trading and as a military stronghold of the waters in the upper Great lakes region.  Fort Mackinac was in such a logistically important location, that when war erupted in June of 1812, the British made it a priority to reestablish control of the area and made the first attack in that region on Fort Mackinac, regaining control of it a month into the war.[4]

The fort exchanged hands several times since it was built, and it has served as a commercial and military outpost regardless of what nation it was controlled by at the time.  Given that it is still standing today, shows the vision that Patrick Sinclair had as to how durable the fort needed to be as it sits high on top of the turtle’s back, looking down on the straights, guarding the waters.[8]  “…Sinclair was free to examine his empire.  The fort was on the mainland on the south side of the strait, and practically in the same condition as it existed in 1763 at the time of its capture by the Indians.  It enclosed about two acres and the ramparts consisted solely of pickets driven into the ground.  It was on the sand and so near the shore that the waves in time of storm dashed over the pickets.  The practiced eye of Capt. Sinclair at once noted its insecure condition, its inability to resist any attack but that of small arms, and that it could not afford protection to vessels.  In a letter to Capt. Brehm, aid to Gov. Halimand, written four days after his arrival he suggested the removal of the fort to the Island of Michilimackinac, and pointed out at some length the many advantages which the island possessed in the way of easy construction of a defensible fort, the protection of vessels, and good building material “but for God’s sake be careful in the choice of an engineer and don’t send up one of your  paper engineers fond of fine regular polygons…  It is the most respectable situation I ever saw, besides convenient for the subsistence of a Garrison, the safety of troops, traders, and commerce.””[1]

Mackinac Island and the fort that has guarded it is still visited today so that people can gain appreciation for its significance.  “By far the most conspicuous object in the Island of Mackinac is the old fort which overhangs so protectingly the village below.  The thick stone and earth walls, the three old block houses, built, according to the cards upon the doors, in 1780, the old buildings within the enclosure, all force the attention of the visitor, resident, or tourist, to the age of the structure, but too few is known even the name, much less anything of the career of its creator.” [6]  It is preserved by the State of Michigan due to the amount of culture of the upper Great lakes region that revolves around the straights.  From tours of the fort to reenactments of famous battles, to the bar on the main strip built in honor of the Scotsman who made the fort possible, visitors are immersed in the history of the island in an experience that will stay with them.  Mackinac Island is preserved and protected now by historical societies the same way it was protected by the fort and the men who built it more than 200 years ago.  It is not to be forgotten the unique leadership that made it all possible.  “Family tradition depicts him as an impulsive warm hearted as well as warm tempered individual, quick to resent and to punish, and equally quick to forgive, kindly and generous to dependents, philanthropic and helpful to the needy and improvident.  He lived to the good old age of 84 and his thoughts must frequently have gone back to this Inland Empire in which nearly a decade of his life was spent, and in which he had wielded a wide influence, and had erected a monument still enduring.  His name which was so closely connected with the early history of Michigan should be perpetuated and both Mackinac and St. Clair County should mark by proper memorials the name of Sinclair as a most important one in their roll of historic characters.”[1]

Modern Day Fort Mackinac (From
Fort Mackinac (From







Primary Sources:

[1] Jenks, William (1914). “PATRICK SINCLAIR,” Michigan Historical Commission.

[2] McCoy, Raymond (1956). “The Massacre of Old Fort Mackinac,” Bay City, MI.

[3] Morison, Daniel (1769-1772). “The Doctor’s Secret Journal,” Edited by George May.

[4] Duggan, Thomas (1795-1801). “Thomas Duggan Journal,”



Secondary Sources:

[5] Andrews, Roger (1938). “Old Fort Mackinac on the hill of history,” Herald-Leader Press.

[6] Dimick, William (1920). “History of Fort Mackinac,” Wisconsin Magazine of History.

[7] Kelton, Dwight (1884). “Annals of Fort Mackinac,” Detroit Free Press.

[8] Grange, Roger (1987). “Excavations at Fort Mackinac, 1980-1982 : the provision storehouse,” Mackinac Island State Park Commission.


For Further Reading:

Roberts, Robert (1988). “Encyclopedia of Historic Forts,” New York Macmillan.