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Fort Drummond Occupation

Fort Drummond Remains (from John Stanton)

Fort Drummond was significant because it was the only known military and civilian site established by British forces on American soil after the War of 1812.  This fort was established with the main purpose of continuing to influence Native American tribes.  To do this, the British gave Native Americans gifts at this fort.  Also, the fort was established to continue fur trades with Native Americans.  Native Americans faced many hardships from the United States after the War of 1812.  Many of them came to places such as Fort Drummond looking for assistance from their once war allies.  Great Britain, however, gave little assistance to their so called “Children” [1].  The British treatment of Native Americans led to the deterring of Native American relationship with Great Britain.  This fort remained occupied by the British until they were forced to leave it in 1828 due to it being decided by an international boundary commission in 1822 that Fort Drummond was on American soil.  Fort Drummond was located at the west side of Drummond island, Michigan and today only stone chimneys are left from this fort.


Fort Drummond was a fort held by British forces after Lt. Col. McDonall, spokesman on behalf of the King with the Native American tribes of the whole northwest, was ordered in 1815 to give up Fort Mackinac following the signing of the Treaty of Ghent (the treaty that ended the War of 1812) in December of 1814 [5].  On the 11th of May in 1815, five months after the Treaty of Ghent was signed, McDonall received a letter informing him of the peace agreement between the British and the Americans.  McDonall, knowing that Native American allies still thought the war was going on, immediately dispatched a soldier to send out word to Native American allies that the war was over [2].  Since McDonall did not receive news of peace until five-months after the signing of the Treat of Ghent, he thought that Great Britain was still at war with America in that five-month gap.  Similar situations happened throughout America with the most notably area that this happened being New Orleans.

According to the Treaty of Ghent, Fort Mackinac was to be given back to America.  Wanting to continue influencing Native American tribes nearby and to continue fur trades with them, the British ordered McDonall to move from Fort Mackinac to Drummond Island.  This site was chosen due to it having an admirable harbor, location close to Native American tribes, and would allow Great Britain to control the passage between the lower great lakes and Lake Superior [8].

After receiving word of peace, the British allied Native Americans were initially upset because that would mean that the British would stop helping them fight the Americans for sovereignty and independence.  Upset, Native Americans accused the British of being inconsistent allies.  McDonall responded by saying that the Treaty of Ghent was merely an armistice in their continuing struggle against America.  Also, McDonall told them to continue to look at Great Britain as their “Great Father” and come to Drummond Island for gifts such as guns and blankets [9].  Peace, however, remained between Great Britain and the United States.  Additionally, Native Americans were upset with the gifts they received at places such as Fort Drummond.  The end of the War of 1812 marked the beginning of the end of the good relationship between the British and Native Americans.

Native Americans’ Frustrations with the British

With American expansion threatening their homes, Native Americans asked Great Britain at places such as Drummond Island for supplies and assistance.  Americans began disobeying early treaties terms and expanding onto Native American territory shortly after the War of 1812.  The Native Americans asked the British for help against this threat to their home, but the British had neither the ability or the incentive to offer Native Americans what it wanted.  Instead, the British told Native Americans to not be ungrateful and gave them gifts they did not asked for.  Feeling abandoned by the British, Native Americans began to think negatively of their once allies [6].

Great Britain knew that Native Americans were unjustly being driven from their homes and, yet, still did not help them [4].  McDonall expressed his worries of the growing tension between Native Americans and the United States to Secretary Foster in an 1815 letter.  He had Capt. Anderson investigate the relationship between Native Americans and the United States.  Anderson concluded that Native Americans had not attacked the United States since hearing about the peace agreement between Great Britain and America and American expansion was threatening Native American homes [4].  Since the British concluded that Native Americans had so far not attacked the United States and that Americans were expanding onto Native American territory, the British knew the Native Americans plea for help was justified.  Yet, the British did not dedicate a lot of resources to help them.  So, it can be concluded that the British did not see helping Native Americans as a top priority. This led to Native Americans feeling abandoned and Native American and Great Britain relationship deteriorating because of Great Britain’s lack of assistance [4].

Furthermore, the British knew Native Americans were experiencing economic hardships and that Native Americans that expressed strong pride in the British Government were being verbally abuse by the Americans.  McDonall heard that Native Americans who strongly supported Great Britain were being verbally abused at Fort Mackinac and Native Americans were being cheated by American traders in 1815 [3].  This further showed that the British had a full idea of why Native Americans needed their help and yet, they still did nothing.  So, with the British time and time again not helping them with their economic problems and not helping those Native Americans who hold Great Britain with high regard, the relationship between Native Americans and Great Britain further became strained.

Additionally, Americans were trying to disconnect Native Americans from the British and other Native American tribes.  For example, McDonall heard that the Americans at Fort Mackinac were trying to cut off communication between Native Americans at the fort and both the British and other Native American tribes in 1815 [3].  With the United States trying to cut off communication with Great Britain, Native Americans felt even more disconnected from Great Britain and a wedge was further driven between Great Britain and Native Americans.

Native Americans came to forts, such as Fort Drummond, in high numbers.  In 1819, Major James Winniett at Fort Drummond stated in a letter to Col. Bowles that over 3,000 Native Americans were clothed there and that there was no reason to expect that less will come in the year of 1820 [5].  Also, it was estimated that the average number of Native Americans who would visit Fort Drummond annually in the years that followed before its evacuation was 4,500 with the most notable person coming being Black Hawk (the Sauk’s war chief) [6].  So, with a high number of Native Americans coming to these forts looking for supplies, being dismissed by the British really hurt Native Americans.

Instead of supplies that Native Americans wanted, Fort Drummond (as well as forts nearby) was supplied with so called “Indian goods” [8].  At this fort, the British would offer these gifts to Native Americans, but Native Americans did not want the gifts they offered and felt betrayed by the Redcoats.  Native Americans came to these forts with the expectation of receiving guns and blankets, but instead left with few of these supplies [6].

Many Native Americans came to these forts begging for supplies and assistance, but the British did not help them and instead treated Native Americans as ungrateful children.  On July 12, 1821, a Black Hawk speaker came to Drummond island and begged for blankets.  “Now I speak to you, my father, in hopes you will be charitable to us, and give us something to take to our wives and children.  They are expecting to be warmed by the clothing of their Great Father.”  The British Superintendent their told the Black Hawk speaker that he was being ungrateful and was acting like a displeased child. “I have done everything in my power to please you and render you happy; but my efforts appear to have been thrown away upon you.  Go home, and I do not wish to see dissatisfied children about me again” [1].  Native Americans came asking for supplies, but received none from their “Great Father.”

Some officers, most notably McDonall, in charge at the fort wanted to give Native Americans the supplies they wanted, but the British never supplied them with enough supplies. Winniett told Bowles that the approved estimates of blankets for 1820 were inadequate to supply.  He argued that the blanket was the second most important part of Native American presents and in the past, Native Americans would receive one for everyone [5].  So, those wanting to help Native Americans, could not help them because Great Britain did not send enough supplies to help.

Many Native Americans, threaten with American expansion and economic hardship caused by Americans, asked their war allies for help.  Great Britain, having full knowledge of Native American struggles, gave Native Americans so called “Indian gifts” instead of supplies they desperately needed.  When Native Americans kept on insisting for help, the British dismissed them as ungrateful children.  British behavior towards their once allies, caused Native Americans to dislike their “Great Father” and the relationship between Native Americans and the British to dissipate.  Also, American’s influenced Native Americans that Great Britain will not help them and cut off communication with them.  This further drove a wedge between Native Americans and Great Britain.

Abandonment of the Fort

It was unclear for years after the War of 1812 if Drummond Island was on American soil or British soil.  This issue was cleared in 1822 by an international boundary commission.  Sailing up the center of Lake Huron, it was determined by this commission that everything right was to go to Great Britain, while everything left was to go to America.  On the boat, was the British representative Thomas Barclay and the American representative Porter.  Barclay favored his liquor and Porter used Barclay’s state of intoxication to his advantage by having the boat go east of Drummond Island instead of the original “Detour” (west of Drummond Island) [10] [11].  So, since the boat went east of Drummond Island, it was determined that Drummond Island was on American soil.  If Barclay had not been intoxicated and ordered the boat to go west of Drummond Island (like he was supposed to do), Drummond Island would have been given to the British instead of to the Americans.

British forces, however, remained on Drummond Island until 1828 where, finally, the United States government ordered the British to abandoned it.  Lt. Carson, British Lt. who oversaw Fort Drummond at the time, quickly responded and withdrew his forces to the naval station at Penetanguishene, Ontario, in November of 1828 [7].  Since the British left quickly, they left behind many of their possessions that they could not carry, such as potatoes for the upcoming winter season.  Shortly after the British withdrawal, American forces led by Lieutenant T. Pierce Simonton took possession of the fort [8].

Map of Fort Drummond Location (from Samuel Fletcher Cook)

Primary Sources:

  1.  Draper, Lyman C., and Reuben G. Thwaites, editors (1909). “Speeches of Black Hawk and Naioguiman, at Drummond Island, July 12 1821,” Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Madison. Vol. 10, pp. 145-149.
  2. McDonall, Robert (23 Sept. 1815). “Lieut. Col. McDonall To Maj. Gen. Robinson,” letter, Clarke Historical Library. pp. 287-288.
  3. McDonall, Robert (24 Sept. 1815). “Lieut. Col. McDonall To Maj. Gen. Robinson,” letter, Clarke Historical Library. p. 289.
  4. McDonall, Robert (10 Oct. 1815). “Lieut. Col. McDonall To Secretary Foster,” letter, Clarke Historical Library.
  5. Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society (1895). “Major James Winniett to Lieut. Col. George Bowles, Drummond Island, 1st June 1820,” letter, Historical Collections. Lansing. Vol. 23, pp. 99-100.

Secondary Sources:

  1. Calloway, Colin G. (1986) “The End of an Era: British-Indian Relations in the Great Lakes Region after the War of 1812,” Michigan Historical Review, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 1–20.
  2. Carstens, Patrick R., and Thomas L. Sanford (2012). Searching For the Forgotten War-1812: United States of America. Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris Corporation. Vol. 2.
  3. Cook, Samuel F. (1981). Drummond Island: The Story of the British Occupation, 1815-1828. Lansing, Michigan: Robert Smith Printing Corporation.
  4. Karamanski, Theodore J. (2012). Blackbird’s Song: Andrew J. Blackbird and the Odawa People. Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press.
  5. Kingsford, William (1897). The History of Canada. Toronto: Rowsell & Hutchison.
  6.  (17 May 1959). “The Tribune Travelers’ Guide: Fort Colyer, Britain’s Last U.S. Post, Is Link with Past Site Is Reached by Ferry,” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), p. K17.

Further Readings: