A Day at Fort Mackinac

Another of my slightly off topic posts. But as I’ve said since way back, I love military history in general, so this seem’s good to me!

These days Mackinac Island is best known as tourist destination.  Grand Hotel, fudge and state highways with no motor vehicles allowed are what mostly come to mind.

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A view of Fort Mackinac from Marquette Park. Commonly thought of as the front side.

The Mackinac Straits area of Michigan actually traces a colonial history back to the very beginning of that era.  French fur traders and trappers frequented the area which led to an outpost, a Jesuit Mission and a French fort at modern day Mackinaw City known as Fort  Michilimackinac. After the French and Indian War (AKA the Seven Years War) ended in 1763 all French territorial claims in the north (modern day Canada and northern US) were ceded to Great Britain, so Fort Michilimackinac became a British possession.

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Reenactors demonstrate breech loading 1878 Springfield Rifles in Fort Mackinac’s parade ground.

Until the American Revolution.  During that war, the British decided the location was too vulnerable and moved the fort out to nearby Mackinac Island. Known as Fort Mackinac since, it is one of the first visible landmarks when approaching the island. The transfer was completed in 1781, just in time for it to be given over to the new United States after the war in 1783.

The only real combat related to the fort came during the War of 1812, and serves mainly to highlight British professionalism and American, well, not professionalism…

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A view from the fort wall overlooking Mackinac Island village.

The British landed well behind the fort and seized high ground that overlooked both the fort and village below it.  They threatened to shell the village, and the Americans promptly surrendered. In 1814 an American expedition landed on the island and attempted to replicate the British feat; but the British knew that trick and routed the force before it posed any threat. Two ships were left to besiege the island, but when British forces got low on supplies they captured the American ships to break the siege. With the end of the war in 1815, the British again turned the fort over to American forces.

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A view from the Fort’s west wall. The Grand Hotel is visible with the green roof to the right. Mackinac Bridge can be see in the center distance. This connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. At the left most edge of the bridge, that is the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, is the reconstruction on its original site of Fort Michilimackinac.

In the years that followed, the military threat to the area rapidly diminished and business transitioned from fur trade to tourism.  During the American Civil War the fort was used as a VIP prison, for three people.  Which sort of puts an exclamation point on how the post had become a resort. In 1875 Mackinac Island became the second US National Park. Which meant the soldiers at the fort were pretty much Park Rangers before that particular service had even been established.  In 1895 the fort was finally decommissioned and the entire island was turned over to the state of Michigan as a State Park.  In the 1950s the State of Michigan got serious about restoring its landmarks and both Fort Mackinac and Fort Michilimackinac came into being in their current form.  That is, fully restored living history exhibits.

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Looking across a corner of the Fort to the Straits of Mackinac.

A trip to Mackinac is not only beautiful and fun, but it is rich in colonial and early American history.  The fort is, to me, the crown jewel of that experience.  But there is so much to see and learn in this area. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

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About atcDave

I'm 53 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 30 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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14 Responses to A Day at Fort Mackinac

  1. jfwknifton says:

    That looks a wonderful place to visit and I still can’t believe that that is not an ocean but a huge lake. I wonder if the first explorers had to taste the water to prove to themselves that they hadn’t discovered a new sea.

    • atcDave says:

      You’re probably exactly right.
      They contain 1/5 of all the fresh water in the world. The shipping is huge too. Some of the ore carriers that go from the iron and copper mines around Lake Superior for transport to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, etc carry 30K tons of cargo! But of course, they’re still “boats” because they work on the lakes…

    • Ernie Davis says:

      The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is about one of those ore “boats” going down in an early winter storm. I’ve seen the ocean, and granted we aren’t talking the same scale. but the great lakes aren’t foolin around either.

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Louis Dufaut and his Ojibwe wife Kinogenini (daughter of “Mentosaky” and “Pemynany” of Lac du Flambeau) were first married by a declaration before witnesses (probably at Mackinac or Sault Ste Marie) while he was working in the fur trade. In the fall of 1777 Louis took his little family back to the Longueuil area. Louis-Noël was born about December 1777 and baptized on 2 February 1778 “age 15 months” at St-Mathias as “parents inconnu” because the parents were not married. (The marriage record for the parents specifically legitimizes the three children.

  3. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Great post and great pictures!

  4. What a beautiful looking day Dave and what a terrific looking place! I would love to see it! Thanks for a great post.

  5. Ernie Davis says:

    Sometimes it’s hard to remember, after a century or two, that the Canadian border was once a hostile one, with gunboats fighting on the great lakes and threats of invasion from both sides at various times.

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