August 12, 2019
Beginning in the late 1600s, the Straits of Mackinac became a strategic crossroads for Great Lakes travelers. Three cultures – English, French, and Native American – converged here, not always peacefully. In the summer, Native Americans came here to fish in lake waters. The French and English vied for control of the lucrative fur trade. To cement their claim to the area, the French established Fort Michilimackinac in 1715. During the Seven Years’ War (1764-1761) (known locally as the French and Indian War), the British took control of the fort. Native Americans captured the fort in 1763 during Pontiac’s Uprising. Their hold was short-lived as the British retook possession the following year. In 1781 the fort was moved to Mackinac Island. What was left was burned. The fort you see today is a detailed reconstruction of what had once been here.
Inside the Fort
The Great Lakes formed a highway for the fur trade. The Straits of Mackinac was one of the major intersections on this highway. Fur trappers to the north, west, and south sold their furs to traders in exchange for the goods they needed to survive the following winter. Traders brought the furs to merchants from the east and exchanged them for goods to be traded inland over the winter for more furs. The cycle would repeat the following year.
More than soldiers lived and worked here. Traders also took up residence, collecting furs in exchange for goods.
While the weather was good, the inhabitants could grow fresh fruits and vegetables, hunt for game, and fish. They could eat well. Some of their harvest could be preserved for the winter.
You might get the sense that life here was idyllic but that would have been far from reality. Winters were long and harsh. Illness was common and medical care often did more harm than good. An enlisted man’s diet would consist of bread, salted pork (often rancid), dried peas, oatmeal, and rice.
Soldiers lived in cramped quarters where illnesses could easily spread. Discipline was harsh and punishments, even for minor infractions, could be severe.
A soldier’s day consisted of drilling, fatigue duty, repairing buildings and equipment, standing guard, making bread, and cooking meals.
Officers and married enlisted men fared somewhat better than the other men. They could rent houses that gave them a little more privacy and a little more space. Enlisted men’s wives could also take jobs, such as doing laundry, to earn some extra money.
As we wandered through the fort’s buildings we passed plenty of exhibits that gave us more in depth peeks at the life, history, and culture of its many inhabitants..
The commanding officer had the largest home in the fort. His house was the entertainment center for the area.
While far from elegant, it was far more spacious and comfortable than any other living quarters.
A Little History
Fort Michilimackinac was at the far end of a very precarious supply line. Everything needed to supply and support the army had to be shipped here during the warmer months when the Great Lakes were ice free. This included food, military hardware, tools, ammunition, gunpowder, uniforms, and gifts for the Native Americans.
Despite its remote location, Fort Michilimackinac became a cultural mixing bowl of sorts. When Great Britain controlled the area, French Canadians and the British lived side by side.
The pall of slavery didn’t escape the fort. Both the French and British purchased Africans to be used as servants or laborers. Native American slaves, called Panis, were captured by other tribes and traded between Native and European merchants. Many Native American slaves knew several languages, making them useful as translators during diplomatic negotiations.
The children of French Canadian men married to Anishnaabek (Ojibwa, Odawa, and Potawatomi) women were called Métis.
Minweweh, an Ojibwa leader, allied with French troops during the French and Indian War. After the war, he maintained an uneasy peace with the British victors.
On June 2, 1763, through a clever ruse, Native Americans attacked and captured the fort. In honor of King George III’s birthday, the Ojibwa played a game of baggatiway (similar to lacrosse) outside the fort’s walls. Even the post commander watched the game. When a prearranged signal was given, one of the players tossed the ball over the wall near the front gate. As the Natives raced toward the ball they grabbed weapons hidden in women spectators’ clothes and went inside, killing any British soldiers they came across. Twenty soldiers were killed. After local Odawa intervened, the commander and other survivors were sent as prisoners to Montreal.
The Seven Years’ War ended with the British victorious over the French.
British troops returned to Fort Michilimackinac in 1764. Realizing they couldn’t control the Native population by force, the British worked to improve their relationships with the Natives. Together they were able to defend the region from American expansion until after the War of 1812.
Three types of canoes were used in the fur trade. Indian canoes carried 500 to 600 pounds of furs and trade goods along interior lakes and rivers. North canoes carried from 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of cargo between Michilimackinac and interior villages and trading posts. Montreal canoes, powered by 10 to 12 men, carried 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of cargo between Montreal and Michilimackinac.
The end of the Seven Year’s War in 1763 left Britain the undisputed ruler of North America east of the Mississippi River. But it also created tension between Great Britain and its American colonists by halting the westward expansion of the colonies past the Allegheny Mountains.
There is a church inside the fort that has copies of the registers from that time that you can flip through. The St. Anne’s de Michilimackinac register records over 300 years of baptisms, marriages, and deaths.