- Historic Sites
Three Flags At Mackinac
For more than two centuries, this tiny island fortress was both “the key and the door” to empire
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
In the second-floor map room of the old French Ministry of the Marine in Paris is the great Carte de l’Amerique Septentrionale , drawn by Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin, map maker for the king in the 1680’s. The ivory parchment, as big as a tablecloth, has red and blue border decorations, a flowered scroll, and a colored vignette of Quebec City as seen from the east. It shows an inviting waterway—a strong green line on this map of many colors-leading west to “Missilimackinac.”
Beneath that broad, bold line lay endless bends and turns, a hundred menacing rapids and thirty-six rugged portages, but for a century it was the French highway to the heart of North America. Over it passed explorers and priests, Indians and traders, French officials and lawless coureurs de bois . Whatever their destination, they all passed through the strait that commanded the commerce of Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior.
“Missilimackinac” Franquelin called the wilderness capital, choosing from a variety of spellings. The French had first heard the singsong name in the talk of Algonquian tribesmen. Saying it was easier than spelling it: a recent historian has gathered sixty-eight versions of the old, dark, savage name. It would be shortened, not by the Indians or the French, but by the English and the Americans. When he raised the British colors over the island strong-hold in 1781, Captain Patrick Sinclair called the place “Mackinac.” The last syllable was illogical, for it was pronounced aw . Present-day spellings are contradictory—Mackinaw City but Mackinac Island; Mackinac County but Mackinaw coat, boat, trout, and blanket. The pronunciation, however, does not vary; it is Mack-in-aw .
Actually there have been three Mackinacs of history: the French built their first Michilimackinac mission (1672–1706) and fort on the northern point of the strait; the second Michilimackinac, built by the French and surrendered to the English, stood from 1712 to 1780 on the southern point; the final Fort Mackinac, built by the British and yielded to the Americans, has dominated the island since 1781.
Probably the first white man to see Mackinac Island was Jean Nicolet, sent by Champlain in 1634 to find a short route to Asia. With seven Huron paddlers in a birch canoe he rounded Point Detour at the head of Lake Huron and steered westward. Two days later he saw a humped island, its limestone cliffs white beneath the dark forest cover. The paddle rhythm ceased. Muttering, the Indians broke off twists of tobacco and dropped them in the water. Praise and appeasement took them past the magic island with its many manitous. Then, with the paddles quickening, the first European entered the Straits of Mackinac.
In mid-seventeenth century the peaceable Hurons were driven from their homes on Georgian Bay by the powerful Iroquois; the fugitives found a bleak refuge in the wilderness below Lake Superior. Jesuits followed them, and to the remote mission on Chequamegon Bay came Father Marquette in 1660. When the Minnesota Sioux drove the exiles east again, Marquette fled with them to a new refuge on Mackinac Island.
When summer came, the Hurons crossed to the north shore of the strait where they built a village and walled it with cedar and poplar poles. Here Marquette raised the mission church which he named for Ignatius Loyola, and some French merchants set up trading houses. French troops arrived and built a rude fort beside the bay. The Indian name for the settlement was Min-is-ing (“Place of the Big Island”) but the mission name of St. Ignace became its lasting designation. For nearly forty years it was the northwestern capital of French trade and evangelism.
To St. Ignace came Louis Jolliet in 1672, with orders for Marquette to join him in a search for the upper reaches of the Mississippi River; they set out on a radiant May day in 1673. Four years later a canoe caravan of Indians brought to St. Ignace the remains of Father Marquette, who had died on the Lake Michigan shore. According to a persistent tradition, his bones were buried in a little vault under the floor of the chapel.
By 1690 St. Ignace had grown to a restless outpost. Over the settlement hung the aroma of drying, smoking, roasting fish. There were a dozen shops and trading houses with dry goods on the shelves and brandy under the counter. Every spring and fall the beach was black with canoes, and the town swarmed with traders, woods rangers, and Indians from outlying places.
Already the Indians had turned from their ancient arts to an abject dependence on the white man’s wares. With the first canoe cargoes of knives, hatchets, shirts, stockings, bells, and mirrors, the savage self-sufficiency gave way. Clothing, weapons, implements, even the Indians’ finery came in the canoe and were sold in the trading house. The warriors dressed in blankets and shirts instead of the skins of animals. In the fields the women worked with iron hoes and sickles. Iron arrowheads made in Montreal soon replaced chipped flints, and as quickly as they could deliver a pack of beaver skins the hunters discarded spears and arrows for French firearms. Wampum was replaced by beads of glass and porcelain. And one taste was enough to start an endless appetite for that intoxicating “milk,” French brandy. Like moths to a fire the Indians came to the trading posts.