- 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
The French garrison at St. Ignace was supposed to protect the Jesuits and the fur trade. But the priests did not need protection and the trade was in no danger. Although the troops were there to impress the Indians with the power of France and to check unlicensed trading, they took to trading on their own, exchanging garrison stores for Indian peltry, and army deserters became vagabond coureurs de bois . Somehow all the king’s regulations got lost in the wilderness.
In 1701 Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the French military commander in North America, removed the garrison to Detroit, with traders and Indians following him. At the straits a remnant of Indians remained with the mission priests and a few coureurs de bois , but St. Ignace was a dwindling post. Five years later the Jesuits packed their altarpieces, loaded their canoes, and set fire to the abandoned chapel. In a few seasons brush would thicken and the forest would close over the first French Michilimackinac.
But the strategic straits could not be abandoned. Inevitably, without authority or system, a new settlement began—unlicensed canoes bringing illegal trade goods, bands of Indians gathering on the shore. This time the location was the south point of the narrows, across from ruined St. Ignace, a mile west of present-day Mackinaw City. The shelving shore was open to all the winds that blew.
Here rose the second Fort Michilimackinac, a log palisade manned by a commandant and a small company of troops, with a huddle of traders’ huts outside the gate. By 1741 it had a church, a blacksmith shop, and some houses among the soldiers’ barracks. Trade ebbed and flowed while tribal wars flared and England and Prance, two Old World enemies, contested for the New World wilderness. Soon began the French and Indian War. When Quebec and Montreal fell in 1759-60, all of New France passed into the hands of the British King.
The first Englishman to arrive at the Straits was not a soldier but a trader; commerce preceded government. In 1761 Alexander Henry, a lanky young man from New Jersey, went west from the St. Lawrence with a trading outfit. Told that an Englishman was sure to be killed by the Indians at Michilimackinac, he garbed himself in blanket coat and tasseled red cap. Among the Chippewas on Mackinac Island he let his men do the talking. Then he took his outfit across to Fort Michilimackinac; he was there when the 60th British Regiment arrived and raised their flag over the old French stronghold.
As though they could read the future, the Indians hated and feared the English. The French empire had left the tribes in possession, but British occupation meant the spread of settlement. Instead of wooing their allegiance, the English officers treated the Indians with contempt while British traders swindled them. By compliance linked with dignity, the French could maintain themselves in an exposed place where an English garrison would be cut off in a twelvemonth. The English had longer than a year at Old Mackinaw, but not much longer.
On a June day in 1763 the garrison was massacred by Indians who disguised their intentions in a huge lacrosse match that brought hundreds of them to the very gates of the fort (see box on page 55). Befriended by the Chippewa Wawatam, Alexander Henry found refuge on Mackinac Island and escaped destruction. He lived Indianstyle with Wawatam and his family for over a year, and then they parted, never to meet again. But their friendship has been remembered—a Damon and Pythias story of the wilderness. Henry David Thoreau recalled it in his essay on friendship, and for many years of the twentieth century the big steam railroad ferry Chief Wawatam has shuttled across the strait, while each spring the icebreaker Alexander Henry clears the frozen channel above the Soo Canal.
After a year of desolation two companies of troops arrived at Fort Michilimackinac, and English rule returned to the scene of massacre. To this place in 1766 Major Robert Rogers, Governor Commandant of Michilimackanac, brought his hearty appetites, headstrong rule, and bold ambitions. He would not last long—none of the English captains did—but he would be remembered.
Rogers had orders to confine trade to the fort itself so that the Indians would not be cheated and debauched with rum. But the officials were far away from the realities of the upper country. Rogers had big ideas, bold expectations, and no scruples. He was soon in action.
Unlike his predecessors, Rogers won the friendship of the tribes. The next summer he held a great council, more than a thousand tribesmen pitching their camps in the Mackinaw woods and along the curving shore. In his lordly way Rogers outlined a trade that would carry British influence to distant places, to the benefit of the Indians and the gain of the proprietors. But the officials in Montreal had heard of extravagance, personal ambition, and disregard of orders at Michilimackinac. In 1768 Rogers was arrested and sent back to Montreal.
The American Revolution focused Britain’s attention on the Eastern colonies. Michilimackinac, at the end of a long and uncertain line of communication, received scant supplies and few dispatches. Ever since Rogers’ inglorious departure the fort had been decaying. West winds dashed lake water against a gaping palisade. Sand hills piled up behind the fort. Shovel soldiers—twelve at a time, as there were just twelve shovels in the storeroom—waged a futile contest with the dunes. Sand bars blocked the bay, and ice mangled the boat landing. To this rickety post came Captain Patrick Sinclair in the uneasy fall of 1779.