- 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
From flimsy Fort Michilimackinac, Sinclair pointed his telescope at the white-walled island in its wide moat of water. Four days after his arrival he sent a message to Quebec, proposing to move the fort to Mackinac Island. Months would pass before he could have a reply, but Sinclair went immediately to the island to map the terrain. Before he had official approval Sinclair began construction on the hill overlooking the island harbor. Calling some Chippewa chiefs together, he purchased the island for five thousand pounds sterling. Meanwhile, there rose a handsome cedar stockade with stone blockhouses jutting from the corners. In midsummer of 1781 the British colors came down from the mainland, and the last troops crossed the strait. Up the slanting fort road they marched, a line of scarlet across the white face of the cliff. Above the new parade ground the British ensign rose to the summer sky.
Fort Mackinac seemed to grow out of the earth, following the contours of the island upthrust. Its stone and timber were cemented with mortar burned from the local limestone. No other fort in America was as native and natural as the whitewalled post above the crescent harbor.
This stronghold was ceded officially to the United States at the end of the Revolution. But the fur trade was profitable, and Mackinac was far away; it was to be thirteen years before the Americans occupied the island fort. At last, in 1796, Jay’s Treaty ended British occupation of the Western posts. In October the English flag came down and the American banner fluttered above Fort Mackinac. A few seasons later a visiting inspector reported to the Secretary of War: “Our fort at Michilimackinac from every consideration is one of the most important posts we hold in our western frontier.… This post is strong both by nature and art, and the possession of it has great influence with the Indians in favor of the United States.”
Despite this influence with the Indians, their fur trade would not become American until after the War of 1812. After the French flag had gone from the straits, the French traders had remained, doing business with the British merchants in Montreal. Now the British flag was gone, but still the French were there, cheerfully accepting a new government while they carried on the old wilderness traffic. The American fort overlooked a village as foreign as Normandy. French greetings passed in the street, a French song came from a voyageur ’s campfire on the shore, French fiddles screeched in the taverns.
The British withdrew from Mackinac Island, but not far. They moved their troops to the nearest English shore—St. Joseph Island, forty miles eastward. Here, on the canoe route between Georgian Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, the North West Company had built a fur depot in 1792; now it became an army post inside a rude stockade. A few tribesmen who were loyal to the British and some others who worked both sides of the strait brought furs to St. Joseph and were there for annual handouts. From this dreary place the English launched their 1812 attack on Mackinac Island.
At Fort Mackinac in the summer of 1812 a young American lieutenant, Porter Hanks, had a garrison of sixty-one men. They drilled on the parade ground, cultivated the fort gardens under the hill, and gossiped with the townspeople—all unaware that on June 19 President Madison had proclaimed a state of war with Great Britain. Early on the morning of July 17 a British expedition sailed around to a little cove on the northwest side of the island.
From the open lake Fort Mackinac was a Gibraltar; but it was mortally vulnerable from the rear. Behind the ramparts rose a wooded height that commanded the fort as the fort commanded the island harbor. To occupy this central height was the British objective.
It was three hours after midnight when the invaders hit the beach at a point still called British Landing; two hours remained till sunrise. Through steep black woods moved grunting, muttering, cursing men. The creak of ropes, the clank of iron, the thud of axes chopping out a path for wheeled artillery—it could not have been a stealthy progress. But the sleepy sentry at Fort Mackinac was well out of hearing, and the fort guns were pointed at the harbor. When the sky began to pale, the British held the heights.
At sunrise, through his telescope an astonished Lieutenant Hanks looked into the mouth of a six-pounder planted on the island’s highest point. Out of the woods came a flag of truce, and at the north gate of the fort an American officer met the British emissary.
With four men in the sick bay, Hanks had fifty-seven effective troops and officers. Against him were ten times that many soldiers and Indians with cannon trained on the walls of Fort Mackinac. The stunned commander had no choice. He mustered his men, lowered the flag, and marched out his garrison. To a beat of drums the British regulars marched in. Then came the boom of artillery as British gunners emptied the American fieldpieces- cannon that had been captured from the British at Yorktown in the final battle of the Revolution.