- 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
For three years the Union Jack flew over Mackinac Island—while Potawatomi warriors slaughtered the American garrison at Fort Dearborn, General Hull surrendered at Detroit, and the British took control of the lakes. In August of 1814 an American expedition under twenty-two-year-old Colonel George Croghan landed on Mackinac Island, approaching Fort Mackinac from the rear as the British had done two years earlier. They advanced slowly over a wooded slope to a plain of level farm land—and found the British waiting for them. After a sharp fight, Croghan pulled back his men to the landing beach. While bullets pocked the water, the Americans climbed aboard their ships. Britain still held the northern straits when the Treaty of Ghent ended the war on the day before Christmas, 1814.
The treaty, thanks to the skill of the American negotiators, restored the original international boundaries. Mackinac Island would become American, as it had been in 1812. That word did not reach the straits until the ice went out. On May 15, 1815, dispatches were delivered to Fort Mackinac, where the commanding colonel read them with disbelief. After the British had held it throughout the war, he was ordered to evacuate what he described as “this fine island—a Fortress built by nature for herself.”
On the eighteenth of July American troops arrived and the British withdrew to Drummond Island, just across Detour Passage, where they hoped to retain control of some of the Indians and the fur trade. But in the boundary survey of 1822, that proved to be American territory, too, and Fort Drummond, in its turn, was evacuated. Meanwhile, Mackinac Island had become headquarters for a famous American.
In 1809 John Jacob Astor had organized the American Fur Company to compete with the British merchants, but the War of 1812 halted the trade. When peace returned, he was ready to wrest the Great Lakes fur commerce from the British companies. The U.S. Congress cooperated in 1816, making it a law that “licenses to trade with the Indians . .. shall not be granted to any but citizens of the United States.” On this American monopoly Astor launched his Great Lakes enterprise. To his warehouse under the guns of Fort Mackinac came hundreds of clerks and voyageurs from Montreal, Albany, and Niagara. Bateaux loaded with trade goods came, by way of the Niagara portage, up Lake Erie and Lake Huron to the island headquarters. From there Astor’s agents sent fur brigades into the hinterland. By 1820 seven eighths of the traders from the Ohio River to the Canadian border had been gathered into Astor’s organization.
On Market Street in the Mackinac Island village stood the fur warehouse, the spacious Agency House, home of resident managers, and a third building housing scores of clerks who cleaned, sorted, and counted peltry and checked out cargoes of trade goods. Near the foot of the steep fort road stood the retail store where raw pelts were exchanged for weapons, blankets, clothing, and Indian finery. A block away in the harbor taverns were men who knew every path, stream, and portage between the mouth of the Wabash and the upper Missouri.
The company store was the scene, in 1821, of an odd accident that made medical history. A customer examining a shotgun pulled the trigger, and young Alexis St. Martin fell to the floor with a wound in the stomach. Dr. William Beaumont arrived, applied a dressing, and observed that the man could not live thirty-six hours. Instead, St. Martin lived another fifty-nine years, the first twelve of them under Beaumont’s steady care—and the wound healed in an extraordinary way. A flap of flesh grew over the opening; but by raising the flap the doctor could actually observe the processes of digestion in the stomach. The result was an important medical study, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion , which Beaumont published in 1833.
These were good years at Mackinac. The fur trade made all rich—all except the Indians, who froze and starved as usual in their grim winter camps. To the Protestant mission school opened at Mackinac by the Reverend William M. Ferry in 1823 came nine Indian boys—one was brought by a Chippewa woman weighed down with 130 strings of beads. Within a few years the school enrolled nearly two hundred Indian youths; they were taught carpentry and agriculture against the end of the hunting economy. Already game was depleted and the chiefs were asking for charity.
In 1833 Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Indian agent on the Northwestern frontier, put his family, his Indian servants, his books and papers, and his household goods aboard the schooner Mariner at Sault Ste. Marie for removal to Mackinac Island. That summer he settled in the Agency House in the east garden of the fort. A rambling house with many gables, it stood amid orchard trees and arbor vines under the steep, green hillside. The front door held a brass knocker and a metal plate inscribed “United States Agency.” For eight years this was Schoolcraft’s home and office.
In the long Northern winter he studied Indian languages and legends. With the help of his wife—the daughter of the Irish trader John Johnston and the granddaughter of a Chippewa chief—he compiled the native mythology which other writers would use in romantic portrayals of the noble red man. Schoolcraft knew both the poetry and squalor of savage life.