- 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
To the island came tribesmen from all directions, asking for alms and presents. After nearly twenty years of the great Astor fur harvest, the tribes were destitute. Game was depleted throughout all of lower Michigan. The Chippewas and Ottawas were in debt to traders, and their only livelihood was the sale of cordwood to the steamboats—some of which, they said, was never paid for. Settlement was encroaching on their lands, for which they had received no compensation. It was time for a treaty council.
In the fall of 1835 Schoolcraft went to Washington to prepare for an intertribal conference. Back to Michigan he sent for chiefs from many districts. In the spring the tribal leaders—some in boiled shirt and stovepipe hat, others in Indian blouse and headdress—were assembled in the old Masonic Hall in Washington. They agreed to cede all the land in the lower peninsula north of Grand River and west of Thunder Bay, and in the upper peninsula from Point Detour through the Straits of St. Mary, west to the Chocolate River and south to Green Bay. For about $2,000,000 in annuities they surrendered claim to 16,000,000 acres. An incidental clause in the treaty called for construction of an Indian dormitory on Mackinac Island, where chiefs could be housed on official visits. When an Indian boardinghouse went up where warriors once danced by firelight, the old wild ways were past.
Late that summer of 1836 four thousand tribesmen came to the island for their first payment. They feasted on rations from the agency, while soldiers patrolled the village streets. “So large an assemblage of red and white men probably never assembled here before,” Schoolcraft noted, “and a greater degree of joy and satisfaction was never evinced by the same number.” The Indians said it more simply—this was a time of fine weather and plenty to eat. At the end of September, while the hills were turning gold and scarlet, wagonloads of flour, rice, corn, pork, and tobacco were piled on the trampled beach and officials distributed $150,000 worth of implements and clothing. In Indian-summer weather the canoes pushed off, laden with this bounty.
A year later the chiefs asked for part of their payment in cash. Government paymasters counted out forty-two thousand half-dollars, throwing the coins into the Indians’ blankets. The braves whooped off with their jingling burdens. Island merchants would lighten those loads, and other traders would be waiting with whisky and trinkets when the tribes came home.
In 1841 Schoolcraft ended his stay on Mackinac Island. In the interest of his literary pursuits, his wife’s health, and his children’s education, he moved to New York. He had outlived the frontier in the upper country, and the once magic island was becoming real estate. “An opinion arose,” wrote Schoolcraft in his journal, “that Michilimackinac must become a favorite watering place, or refuge for the opulent and invalids during the summer; and lots were eagerly bought up from Detroit and Chicago.”
Schoolcraft’s prediction soon came true. By 1850 Fort Mackinac was a tourist attraction. Summer visitors admired the morning dress parade, and dignitaries were entertained in the officers’ mess. The gun platform became a tourist lookout. Carriage roads took pleasure seekers past island landmarks that had once been feared and hallowed by the Indians.
The fort that had overseen the traffic of Indians, voyageurs , and traders now watched the arrival of excursion boats, and the village overflowed with vacationists and health seekers. The old buildings of the fur company were converted into the John Jacob Astor House, with rocking chairs on the veranda and a billiard table in the public rooms. The St. Cloud Hotel, just east of the fort gardens, “furnished in Queen Anne style,” advertised a corps of “colored” servants, operatic singers, and the Famous String Band. The Mission House, once filled with Indian and half-breed children, offered “good accommodations for 200 guests.” Other choices were offered by the Northerner Hotel, the Island House, and the Commercial House. The Miners’ Arms Hotel was patronized by copper and iron men who waited at Mackinac for boats to Lake Superior.
One of these early hotels became known to the world when a Boston clergyman wrote a short story for a Boston magazine. On the first page of the Atlantic Monthly for December, 1863, readers encountered a traveler “stranded at the old Mission House in Mackinac, waiting for a Lake Superior steamer which did not choose to come.” In an old newspaper the restive traveler chanced upon the name of Philip Nolan, Lieutenant in the U.S. Army—and so began the tale of “The Man Without a Country.” Island readers, and others, took the preamble literally, and even today a visitor may be shown room 116 overlooking Mission Point “where Edward Everett Hale wrote his immortal story.” Though the Mission House had some famous guests, Edward Everett Hale never saw the hotel or the island.
On the morning of March 11,1873, the Honorable Thomas W. Perry took the floor of the U.S. Senate to propose that Mackinac Island be made “a national park .. . for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” That year Senator Ferry’s resolution got lost in the press of other business. Two years later it was presented again, and adopted; on March 3, 1875, Mackinac Island became a national park. When regular steam ferry service began, the island had a new link with the world.