August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
For more than two centuries, this tiny island fortress was both “the key and the door” to empire
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After a survey of the national park, certain lands went on sale for summer residents. The first summer houses were built in the 1880’s. With six, eight, or ten bedrooms, broad verandas, and airy balconies, these “cottages” offered escape from the summer heat of Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. Descendants of Mackinac fur traders became maids, gardeners, and hostlers for the Midwestern gentry.
In 1885 workmen began felling timber from the slope beyond the government pasture which lay west of the village and above it. For two years the woods were noisy with the cries of teamsters, the thud and clang of ax and saw, the clatter of mallet and hammer. On the hillside rose a huge hotel, with a front porch like an avenue and hundreds of windows facing woods and water. On July 10,1887, the Grand Hotel opened its doors to the public. Built by a combination of the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, the Michigan Central Railroad, and the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company, this hostelry attracted guests from near and far.
The Grand Hotel was a Great Lakes wonder and, in the phrase of one of its owners, an economic monstrosity. Season after season it sank deeper into debt, but it created business for the transportation companies. Now Mackinac Island had a lively traffic. To its busy wharves came daily steamers from Traverse City and Petoskey, and liners on schedule from Chicago and Detroit.
In 1895 the island was transferred to the state of Michigan, to be preserved as a state park, and in that year a remnant of federal troops held their last muster on the Fort Mackinac parade ground. From his quarters a civilian caretaker watched them march down the hill in the autumn sunlight. With a final drumbeat they boarded a steamer for Sault Ste. Marie.
The twentieth century brought hard times to the Grand Hotel. Twice, the discouraged owners planned to raze it, but at the last moment new investors intervened. The hotel had an irresistible charm, and despite financial losses it had a charmed life. Indeed, in the prosperous 1920’s the building was even enlarged, and a spacious swimming pool was set in its terraced gardens.
But then the Depression came. A new owner bought the establishment in March, 1933, when every bank in the nation was closed. On a July day, at the peak of the summer season, he counted eleven paying guests in a hotel with four hundred employees. But he hung on, through Depression and war, and in time he saw convention crowds filling the great halls, dining in the magnificent “Salle àManger” and rocking on the longest porch in the world. Today the Grand Hotel is more handsome, festive, and flourishing than ever. It is the largest summer hotel on earth, and its plumed horses and red-coated coachmen still meet incoming ferryboats.
On November 1, 1957, the first wheeled traffic crossed the Straits of Mackinac under its own power. The great bridge hanging from its twin steel towers is a product of twentieth-century engineering and technology, but its approaches, from Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, are rich in history. A dramatic past is one of the magnets of the north country. In 1958, when the Mackinac Straits Bridge was formally dedicated, the state of Michigan began a program of historical restoration.
Work began on the site of the vanished fort—built in the early eighteenth century by the French and abandoned seventy years later by the British—at Old Mackinaw Point on the southern mainland. Now, after a remarkable collaboration of archaeological and historical research and restoration, Fort Michilimackinac stands, with walls, blockhouses, and a score of buildings, as it did when the Indians massacred the British garrison. After reconstruction the fort buildings were furnished so as to portray their eighteenth-century life. Into the King’s Storehouse went blankets, guns, tobacco, bar lead, bagged and baled goods, jugs of wine and barrels of rum— with life-size figures taking inventory.
At Fort Mackinac on the island the military buildings have been made into a historical museum portraying the post in its active years. Up the long ramp from Marquette Park visitors enter through the South Sally Port. Inside the walls they find themselves in another century.
On an island where every road returns one to the same place, the past accumulates. It cannot get out and away. Island people have memories that began, like an inheritance, before they were born, especially the people on this island, where Michigan law has prohibited the use of motor vehicles. The sounds they hear are the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, the cries of gulls, the whistle of steamers, and the echo of times past.
At Point Aux Pins on the lonely north end of Mackinac Island, the evening wind sighs in the pine woods and water laves the reef. Across the amber strait the bridge lights make a colored arc against the fading sky. “Things stay, we go,” reflected Schoolcraft before there was a roadway in that wilderness. With darkness the wind freshens and the lake grows louder on the shore.