Fort Michillimackinac and Fort Holmes

Fort Michillimackinac and Staten Park, Mackinac Island, Michigan
Fort Michillimackinac and Staten Park, Mackinac Island, Michigan

It was a conjunction of the Church and the State which began the career of Fort Michillimackinac, more than three centuries ago, at Saint Ignace, a point on the Canadian side of the Straits of Mackinac; the Church in the person of the restless Father Marquette and the State in the form of its indefatigable military servant, the Sieur de la Salle. In 1673 Father Marquette established the mission of Saint Ignace in a thriving village of the Ottawas, who were, Francis Parkman tells us, among the most civilized tribes of the American natives. Two years later La Salle visited the place in the Griffon, the first vessel to sail the Great Lakes. This barque the indefatigable Frenchmen had just constructed on Cayuga Creek just above Niagara Falls.

The beginnings of a fort were already made when La Salle came to St. Ignace, that is, a palisade had been erected. Its defenders were Indians. La Salle sent the Griffon back to civilization for supplies and rigging for a second sailing vessel. Fortunately for history, which would have lost one of its most picturesque figures, he decided to remain, himself, at Saint Ignace and not to accompany his beloved Griffon on its round trip.

That bewildered little ship was overcome by the fury of one of the lakes. At least it never returned, or was heard of, and reasonable surmise is that it found its haven beneath the waters. La Salle filled in his spare hours at Saint Ignace in the casual practice of his profession, by completing and strengthening the puny defenses, which Father Marquette had caused to be erected. Thus came into existence the first Fort Michillimackinac.

Indian tradition concerning the name Michillimackinac is curious. It relates that Michapous, chief of spirits, sojourned long in the vicinity of the Straits of Huron, on a mountain on the border of the lake. Here he first instructed man to fabricate nets and to take fish therein. On the island of Michillimackinac he left spirits named Imakinakos and from these legendary possessors came the name Michillimackinac which means Great Turtle. The tradition is not altogether clear. Suffice it to be assured that the word is of Indian origin, and doubtless its patient originators were thoroughly well pleased with it.

The next distinguished visitor to Saint Ignace was La Motte Cadillac, whose name is spread so generously around all of this lakeside region of Michigan and whose errand was to strengthen the fort which La Salle had erected on Father Marquette’s foundation. Useless labor this proved to be, for the growing importance of Detroit and the determination of the French to build up this point at the expense of the more northern and less accessible trading post caused Saint Ignace to wane in importance and its stockades to be unoccupied.

In 1712 the little settlement was moved bodily to the southern side of the straits at the point where Mackinaw City now stands and the second Fort Michillimackinac was erected, destined to a far more eventful history than the first. Time ran on. The French lost their grip of the New World and surrendered Michillimackinac with other places to the English. Let us see how the little place looked in English possession. Parkman has well described it:

Doubling a point he sees before him the red flag of England swelling lazily in the wind and the palisades and wooden bastions of Fort Michillimackinac standing close upon the margin of the lake. On the beach canoes are drawn up and Canadians and Indians are lazily lounging A little beyond the fort is a cluster of the white Canadian houses roofed with bark and protected by fences of strong round pickets The trader enters at the gate, and sees before him an extensive square area surrounded by high palisades. Numerous houses, barracks, and other buildings form a smaller square within, and in the vacant space which they enclose appear the red uniforms of British soldiers, the gray coats of Canadians, and the gaudy Indian blankets mingled in picturesque confusion; while a multitude of squaws with children of every hue stroll restlessly about the place. Such was Fort Michillimackinac in 1763.

A peaceful spot this was for the scene of bloody savagery, which was shortly to be enacted in its precincts. The Indians who were neighbors of Michillimackinac had never become reconciled to the Englishman’s presence in their wilderness. Many of these savages had fought with the French against the English and had lost relatives or friends in battle, thus laying the foundations for blood feuds which in the Indian custom could only be wiped out with blood. In addition to that, their leaders were conspirators with the great Pontiac in his aim to push the English back beyond the mountains whence they had come and to restore the forests to the savages. When news came in the spring of 1763 of Pontiac’s activities around Detroit, the Ojibwas and Ottawas near Michillimackinac determined that they, too, must taste of blood. The massacre of the garrison of this post was planned. The Indians’ plans were laid well but they should not have had the uncontested success that they did have. All accounts point to a great measure of carelessness and lack of sufficient estimation of his neighbors on the part of the unhappy commander of the garrison. This officer was Captain Etherington and with him were about thirty-five men and the full complement of under officers. Several times Etherington was warned that the redskins were plotting mischief, and his own observation might have acquainted him with this fact as well. Yet with true British phlegm he waved aside all suggestions that were made to him and even went so far as to threaten to punish any one who disturbed his garrison with stories of impending disaster. It is not remarkable that the Indians found him unprepared.

On the morning of the fourth of June the weather was warm and sultry. It was his majesty King George’s birthday and for this reason there were festal arrangements at the fort. The soldiers were allowed liberty to wander where they would, in or out of the stockades, and the Indians had permission to play a game of ball in honor of the day. As time went on the fort became filled with Indians, chiefs and humble followers of the ranks, old hags, young women and children.

The hour for the ball game approached. This game of ball, or baggataway as the red men called it, was a favorite with the Indians. It was very much like the lacrosse of the present day, in fact was the original of that game. There were two goals and the players attempted to toss a ball through one of these two goals with sticks. They were not allowed to use their hands to throw the ball, so the game required a degree of skill as well as agility and endurance.

Old Block House and Mission Point, Fort Michillimackinac Reservation, Michigan
Old Block House and Mission Point, Fort Michillimackinac Reservation, Michigan

The Ojibwas and the Sacs, two rivals of long standing, were the contestants and excitement ran high. Captain Etherington, with one of his lieutenants, was lounging at the gate of the fort whooping on the Ojibwas, for he had promised them that he would bet on their side. Suddenly the ball arose in the air in a graceful curve and fell within the walls of the fort. The players, an excited mob, burst after it yelling. Suspecting nothing, Etherington stepped aside with a laugh to let the howling mass sweep in the walls of the citadel.

The Indians’ stratagem had been completely successful. Before he knew what was being done, Etherington, with his lieutenant, was seized and bound, while the Indians, reinforced by their comrades amongst the spectators of the game, seized tomahawks which the squaws had concealed beneath their blankets and fell on the hapless members of the little garrison. There commenced one of those familiar scenes of butchery with which border tradition and the accounts of witnesses who escaped have made us familiar. Men were stricken down and held between Indians’ knees while they were scalped, still alive. Women and children were slaughtered. Bodies of both sexes were mangled. Frenzied red warriors scooped up handfuls of blood and drank it in gulps. Soon the chapter was ended. Only a few of the little garrison kept, like Etherington, on account of rank or for some particular reasons were left alive.

From this day for four years Fort Michillimackinac was without a garrison. Then, with the subjection of the red tribes, the English came back to their border posts and Michillimackinac was once more filled with soldiery. In the early days of the Revolution the walls of the fort were strengthened and the garrison was increased.

The strategic location of the fort had never been advantageous for purposes of defense, however, so in November, 1779, Major de Peyster, fearful of attacks by the Americans, moved his garrison over to the little island of Michillimackinac and built the third Fort Michillimackinac, that which is standing today. The location which Major de Peyster chose was on the southeastern portion of the island, which is three miles wide and seven miles long, and there is a fine harbor at the point chosen for the location of the fort. This third fort Michillimackinac was occupied by the British on July 15, 1780, but was not used by them during the Revolution. In 1796 it was turned over to an American garrison as the sequel of an extensive correspondence between the young new nation and its tenacious old mother country.

As it was necessary to know what disposition to make of her newly acquired border forts, the United States at the close of the eighteenth century despatched a certain Uriah Tracy to visit the frontier of the country and report on the condition of the fortifications there. His letter about Michillimackinac, preserved in the War Department files, gives a picture of the place in December 1800. The body of the letter follows:

Hon. Samuel Dexter, Secretary of War:

In consequence of your predecessor’s request to visit post in the Western territory I proceeded to Plattsburg and on to Michillimackinac. Our fort at Michillimackinac is one of our most important posts. It stands on an island in the straits, which lead from Lake Michigan into Lake Huron four or five miles from the head of the strait. Fort Michillimackinac is an irregular work partly built with a strong wall and partly with pickets; and the parade ground within it is from 100 to 125 feet above the surface of the water. It contains a well of never failing water, a boom proof used as a magazine, one stone barracks for the use of the officers, equal if not superior to any building of the kind in the United States, a good guardhouse and barracks for soldiers and convenient storehouses for produce, etc., with three strong and convenient blockhouses. This post is strong both by nature and by art and the possession of it has a great influence with the Indians in favor of the United States. The whole island on which the fort is situated belongs to the United States and is five or six miles in length and two or three miles in width. On the bank of the strait adjacent to the fort stands a large house, which was by the English called Government House and was kept by the British commander of the fort which now belongs to the United States.

The island and the country about it is remarkably healthy and very fertile for so high a northern latitude.

Uriah Tracy.

The breaking out of the War of 1812 found only 57 soldiers under Lieutenant Porter Hanks at Fort Michillimackinac. Moreover, the federal authorities at Washington neglected to notify several of their border forts that war had been declared. Accordingly when Captain Roberts, in command of a British force consisting of English soldiers, volunteers and Indians to the number of about 900, descended upon the little post, Michillimackinac was not in the attitude of resistance.

Thus captured by the British, the post was a most important stronghold for them during the continuance of the conflict between the two countries. Not only did it give them a base of great strategic possibilities, but its easy capture had an immense moral effect upon the Indian tribes round about, bringing many of these tribes to the British aid and being the direct cause of much of the Indian trouble that Americans suffered on the western frontier at this time.

The English set to energetically fortifying the point as soon as they had assumed charge. A hilltop back of Fort Michillimackinac became the site for a blockhouse, which is standing to this day, and the walls of Mackinac were strengthened and made greater. A letter from R. McDouall, the British commander, of date July 17, 1814, says:

I am doing my utmost to prepare for their (the American) reception. Our new works on the hill overlooking the old fort are nearly completed and the blockhouse in the centre will be finished this week, which will make the position one of the strongest in Canada. Its principal defect is the difficulty of finding water near it, but that obviated and a sufficient supply of provisions laid in, no force that the enemy can bring will be able to reduce it.

The Englishman’s opinion of the invulnerability to attack of his blockhouse was proved by events and was evidently shared by the Americans, for, when they came in force against Michillimackinac, they attacked from a different quarter. The American forces were under the command of Colonel Croghan and Major Holmes, who was beloved throughout the American army for his engaging personality and many fine qualities. During the short and unsuccessful attack Holmes was mortally hurt. At the conclusion of the war, when Michillimackinac and its new blockhouse were surrendered by Great Britain to the United States, the name of this talented young officer was applied to the blockhouse. The surrender of Michillimackinac took place July 18, 1815.

From the date of its surrender until 1895 Fort Michillimackinac was regularly garrisoned by United States troops, but in this latter year the garrison was withdrawn and the works were left in the charge of a caretaker. The blockhouses were in rather dilapidated condition and the grounds had become overgrown when, in 1909, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission of Michigan was created and in the hands of this organization the old fort has fared well. The blockhouse has been restored and the grounds of the fort and its buildings have been maintained at the public expense. Every year Michillimackinac is visited by sightseers and the island is a popular summering place for many.

Forts, History,

Hammond, John Martin. Quaint and Historic Forts of North America. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, London. 1915.

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