A Short History of Michilimakinak

Mackinac Michigan as we know it today, was called a variety of similar spelled names since it was a small outpost for French traders who by usage of the northern route of the Great Lakes passed by the settlement. It’s been known by the names of Mackinac, Michilimakina, Michilimakinak, Fort Michilimakinak, Old Michilimackinac and Ancient Fort Mackinac. One of the oldest Jusuit missions, named St. Ignace (St. Ignatius), was located on the north side of the strait at Point Iroquois, near present-day St. Ignace, Michigan. This mission was established in 1671 by the Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette.

No more colorful settlement existed in the Middle West than the mission and fort at the Straits of Mackinac, for the French early realized its importance and directed their westward explorations from this base. Of all the men associated with the establishment of the mission and settlement there, no man played a more conspicuous part that Father Jacques Marquette. Born at Laon, France, 1 June 1637, he entered the Jesuit order and came to Quebec in 1666. The ensuing two years he spent in the study of Indian languages, and in 1668 he helped in the establishment of the mission at Sault Ste. Marie. The following year he succeeded Father Claud Allouez, in charge of the mission at La Pointe, but friction between the Ottawas and Hurons at the mission arose, the former tribe removing to Manitoulin Island and the latter to the island of Michilimackinac. A mission was accordingly established among the Hurons at Mackinac, to which Marquette did not come until the following spring, 1671. The mission St. Ignace was thus first established on the island and was not removed to the mainland until the year after Marquette’s arrival at the straits. In 1673, Father Marquette, beloved of the Indians whom he had collected around him at St. Ignace, set out with Joliet to discover and explore the Mississippi River, but upon his return from that famous voyage in 1675, he died at the mouth of the Marquette River on the east shore of Lake Michigan.

The mission at St. Ignace was continued by the Society of Jesus and exercised a marked influence upon the Indians in that region, thousands having gathered in the vicinity of the French establishment. As the fur trade grew and Fort Mackinaw became more important from a commericial standpoint, the troubles of the priests inscreased, for despite their earnest efforts to prevent the sale of brandy to the Indians, the pernicious custom of the traders grew, and finally Cadillac, irritated by the Jesuits, whom he detested, founded Detroit and took most of the Indians with him to that place. Finally, in 1706, five years after the exodus of the tribes, Father Marest, then in charge, burned the chapel and mission building and returned in sorrow to Quebec.

Pond describes the church in 1774 as a “Commodious Roman Catholic church” 1 . Henry, in 1761, also mentions the church. There is a tradition that this building was taken down, and the materials transported to the island and re-erected there. Sinclair writing in 1780 to his superior says: “Could I have completed the church (on the island) the whole garrison would have been over.” 2 Father Richard, in 1799, describes the island church as 25 x 45 feet, built of cedar, and very old. The first church on the island was on the site of the old cemetery south of the Astor House; some dispute arising over the land-title, Madame Laframboise gave a lot for the church, which was removed and rebuilt with a large addition. This served the parish of St. Anne of Michimilimackinac until 1874, when the present parish church was erected.

The fort at the straits continued to watch over the fur trade. It was removed to the south side of the straits, but subsequently was rebuilt on the island when attack on the British was feared at the time of the Rebolutionary War. It was captured in later years by British in the War of 1812 and also occupied by the American troops. The work of building the new fort on the island was begun in October, 1779, but not until 1781 was removal of the garrison to that place finally completed, due to the slowness experienced in providing adequate accomodations for the troops on the island.

The old French cemetery on Mackinac Island, after the removal of the post thither, was on Water street, west of the later known John Jacote Astor House. Most if not all of the remains were removed to the modern cemetery, in order to make room for the growth of the business section of the village. The Grand Hotel occupies the site of the Indian burial ground of early days, and bones were exhumed on the hotel property into the 20th century. It is presumable that many half-breeds were buried in the Indian cemetery, while others found resting places in the French burying-ground on the lower level.

The concentration point for the fur trade of the Middle West, Mackinac held an important place for many years, both during the British and American regimes. The Northwest Fur company of the British, and subsequently the Astor organization of the American Fur company made great use of the natural advantages of the Mackinac location, and thousands of pounds of furs were carried through the straits each year, gathered from the wester tributary to the Great Lakes. 3


Translation from a copy of the original in possession of the parish church of Ste. Anne at Mackinac.

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  1. See Wisconsin Historical Collections, xviii, p. 327[]
  2. Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, ix, p. 579.[]
  3. Fuller, George N., A history of the upper peninsula of Michigan. Dayton, Ohio: National Historical Association, Inc. 1926.[]

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