Mackinac Island History

Mackinac Island was home to a Native American settlement in the 17th century, before European's began exploration of the area. The island became a valuable position for the commerce of the Great Lakes fur trade, leading to the establishment of Fort Mackinac by the British during the American Revolutionary War.

Archaeologists have excavated fishhooks, pottery, and other artifacts dating back to around AD 900. The Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) indian tribes were some of Mackinac Island's first known inhabitants, who considered the island to be the sacred home of the Gitche Manitou, or the "Great Spirit". According to legend, Mackinac Island was created by the Great Hare, Michabou and was the first land to appear after the recession of the Great Flood. The island was a gathering place for the local tribes where their offerings were made to Gitche Manitou and was where tribal chiefs were buried.

A mission was founded for the Native Americans on Mackinac Island in 1670 by the Jesuit priest Claude Dablon. It was later moved to St. Ignace by the missionary and explorer Jacques Marquette. The mision helped the Straits of Mackinac to become an important French fur trading location. The British took control of the Straits of Mackinac after the French and Indian War and Major Patrick Sinclair chose the bluffs of the island for Fort Mackinac in 1780.

The entire Straits area was officially acquired by the United States through the Treaty of Paris in 1783, but the British forces did not leave the Great Lakes area until after Jay's Treaty in 1794. During the War of 1812, the British captured the fort and attempted to protect it by building Fort George on the high ground behind Fort Mackinac. In 1814, the Americans and British fought a second battle on the north side of the island, but the Americans failed to recapture the island.

The Treaty of Ghent forced the British to return the island and surrounding mainland to the U.S. in 1815. After the United States reoccupied Fort Mackinac, Fort George was renamed to Fort Holmes, after Major Holmes.

The American Fur Company was founded by John Jacob Astor on Mackinac Island after the War of 1812, exporting beaver pelts for thirty years. By the middle of the 19th century, commercial fishing for whitefish and lake trout began to replace the fur trade as the island's primary industry.

Mackinac Island became a popular tourist destination after the Civil War. In 1875, much of the federal land on the island was designated as the second national park, "Mackinac National Park." This only three years after Yellowstone was designated as the first national park. In the 1880's, the Grand Hotel was built and soon after, souvenir shops began to pop up. Wealthy industrialists built summer cottages along the island's bluffs for extended stays. All of the federal land, including Fort Mackinac, became "Mackinac Island State Park," Michigan's first state park, after it was given to the State of Michigan in 1895.

A historical ban on motor vehicles was introduced in 1898 and 1901 due to concerns for the health and safety of the island's residents and horses. This ban continues to the present with exceptions only for emergency and construction vehicles.

If you have new or updated information about Mackinac Island history, please contact us.

Reader Comments (1)

Does anyone have any information on the Hamels that lived on the island from 1835 -1875? I have visited the island and have their graves along with children and know that Antoine Hamel was a baker on the island. They are my gr. gr. gr. grandparents and wondered if any history buffs would know where they resided on this island and where their bakery was located?

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDonna Paquette McEwen

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