Mackinaw City History

The name Michilimackinac means, "the place of the 'Great Turtle'," and was first given to Mackinac Island for its shape by it's native inhabitants and was eventually given to the entire Straits of Mackinac region. Eventually it was shortened to Mackinac, but the founders of Mackinaw City opted for the phonetic "aw" spelling, probably as a way to distinguish their town from Mackinac Island.

Mackinaw City has retained the "aw" spelling through the years, while the bridge, straits and island still use the "ac" spelling. No matter how it is spelled, it is always pronounced Mackinaw.

The Straits of Mackinac area was home to several predominant tribes When the Europeans first arrived. There were three Algonquian tribes, known as the Council of Three Fires: Chippewa (Ojibwe), Ottawa (Odawa), and Potawatomi. These tribes, though not permenent settlements, frequented this area to fish, hunt, trade, and worship.

Samuel Champlain commissioned Jean Nicolet to explore the area in 1634 and make peace with the Indians. Nicolet was the first European to pass by Mackinaw City in search of the Northwest Passage. Even though he did not find the Northwest Passage, he did find many fur-bearing animals. This gave the French government reason to provide funding for settlers, missionaries, traders, and soldiers to come to the New World and Great Lakes region.

Fort Michilimackinac was Mackinaw City's first European settlement in 1715. A fairly small garrison that housed French civilians inside the fort walls, this fort allowed them to garden, hunt, and fish outside the fort walls. It also served to impress the Natives, who most likely never witnessed such a large structure.

The British took possession of this area at the end of the French and Indian War, but allowed the French civilians to live inside Fort Michilimackinac. Chippewa and Fox warriors captured the fort on June 2, 1763 as part of "Pontiac's Rebellion," during the baggatiway game surprise attack. The British were kicked out and did not return until the following spring under the agreement that they would trade more fairly with the Native Americans. The British abandoned the fort during the American Revolutionary War. From 1779-81, the British Army moved the fort, including its buildings, to Mackinac Island, where they established Fort Mackinac. What they did not take with them, they burned; this was so that if the Americans did make it to the Mackinac Straits area, they could not use Fort Michilimackinac.

The development of what would become Mackinaw City as it is today was platted in 1857 by two men: Conkling and Searles. The original designs allowed for the northern portion to be left as a park for two main reasons: preserve the area that was once Fort Michilimackinac and for the possibility that a lighthouse may be built in the town. The Village of Mackinaw City was incorporated in 1882.

Beginning in the 1890s, the village became a very pivotal port for trains and automobiles crossing the Straits of Mackinac. Car transportation lasted from the early 1900s to 1957 with the completion of the Mackinac Bridge. Train transportation ran through the Straits until 1984. Mackinaw City is still an important port city for tourists traveling by passenger ferry boat to Mackinac Island using the Arnold, Shepler's, and Star Line services.

The main industry of Mackinaw City became almost strictly tourist-oriented, with other civic services such as postal service, police, firefighting, schooling, etc. McGulpin Point Light was built in the 1870s in the far western end of the village limits. It was later replaced by Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in 1892 in the same northern park that was originally allotted for its construction. When the Mackinac Bridge was completed in 1957, the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse was decommissioned immediately. The Mackinac Island State Park Commission owned the property at the Bridge's southern terminus and was provied a grant to begin archeological excavations of the Michilimackinac ruins. Ultimately, a reconstruction of Fort Michilimackinac to its 1770s appearance would ensue. Camping began in Michilimackinac State Park in 1907, but was halted in 1971 as a Maritime Park was opened in 1972 around the lighthouse. The Maritime Park was shut down in 1990, but Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse was opened to the public in 2004. Mill Creek State Park, which includes the area believed to be where Mill Creek's sawmill once flourished when Mackinac Island was being settled, is located about five miles southeast of the village along U.S. Highway 23.

If you have new or updated information about Mackinaw City history, please contact us.

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