Mackinac Island

About 15,000 years ago, Mackinac began to emerge as an Island in what is now known as Lake Huron, when the glaciers of the Ice Age receded. At least three different lake levels were known that helped to develop it as it is today. It is believed to be during the Nippissing post glacier period about 4000-6000 years ago, due to the erosive action of the ancient Great Lakes, that the cliffs and rock formations were created in the Breccia Limestone. As the Halite or rock salt washed away, caverns were left in the softer rock. Centuries ago, Lake Algonquin supposedly covered all but the center of Mackinac Island and left only what is known as Sugar Loaf protruding. It stood 75 feet above ground level and is the largest of the limestone stacks. The measurements are two miles wide, three miles long and eight miles around.

As the years passed, birds dropped seeds and wild animals began to visit the Island, causing different fauna to begin to appear on the landscape. Clumps of trilliums, lady slippers, species of asters, forget-me-nots, violets, buttercups, a variety of orchids, jack-in-the-pulpits to mention a few, grew in the soil. Over 600 species of plants eventually appeared to grow on the surface. Trees of pine, cedar, spruce, maple, oak, elm, and more took root in the dirt and rocks. Birds began to come to roost in the branches of the trees and look for food along the shores. Herrings, ring billed gulls, blue herons, Canadian geese and loons, winter snow owls and the great grey owl from the Artic came to nest in the warmer climates surrounding the Island. Later on many species made their home on the Island such as the tundra swan, ospreys, purple martin, blue jays, orioles, warblers and many others.

The first visitors were aboriginal Indians around 11,000 years ago in prehistoric times. After the last glacier – 4000-6000 years ago, Indians looked out over the Straits between the newly formed lakes and gazed at the high bluffs. Legend has it that it resembled a large reptile and called it Mich-la-mack-in-aw derived from the Chippewa and Ottawa language, Mi-she-mi-ki-nock, meaning big mud turtle. Their totem was the turtle. They looked at the Island in awe especially at the arch rock, which they believed was the gateway to the Island in which Gitchee Manitou (A Great Spirit) entered, to go to his home in Sugar Loaf Rock. They saw the Island as mystical and believed it to be sacred land. They buried their dead chiefs in the caves.

Long before any white man set foot on Mackinac Island, the Anishinabe lived near the St. Lawrence Seaway. About 500 years ago, they received a vision that guided them to move to a new land. The vision ended where the two lakes met. The Anishinabe divided into three groups. The second group called the Ottawa, settled on Manitoulin Island. An independent small group of Indians lived on Mackinac Island. They roamed the woods and fished the lake that surrounded it. They set up their wigwams and made their encampments for trade or other business along its shores and rested there after long winter hunts. They held Jubilees and war dance. Their children played upon its sandy shores. The Ottawas thought them an interesting people and made a confederation with the tribe. However this small tribe had powerful enemies, the Iroquois of New York. One day in the dead of winter, when the tribe was celebrating a victory with a Jubilee over the conquest of the We-Ne-Be-Goes of Wisconsin, the Iroquois struck and almost annihilated them. Two of the small tribe escaped and fled and hid in the caves. This was thought to be the end of them. The tribal name was Mi-Shi-Ne-Macki-Naw-Go so the Ottowa and Chippewa named the island Mi-Shi-Ne-Nacki-Nong in honor of their former confederates and this is supposed to be the true origination of the Island’s name, Michimackinac, according to Chief Mack-e-te-be-nesay or Andrew Blackbird (Black Hawk) in a traditional story told in 1887.

Oh, the stories that could be told over the centuries. Some are true but some may be just legends. Legends are told over the years but somewhere many have been based on actual facts. Take for the example, this story. It is the tragic story of a young Indian couple. I will call them Running Bear and Little Bird for lack of their real names. Running Bear was leaving on a raid on another tribe. Little Bird received news that he had been killed and wouldn’t be returning to her. In her grief for her lover, she threw herself off one of the high cliffs to join him in death. The tragic story is that she was wrongly informed and that he returned safely so that her death was in vain. Later people named this site as Lover’s Leap.

Missionary’s quest for souls brought the Jesuits to the area. In 1671, Father Marquette founded a mission here. It was the first in the region replacing one founded three years earlier on Lake Superior’s shore at Chequamegon Bay. It later was moved to St. Ignace. Abundant fishing for centuries brought large populations of Indians to fish the lakes. Ottawa, Ojibway, French Canadians, Metis, Scots and German Jews conducted business upon the shores. Trading for furs brought the first white explorers. Beaver pelts were traded for metal knives, awls, kettles, steel flints, guns, ammo, blankets, and jewelry. Liquor was prohibited but unscrupulous men still gave it to the Indians for furs. Packs of thousands of pelts were shipped to Montreal and eventually to France and England where they graced the heads of customers. Desire for fur hats in the 17th and 18th century led the Canadians to establish supply networks. Mackinac Island was chosen to be the rendezvous point for this action. The traders and Indians came in flotillas of canoes for supplies for the next season but after business was conducted it was time for revelry. Their recreation was performing contests of great skill, along with many types of games, drinking good whiskey, gamboling, and the swapping of the tallest tales. It was a wild and heterogeneous assemblage of several hundred men, both savage and civilized that gathered every year upon the shores.

The fur trade was so profitable that the English tried to win Indian suppliers away from the French. Forts were built to protect the fur trade and to make sure the government got its share. Furs were the lifeblood of the French, the main lively hood of the British and of great economic importance to the Americans. The first fort was built by the French at Mackinaw in 1715. Two battles were fought on Mackinac Island during the War of 1812. The British took over the fort at Mackinaw after a great victory in Montreal in 1760. They took control without firing a shot. They moved to Mackinac in 1761 after a victory in the French and Indian War because its high limestone bluffs and excellent harbor made for better defense. They had grown concerned that the Americans were going to attack and that was the reason to move the Garrison. The King’s 8th Regiment was garrisoned there. During the American Revolution the British burnt the fort at Mackinaw to the ground and moved their defense to Mackinac’s bluff’s. In 1783 the Americans had taken possession of the fort but the British again captured the fort in the War of 1812. The Jay Treaty gave it back to the Americans in 1815.

During the British occupation, the Indians did not trust the British. They considered the Indians a conquered people. They considered the Indians and half breeds as savages. Take for example, the tragic love affairs of Sophia Biddle. Her father, Edward and mother, Agathe Lavigne owned a fur trading center in the small village. They wanted a good education for their beautiful daughter so sent her away to her uncle where she became very sophisticated. She spent the seasons in Detroit where she met a young officer named John C. Pemberton. He despised Mackinac Island and said it was a godforsaken outpost with nothing but savages and half breeds. He was a very bigoted man. Little did he know Sophia was one of these half breeds. She fled back to her home on Mackinac Island so he wouldn’t find out the truth. When he came looking for her and found she was a half breed, he spurned her and sarcastically turned his back on her in disgust.

Having a change of heart, he returned the next spring to see her, only to hear she had died of consumption and a broken heart. She is buried in the St. Anne’s Cemetery. This kind of distrust of the British led to Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763-1766. The Native Americans waged war against the British and attacked Detroit. They were dissatisfied with the infamous policies of the British after the French and Indian War. The British were brutal in the treatments of prisoners, targeting and exploiting civilians caught in the middle. British officers attempted to turn the tide of battle by deliberately infecting the Indians with blankets riddled with the small pox virus. The treachery and ruthlessness drove a wedge further between the Indians and the British. They also refused to give them free ammunition as the French had done and treated them arrogantly. They built forts and allowed white settlers upon the Indian land. The French had cultivated alliances with the Indians, traded with them and even intermarried with Indian women. When the British took over all that changed and everything from then on turned sour. The Indians joined together to drive the British from their land. Pontiac gathered the Ottawa, Potawatomi, Ojibway and Huron Indians into one confederation. The French had vacated the fort in 1761 but the French civilians encouraged the Indians to drive out the British. In 1763, the Mackinac fort was attacked and most of the British killed. The Indians had used the ruse of playing a game of Bagataway (Lacrosse) in front of the fort. A ball deliberately was knocked into the fort as the soldiers watched the game in interest. The Indians all raced into the fort after it and the women handed them their weapons hidden under their blankets. The unsuspecting soldiers were killed but the French were left unharmed.

Alexander Henry, a British subject had been urged by Jean Baptist Leduc to go in trade with him at Mackinac. When he landed he was met by 6 warriors with tomahawks in one hand and scalping knives in the other. He hid for a while in the attic of Charles Michel de Langlade but they were afraid they would be punished for harboring him as a blood brother sometime before and hid him for safety in Skull Cave. It was dark and Alexander laid down on leaves and brush for the night. He felt something sticking him in the back and the next morning in the light of day realized he was sleeping on human bones.

Because of Pontiac’s lack of success in capturing Detroit the British took over the fort at Mackinac again in 1764. After the French and Indian War in 1780 the British still controlled the fort. In the War of 1812 the British and Americans fought over the Island. The Americans gained control with the Jay Treaty.

In the 19th century, tourism was given a boost. The Federal Government declared the Island as protected land. This limited the development and set building restrictions as to preserve the natural beauty of the land. Writers found the area and described its beauty and Victorians flocked to the Island in droves. It became one of the nations most favored resorts. They traveled by excursion boats from Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo and Chicago. In 1887 The Grand Hotel was built. Summer cottages were also constructed for tourists who wished to remain for a while upon the Island. They danced to the music of Strauss’ Waltzes, listened to the great Marches of Sousa. They dined on delicious whitefish, and strolled along the decks and romantic beaches. Social activities included, tennis, bicycling, hiking, swimming and examining the Islands natural wonders. Later on a golf course was built.

During the Great Depression tourism fell off but picked up again after World War II. The Island has attracted great political figures such as presidents and governors. Two movies have been made there, “Somewhere In Time” and “This Time For Keeps” starring Ester Williams. Thousands of tourists still visit Mackinac Island each year.

   I can’t recall who said this but it was said that the Island was here First for FURS,
Second for FISHING, Third for FUN and now-days for FUDGE.