|Location||Huron Rd., Mackinac Island, Michigan|
|Governing body||Mackinac Island State Park Commission|
|NRHP Reference #||70000280|
|Added to NRHP||October 15, 1966|
|Designated||October 9, 1960|
|Designated MSHS||February 19, 1958|
Fort Mackinac is a former American military outpost garrisoned from the late 18th century to the late 19th century near Michilimackinac, Michigan, on Mackinac Island. The British built the fort during the American Revolutionary War to control the strategic Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron (and by extension the fur trade on the Great Lakes) and did not relinquish it until fifteen years after American independence. It later became the scene of two strategic battles for control of the Great Lakes during the War of 1812. During most of the 19th century, it served as an outpost of the United States Army. Closed in 1895, the fort is now a museum on the grounds of Mackinac Island State Park.
American Revolutionary War
It was built in 1780 by the British on Mackinac Island. Before 1763, the French used Fort Michilimackinac on the mainland south shore of the Straits of Mackinac to control the area. After Treaty of Paris (1763), the British occupied the French fort but considered the wooden structure too difficult to defend. In 1780/1781, its lieutenant governor Patrick Sinclair constructed a new limestone fort on the 150-foot limestone bluffs of Mackinac Island above the beautiful Straits of Mackinac. The British held the outpost throughout the war. Despite the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1783), the British did not relinquish the fort to the United States until 1796.
War of 1812
In June 1812, at the start of the War of 1812, British General Isaac Brock sent a canoe party 1,200 miles (1,900 km) to confirm that a state of war existed. This party returned with an order to attack Fort Mackinac, then known as Fort Michilimackinac.
A minimal United States garrison of approximately sixty men under the command of Lieutenant Porter Hanks then manned Fort Mackinac. Although a diligent officer, Hanks had received no communication from his superiors for months.
On the morning of 17 July 1812, a combined British and Native American force of seventy war canoes and ten bateaux under the command of British Captain Charles Roberts attacked Fort Mackinac. British Captain Roberts came from Fort St. Joseph (Ontario) and landed on the north end of Mackinac Island, 2 miles (3 km) away from the fort. The British quietly removed the village inhabitants from their homes and trained two cannons at the fort. The Americans, under Lieutenant Hanks, were taken by surprise and Hanks perceived his garrison badly outnumbered. The officers and men under Roberts numbered about two hundred; a few hundred Native Americans of various tribes supported him.
Fearing that the Native Americans on the British side would massacre his men and allies, American Lieutenant Hanks accepted the British offer of surrender without a fight. The British paroled the American forces, essentially allowing them to go free after swearing to not take up arms in the war again, and made the island inhabitants to swear an oath of allegiance as subjects of the United Kingdom.
Shortly after the British captured the fort two American vessels arrived from Ft. Dearborn (Chicago), unaware of the commencement of the War of 1812, or the fort's capture earlier that day. The British raised the American flag and when the vessels tied up at the pier the British captured them, as prizes of war. The British captured these two sloops, the Erie (Capt. Norton) and Friends Good Will (Capt. Lee), the latter being taken by the British into service as HMS Little Belt, and the anchored schooners Mary and the Salina, which they sent to Detroit as cartels carrying the prisoners they had taken.
After capturing the island, the British under the command of Colonel Robert McDouall of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment built Fort George, a stockade and blockhouse on the highest point of the island. In an interesting epilogue to the capture of Fort Mackinac, Lieutenant Hanks made his way to Detroit and the American military post there. Upon his arrival, superiors charged him with cowardice in the quick and bloodless surrender of Fort Mackinac. Before the court martial of Lieutenant Hanks could begin, however, British forces attacked Fort Detroit. A British cannonball ripped through the room where Hanks was standing, cutting him in half and killing the officer next to him as well.
United States Army Colonel George Croghan and his superior General William Henry Harrison designed a large campaign to capture control of the Great Lakes and sever the fur trade alliance between the British and the tribes of the region; as part of this campaign, the Americans attempted to retake Mackinac Island in July 1814. The two-pronged campaign included an assault on Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, on the [Mississippi River].
Battle of Mackinac Island (1814)
On 26 July 1814, a squadron of five United States ships arrived off the Mackinac Island, carrying a landing force of seven hundred soldiers under the command of American Colonel Croghan. This landing began the Battle of Mackinac Island. To his dismay, Colonel Croghan discovered that the new British blockhouse stood too high for the naval guns to reach, forcing an unprotected assault on the wall of Fort George. The Americans shelled Fort George for two days with most shells falling harmlessly in vegetable gardens around the fort.
A dense fog forced the Americans back from Mackinac Island for a week. Major Andrew Holmes led the American forces in returning a week later; they assaulted the north end of the island near the location of the British assault in 1812. The Americans worked their way to the fort through dense woods, which Native American allies of the British protected, finally emerging into a clearing below Fort George.
British Colonel McDouall meanwhile placed a small force bearing muskets, rifles, and two field guns, behind low breastworks at the opposite end of the clearing. When the Americans emerged from the woods into the clearing, British guns easily targeted them. British warriors killed 13 Americans, including Major Holmes and two other officers, and wounded 51 Americans. The heavy losses compelled American Colonel Croghan to order his men to retreat back through the woods to the beach. The Americans then rowed back to their ships and retreated.
The American defeat in Battle of Mackinac Island left Mackinac Island in the hands of the British through the end of War of 1812. Following Treaty of Ghent, American forces reoccupied Fort Mackinac in July 1815. They renamed Fort George as Fort Holmes, in honor of Major Holmes, killed in the 1814 attack. After War of 1812, Fort Mackinac gradually declined in military significance. No longer needed as a front line border defense against the British in Canada, the fort instead took on the role of a strategic troop reserve. The Army essentially could deploy troops not needed elsewhere to Fort Mackinac until a need arose to transfer them to other locations of military importance. This arrangement led to the near-total abandonment of Fort Mackinac on numerous occasions. People also used the fort as a fur trading post.
On 6 June 1822, a fur trader named Alexis St. Martin waited to trade in his furs when a gun accidentally discharged just inches from him, blowing a hole in his abdomen. The post surgeon, Doctor William Beaumont, attended to the man. Doctor Beaumont cared for the presumedly doomed Saint Martin the best he could. To his surprise, the man apparently made a recovery. Doctor Beaumont took the man into his home and cared for him for several years. Saint Martin then healed despite a hole connecting his stomach to the outside world. Beaumont seized the opportunity and began observing and conducting experiments on the man. Through these experiments, Beaumont ably described digestion in detail and unlocked its mysteries. Doctor Beaumont wrote a book about his experiments and later became known as "The Father of Gastric Physiology."
The fort evolved into an important staging area for exploration of the northern Michigan Territory, including the expedition in 1832 under the command of Lewis Cass to explore the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Henry Schoolcraft held the post of Indian agent at Fort Mackinac for a time in the 1830s and conducted pioneering studies of the Native American languages and culture of the region.
During the Mexican-American War and for long periods during the Civil War, the Army left the care and upkeep of Fort Mackinac to an ordnance sergeant. Despite these periods of relative inactivity, the fort did manage to play a small role in the American Civil War, briefly acting as a prison for three Confederate political prisoners. Brought to the Mackinac Island and the fort during the summer months, these three men enjoyed relative freedom, guarded only by a volunteer militia. However, when faced with the prospect of enduring a long, harsh winter on the island, two of the prisoners signed loyalty oaths and obtained release. The third Confederate refused, and the Army ultimately transferred him to another post, thus ending brief role of Fort Mackinac in the war.
Mackinac National Park
From 1875 to 1895, Mackinac National Park, the second national park in the United States after Yellowstone National Park, included Fort Mackinac and much of Mackinac Island. During the national park years, the troops stationed at Mackinac acted as park rangers. The Army tasked these men with maintaining and policing the park, so they spent much time cutting new roads and footpaths through the park and performing other mundane tasks. A mood of progressivism then apparently prevailed at the fort, as the army constructed a bathhouse (in which every man at the fort was required to bathe at least once a week), a post toilet (complete with flush toilets), and a post canteen (where the men could read current magazines, play pool, and most importantly buy beer and wine) to boost morale and truly make Fort Mackinac a "desirable station." Soldiers, however, did not ignore military duties as the troops drilled on the parade ground and took target practice at least once a week on either a 600- or 1000-yard rifle range. The skills learned and honed at the fort, seemingly trivial at a peaceful post such Mackinac, later proved important for many troops at later postings in the still-dangerous American West.
In 1895, Congress closed Fort Mackinac and Mackinac National Park and gave the fort and park to the State of Michigan, which created Mackinac Island State Park, the first state park in Michigan. The semi-autonomous Mackinac Island State Park Commission in 1895 began governing Fort Mackinac and the other surrounding historic sites on or near Mackinac Island: Colonial Michilimackinac, Historic Mill Creek, The Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, and Mackinac Island State Park. The Governor of Michigan appoints the Commission, which then meets many times during the course of a year to govern Mackinac State Historic Parks. The commission and historic parks preserve, protect, and present the rich and natural history of Mackinac Island and the Straits area.
In the 1950s, Mackinac Island State Park Commission developed a new way of financing its park, based on the system that financed the Mackinac Bridge. Michigan financed construction of Mackinac Bridge through revenue bonds repaid from the later cash flow of the bridge after it opened in 1957. Mackinac Island State Park Commission modified this idea to park restoration purposes, with Fort Mackinac admission fees serving as the cash flow. More than three-fourths of budget of Mackinac Island State Park Commission now comes from admission fees and other self-generated cash flow. Most United States parks-and-recreation agencies instead depend upon public subsidies. Mackinac Island State Park Commission operates one of the largest parks in United States that generates a significant majority of its own operating budget.
The Fort today
The current museum at the park includes 14 historic buildings.
Today, Fort Mackinac (pronounced: MACK-in-awe) stands as a popular tourist destination. Situated on 150 foot bluffs above the beautiful Straits of Mackinac, it is one of the few surviving American Revolutionary War forts and one of the most complete early forts in the country. In 2005, Fort Mackinac celebrated 225 years standing guard over Mackinac Island.
During the main tourism summer months (June through August), visitors ascend into a bustle of activity within the old British-built stone walls of old Fort Mackinac after entering its weathered gates. Costumed interpreters then greet visitors, portray life in the 1880s, answer questions, pose for pictures, and lead tours throughout the day. Some of these "soldiers" carry original 45-70 Springfield Model 1873, the type used at the fort during the 1880s. Others still play music or just simply greet and mingle with the crowds of visitors.
The second largest cannon regularly demonstrated on the Great Lakes, the 1841 model six-pounder, positioned just as it would have been during the attack and bombardment of Fort Mackinac in the War of 1812, fires many times during the day. Activities also include rifle firings, court martial re-enactments, and even dances of the type done during the early days of Fort Mackinac with many musicians providing music.
There are 14 original buildings standing on the site as well, including:
- 1. Commissary Building: Once used for food storage; today houses a video program.
- 2. Post Headquarters: Used for the paymaster and offices.
- 3. Quartermaster's Storehouse: Held any and all equipment needed by the soldiers during the Fort's history.
- 4. Post Bathhouse: The newest building, built in 1885, housing 6 baths for the soldiers comfort.
- 5. Soldiers Barracks: Used to house the 100+ soldiers stationed there, but today houses a museum and the gift shop called the Sutler's Store.
- 6. Post Schoolhouse: Where the soldiers went in the last years of Fort Mackinac's military existence to become better educated.
- 7. Hill Quarters: Many Lieutenants lived within these walls, notice the difference from the Barracks.
- 8. Post Hospital: Where the post doctor/surgeon treated patients until a new hospital was built in 1860.
- 9. Officer's Stone Quarters: Michigan's oldest building (1780) and used to house officers. Today holds the Kids Quarters and the Tea Room.
- 10. Wood Quarters: Used for various purposes over the life of the building, including officers' quarters and a post canteen that served Schlitz beer, but no whiskey.
- 11. Post Guardhouse: Prisoners had been held on this site for over a century.
- 12-14: North, East, and West Blockhouses: Stone towers built by the first Americans garrisoning Fort Mackinac standing like restless sentinels, watching over the three main palisades of Fort Mackinac.
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13.
- State of Michigan (2009). "Fort Mackinac". Retrieved June 26, 2010.
- "Michigan History Arts and Letters". Michigan Historical Center, Department of History, Arts and Libraries. Retrieved 2009-08-21.
- Fort Mackinac at Mackinac Island State Historic Parks
- War of 1812: The British Capture Fort Mackinac
- Battle of Fort Mackinac: July 1814
- Michigan Historical Markers: Historic Fort Mackinac
- U.S. Senate: 1872 Seth Eastman oil painting
- Brief history of British fort on Saint Josephs'Island, 45 miles from Fort Mackinac