The primary purpose of the fort was not military, but rather as a link in the French trading post system that stretched from the Mississippi River through the Illinois Country to the St. Lawrence River. The fort served as a supply depot for traders in the western Great Lakes.
The French had first established a presence in the Straits of Mackinac in 1671 when Father Marquette established the JesuitSt. Ignace Mission at present-day St. Ignace. In 1683, they augmented the mission with Fort de Buade. In 1688 they established a mission at Sault Ste. Marie. In 1701, Sieur de Cadillac moved the French garrison to Fort Detroit and closed the mission. By 1715, however, the French built Fort Michilimackinac to re-establish a presence along the Straits of Mackinac, with several modifications and expansions to the palisade walls over the decades.
The French relinquished the fort, along with their territory in Canada, to the British in 1761 following their loss in the French and Indian War. Although the British continued to operate the fort as a major trading post, French civilians were allowed to live their normal lives with French traditions and to worship at St. Anne's Catholic Church. Other civilian residents during the British military occupation included métis (French-Ojibwe) and British fur traders, some of which resided within the fort in the southeastern row house.
The Ojibwe in the region resented British policies as harsh. On June 2, 1763, as part of the larger movement known as Pontiac's Rebellion, a group of Ojibwe staged a game of baaga'adowe (a forerunner of modern lacrosse) outside the fort as a ruse to gain entrance. After gaining entrance to the fort, they killed most of the British inhabitants and held the fort for a year before the British retook it with the provision to offer more and better gifts to the native inhabitants of the area.
The British eventually deemed the wooden fort on the mainland too vulnerable to attack, and in 1781 they built Fort Mackinac, a limestone fort on nearby Mackinac Island. The buildings were dismantled and moved piece by piece over water in the summer and ice in winter to the island over the course of two years. Patrick Sinclair, the lieutenant governor of Michilimackinac, ordered the remains of Fort Michilimackinac destroyed after the move.
The fort grounds were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. It is a popular tourist attraction as part of Colonial Michilimackinac State Park in Mackinaw City, a major section of the Mackinac State Historic Parks. Interpreters, both paid and volunteer, help bring the history to life, with music, live demonstrations and reenactments, including musket and cannon firing demonstrations. The site has numerous reconstructed historical wooden structures. It is considered one of the most extensively excavated early French archaeological sites in the United States.