Mackinac Island History
Mackinac Island History
The aboriginals, the first visitors to the island, named the island, Mish-la-mack-in-naw or the ‘giant turtle’, because of the appearance of the island is like a turtle from a distance. The Native Americans explored the island and buried their dead ones there. The island became a tribal gathering place where Gitchie Manitou or the Great Spirit was worshipped. Every spring, after a long northern winter, the tribes congregated on the island to worship the Great Spirit. Hunters and anglers traded and reunited with their families, while the elders confabulated on tribal affairs.
This continued for several years until the Europeans came. The Native Americans believed that the Great Spirit has fled the island and has made the Northern Lights his new home. Jean Nicolet, a French-Canadian was the first European to have explored the island in 1634, as part of his explorations on behalf of the then governor of Canada, Samuel de Champlain.
The strategic location of Mackinac Island determines much of its history. Attracted by the rich fish population and its location, French traders and Jesuit Missionaries were drawn to the island. Father Claude Dablon was keen on setting up a missionary in Mackinac and he encouraged Father Jacques Marquette to carry out the task. Father Marquette moved in his displaced band of Huron followers in 1671 to escape the Huron and Sioux conflict.
While the missionaries were busy preaching and converting the Native Americans, the fur traders were seeking the assistance of the Natives in fur trade. For 150 years Mackinac was a hub of fur trade.
The British who had made Mackinaw city their settlement moved to the island in 1780 to be safe from the American forces. The Indian chiefs sold Mackinac to the British in 1781. The British had selected Mackinac to build a fort because of the high bluffs that acted as protective shields during wars. However, without much bloodshed the island was handed over to the American forces as the British colonial rule ended in America. But British forces from Canada entered the island from far north in 1812 and forced the US forces to surrender the fort. In 1814, the US attempted to regain the island, which resulted in a battle in the vicinity of the present day Wawashkamo Golf course. A young US soldier Major Andrew Holmes died in the battle. Fort Holmes in Mackinac Island is named in his memory.
After becoming a part of the USA, the island became the hub of fur activities of a company called, American Fur Company. The fur trading activities of the company dominated the life of the island in the 1820s.
The 1830s saw fishing replacing trading in fur as the primary activity. Fur warehouses were used for storing fish. Local Irish fisherman, coopers, net makers, and dray men cleaned, salted, dried and packed fish like lake trout, whitefish and other native species.
Mackinac Island represented the American forces and USA (after the civil war) in the Northwest Territory with Fort Mackinac serving as the central government building for the Northwest Frontier after the American Revolution. Mackinac was incorporated in 1817 and was the seat of the popular county of MichilMackinac that covered most of present day Michigan. It served as a seat for Mackinac County from 1849-1882.
The public holds around 80% of the island. The congress, in order to preserve America’s finest national treasures, designated Yellowstone Park as America’s first National Park in 1872 and in 1875 Mackinac Island was accorded similar protection.
By the end of the 19th century a new trend had emerged – Mackinac Island slowly turned out to be a summer camping destination. Growing wealth of railroad barons, industrialists from Midwest, meat packers and lumbermen gave rise to the building of elegant Victorian cottages in the late 1800s. The majestic Grand Hotel was built in four month’s time. War weary soldiers and administrators had long been finding the peaceful environs of the island ideal for recuperating. Now people with wealth found it enjoyable to spend the summers on the island. The visitors would be taken around the island by local carriage drivers on sight seeing excursions. True to that period, only horse drawn carriages were used. Once the automobiles came, the noise of the engines began to startle the horses. In 1896, Thomas Chambers a representative of the carriage drivers successfully petitioned against the use of automobiles on the island. To present day automobiles are not being used on the island except for emergencies and government purposes.
The Mackinac Island State Park commission purchased a Victorian cottage near Fort Mackinac in 1945 and designated it as Governor’s Summer Residence. This unofficially accorded Mackinac the status of an official summer vacation destination. President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s and recently Bill Clinton along with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole descended on the island to confer with state politicians.
By the turn of the 20 the century Mackinac Island had turned out to be a tourist destination, pushing behind fur and fishing industries completely behind.