Tuesday, August 17, 2010



       Given the amount of contact the early settlers of the Great Lakes area had with the resident Indians I had expected some sites dedicated to them. Instead we heard stories about the encounters as we visited different centers such as Fort Michilimackinac (founded in 1715) in Mackinaw City and Fort Mackinac (founded in 1780) on Mackinaw Island. (By the way c or w the names are still pronounced naw.)
       We learned that Mackinaw Island was a vacation spot even in the days of the Woodland Indians who came to the area in the summer for the fishing. They called the area “the home of the fish.” Celebrations to honor the Great Spirit took place on Mackinac Island each spring. The winters are long and cold and this was an opportunity for the hunters and fishers to meet and relax and trade and discuss tribal affairs. This was all put into ruin when the Europeans came because the Indians believed their spirit fled the Island and went off to live in the Northern Lights.

Displays at Fort Mackinaw on Mackinaw Island give visitors
some ideas about the life style of the local Indians.

       Because of the meeting of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and the Mackinaw Straits this was an ideal spot for the white man to meet and trade with the Indians. Europeans were led to the spot by Father Jacques Marquette who established a mission here in 1671. At about the same time French missionaries were converting Native Americans, French fur traders were seeking their assistance in the lucrative fur business. For 150 years, through French, British, and American settlements of Mackinac, the fur trade business was active on Mackinac. Europeans would ship canoe loads of their goods to Mackinac to trade for Indian-trapped beaver, muskrat, otter, and fox pelts.

Furs trapped by the Indians were a big attraction for European traders.

       At Fort Michilimackinac visitor’s center a film introduced us to the period of early contacts and we learned why the Indians thought of the French as the good guys. The French paid attention to the ways of the Indians and had established good personal relationships with the Indians. For example on meeting leaders they exchanged gifts to cement the relationship. The French learned Indian ways and respected them and often intermarried.
       The Indians were good at trapping and for the furs the French brought in large amounts of trade goods in a large trading program that benefited both the French and the Indians.
       The British took over Fort from the French in 1761 after beating them in the Seven Years War. There was a problem with the take over; the British didn’t have the same respect for the Indians that the French did. This was very upsetting to Indians. For revenge the Indians pretended to play a game of lacrosse outside the gate of the fort. It was a warm day and British troops should have been suspicious that the Indian women who were observing the game had heavy blankets around themselves. The players knocked the ball over the fort wall and rushed inside as if to retrieve it, at which point the women threw off their blankets and handed the men knives and clubs they then used to kill the soldiers in the fort.

The entrance to Fort Michilimackinac that the Indians used to attack the fort

       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. After that the British decided it was to their and everyone else’s benefit to pay more attention to local customs. The French were allowed to continue their trading and the Indians to bring in their furs.

Two Ottawa Chiefs from Michilimackinac, Lake Huron
by Joshua Jebb (Wikimedia Commons)

       The Ottawa were the main tribe in contact with the French. Ottawa was their word for buying and selling, a term that was also common to Cree, Algonquin, and Chippewa. The Ottawa were famous among the other tribes as traders and barterers, dealing in corn, sunflower oil, furs and skins, tobacco, and medicinal roots and herbs).
       Because it would be hard to defend the British destroyed Fort Michilimackinac during the American Revolution and built a Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island. We Americans got it back after the war and lost it again during the War of 1812 and during the peace negotiation got it back. The second floor of the enlisted men’s building is given over to a history of the island starting with the Indians, military, fur trade, up to today’s tourism. http://akayola.com/author-pages/wayne-anderson