Location has determined much of Mackinac Island’s history. Eleven thousand years ago in prehistoric times, not long after the retreat of the last glacier, aboriginal natives stood on the mainland shore, looked out over the Straits between two newly formed great lakes and saw an island with unusually high bluffs. They thought it resembled a large reptile and called it mish-la-mack-in-naw or big turtle. When they explored it, they marveled at its unusual natural limestone formations and buried their dead in the Island’s caves.
French-Canadian courieur de bois Jean Nicolet is believed to be the first white man to see Mackinac during his explorations on behalf of Samuel de Champlain, governor of Canada, in 1634.
The Jesuit Jacques Marquette preached to the Straits Indians in 1671 and soon after the area became the most important French western fur trade site. After the British acquired the Straits following the French and Indian War, the English Major Patrick Sinclair chose those high bluffs for the site of his Fort Mackinac in 1780.
The Americans never threatened the British fort during the American Revolution and following the revolution obtained the Straits area by treaty. However, problems with the British in nearby Canada led to the War of 1812. In July of 1812 a British force landed secretly on the far north end of Mackinac Island and forced the United States to surrender Fort Mackinac in the first engagement of that conflict.
In 1814 the Americans attempted to regain the Island by also approaching from the north, but failed to defeat the British who in the meantime had fortified the high ground behind Fort Mackinac. The British and Americans fought the battle in the vicinity of the present day site of the Wawashkamo Golf Course. The British fortification was renamed Fort Holmes in honor of Major Andrew Hunter Holmes, a young American officer who died in the conflict. In 1815 the Island was restored once again to the Americans by treaty.
After the War of 1812 Mackinac Island became the center of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. For the next thirty years the German immigrant provided beaver pelts for the beaver hats so favored by contemporary Jane Austen’s dashing young men.
In 1822 Fort Mackinac’s post surgeon William Beaumont saved the life of Alexis St. Martin after an accidental shotgun blast tore a hole in the young voyageur’s stomach. When the hole never completely healed, the physician observed first hand what happens when food is digested in the stomach. His published experiments made medical history.
In the 1860s Mackinac Island processed barrels of whitefish and lake trout destined for eastern markets. Each spring local Irish fishermen, coopers, net makers and dray men cleaned, salted, dried and packed the succulent fish which were carried on lake boats to Canadian and New York markets. This thriving industry replaced Astor’s diminishing fur trade which had now moved to the northwest states.
With the rise of sport fishing in the 1880s Mackinac Island visitors took advantage of the nearby Les Cheneaux Islands where local guides helped tourists find perch, black bass and pike grounds. Small hotels and eating places catered to the sporting crowd who made the overnight train trip from Detroit to the Straits aboard the Michigan Central.