Mackinac Island is one of those places that has a rich history due to strategic location. Situated in the straits between Lake Michigan
and Lake Huron
, it is an ideal position between those two great lakes on the east and west sides, and between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan
on the north and south. This location has long made it a center of trade and military
strength in the region.
For those with nefarious plans, the Island is at Latitude 45 degrees 51' 22" North and Longitude 84 degrees 41' 22"West. It is no longer of military importance, however, so take that information as purely for grins.
The name of the Island is a little more vague than has been presented. Also, the Cherokee tribes are indigenous to mostly Oklahoma, and only come to Mackinac on vacation, like the rest of us. It was the Chippewa, Huron and Ottawa nations who moved into the area that first beheld the island while looking out from the shores of Michigan. The Chippewa at the time of the first French explorers called the place Mish-i-nim-auk-in-ong, which the French soon had misinterpreted as Mich-i-li-macki-in-ac. The meaning of that name has many interpretations, and like with other Indian place names may not be subject to just one of them. The most common, and perhaps most fun, is "Giant Turtle", since the island does indeed look like a turtle swimming through the strait. "Gathering place" is another likely interpretation, since tribes from different areas of the coast would use the island as a neutral meeting and trading place before white exploration. "The Place of the Giant Fairies" has been proferred, since the islands limestone rock formations can indeed look human from a distance.
The first white man to see the straits of Mackinac was Jean Nicolet, who was doing a survey of the area for the governor of Canada, Samuel de Champlain, in 1634. The first European to actually record the existence of the island was Father Jean Claude Allouey in 1669, who himself did not visit the island, but heard about it from the nearby tribes. In 1670, Pere Jaques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary extremely important in the history of northern Michigan, wintered on Mackinac Island while building the mission at St. Ignace.
Soon after, Mackinac Island became an important center of the French fur trade, with an accompanying military presence to guard to rich trade from the incursions of raiding tribes or pirates. The United Kingdom gained control of the island after the French and Indian War in 1759. The first British troops settled what is now Mackinaw City in 1761. Fort Michilimackinac was on the northern tip of the lower peninsula of Michigan, not on Mackinac Island, but within clear view of it. At this time, there were no European inhabitants of the Island itself. In 1763, Chief Pontiac of the Chippewa gained entrance to the fort with 350 braves under the guise of a friendly ball game to amuse the English soldiers. They slaughtered 93 of the soldiers and took control of the fort until additional troops were sent in 1764. Alexander Henry, and English trader who had many friends among the Chippewa, was saved by Wawatum, who took the trader to Mackinac Island and hid him in Skull Cave. Henry was disguised as a Chippewa by his friends and lived among them until he could safely return to British territory.
In 1780, the British paid the Chippewa 5000 pounds for permission to construct a fort on Mackinac Island. This fort was seen as more defensible than the one on the mainland, and was completed in 1783. Through this fort, the British controlled the waterways of the Great Lakes, and there was no American attempt on the fort during the Revolutionary War.
The Treaty of Paris ceded Mackinac Island to the Americans in 1783, but the British did not move their fort to St. Joseph Island until 1796, 13 years later. On September 1, 1796, the Union Jack was lowered, and the Stars and Stripes raised over Mackinac Island.
The Americans didn't keep the Island for long. On June 12, 1812, President James Madison of the United States declared war against Britain. The head of the British forces on St. Joseph Island, Captain Roberts, learned about the declaration of war on July 15. Mail still moved pretty slow at the time. At 3:00 in the morning, on July 16, 1812, Roberts landed on Mackinac Island. He had captured an American officer, and paroled the officer, telling him to keep what he knew secret, but to move the inhabitants of Mackinac Village to the safety of the west side of the island. At 9:00 in the morning, the American commander found hundreds of British and Canadian soldiers in commands of the heights of the island, with artillery aimed at the weakest points of the fort (which they had built after all). At 11:30, the British offered surrender terms under the flag of truce, which is the first news the American commander received of the state of war with Britain. After some deliberation, all American forces surrendered, and were allowed to leave the island. Over the next two years, the Americans made a few attempts to take back the island, but were constantly rebuffed by the entrenched, and aware, British forces. The US did not regain control of the Island until 1815, after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed. There was a nice ceremony where the British handed over the keys, with what I imagined was a somewhat smug smile. The US has never lost control of the Island since, nor has there been a battle fought there since.
During all of this, the fur trade continued to be important to the island, with an eventual conglomeration of trading companies in 1814 by New York businessman John Jacob Astor, with a new name, the American Fur Company. This enterprise flourished for 30 years, before moving to the Northwest States. In the 1860's, fishing became the major trade of Mackinac, with whitefish and trout destined for eastern markets. In the 1880's, sport fishing became popular, and Mackinac Island started providing the resort services for which it would eventually become famous.
Through the 1880's, rich midwestern industrialists would build large, Victorian cottages on the west side of the island. This culminated in the creation of Plank's Grand Hotel, later simply the Grand Hotel, in 1887. This hotel, the most recognizable landmark on the Island, was built with railroad money, and initially served as a getaway for wealthy industrialists. Built on a Grecian style, with Michigan white pine and a remarkable sense of extravagence, the hotel was one of the largest resorts built in the era. The Grand Hotel still operates today, and has maintained, through a long and somewhat tortured history, the charm of its 1887 creation. The hotel is so classically preserved, it served as the site of the 1946 movie This Time for Keeps starring Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams, AND the 1979 movie Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeves and Jane Seymour. If this place is cool enough for Superman, it's cool enough for you.
This timeless quality is probably what Mackinac Island is most famous for. 80% of the island is in public hands, with most of that being federal or state parks. This limits development on the island, keeping the late 19th century cottages and hotels as the main architecture of the place. Most famously, the first car was introduced to the Island in 1919, and the residents took an immediate dislike to it. Since that time, all motor vehicles have been banned from the island. Transportation is most commonly achieved by horse, bike, or even walking. The whole island is only about 9 miles around.
Tourism is obviously the main industry of the present day island. And as a cynical, native Michiganian I do blushingly admit that there is good reason for it. The position of the Island means that you get some pretty spectacular, beautiful days surrounded by the clear waters of the northern great lakes. The west side of the island offers these pretty amazing views of the sunset framed by the equally impressive Mackinac Bridge.
There are several hotels, beds and breakfastses and so on for spending a bit of time, or there is a convenient ferry from nearby St. Ignace that allows for day trips. This summer was the first time I had gone, and there are some really interesting things to do. Biking around the island is dead easy, and a really gorgeous way to spend an hour or so. Even fat, lazy guys can easily bike around the whole island. For the more adventurous, you can either ride a bike or a horse up into the center of the island, which can be relatively steep, and see sites of historical interest, or just relax under an ancient oak tree in a field.
Like most the rest of the world, the place has been pretty heavily commercialized. Fudge and taffy are great, but there's only so many little gift shops one can look at before deciding to bugger commerce altogether. Still, that's only a small area of the island, and the rest of it remains pretty much unscathed. Only a couple blocks from gift shop hell you are back in an area where people live year round, where blacksmiths actually have work and where it's a really relaxed atmosphere.
In June, there is a Lilac Festival that roughly corresponds with the blooming of the innumerable lilac bushes planted on the island. It's worth the crowds to be there during this time, and that's saying alot. The scent of the island during this period is freaking incredible.
Perhaps the corollary here is hell being other people. The summer months at Mackinac Island are crowded with tourists, and their incumbent problems. I recommend visiting the island before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Not only is it cheaper, but the fall up there can be incredibly beautiful, and so relaxing you'll stand at the dock seriously considering faking your death for a while.