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Fort Mackinac: A Look Back in Time on Mackinac Island, Michigan

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Scenery at Fort Mackinac

Scenery at Fort Mackinac

Some good friends made plans to visit the very scenic Mackinac Island (pronounced like Mac-in-awe) this past summer. While Lisa was taking a break from the non-stop sightseeing, her husband Doug decided to visit the historic Fort Mackinac one afternoon since he likes history and architecture.

It is a site I have yet to visit, but I remember my grandparents telling me about visiting Mackinac Island. The island is in Lake Huron. That lake is one of the five interlinked freshwater Great Lakes that separate Canada and the United States in the upper northeast portions of our country. The only one of the Great Lakes that is entirely within United States confines is Lake Michigan.

The Canadian province of Ontario borders Lake Huron to the east, with Michigan in the United States forming the western boundary. A very narrow body of water called the Straits of Mackinac separates Lake Huron from Lake Michigan. Because of this passageway between the Great Lakes, this location became historically significant and gave reason for the establishment of Fort Mackinac.

What to See at Fort Mackinac

One could probably spend quite a bit of time at Fort Mackinac. They have many seasonal employees who replicate what it was like to live and work there when the fort was operational. Costumes of soldiers and civilians as would have been worn during the 1860s and '70s are there to see.

Thick stone walls surround the 14 original buildings within the fort. Those buildings include the following: barracks, blockhouses, guardhouse, bathhouse, commissary, schoolhouse, hospital, and officer's quarters. Some of these original buildings date back to over 225 years ago.

Dioramas portray things such things as the following: episodes from the War of 1812, the British capture of the Island, the American blockade of the Island for a time, and more.

Actors perform mock court-martials here. Muskets and cannons are fired by the "soldiers" who entertain visitors during the summer while teaching them some history regarding those days in the past when Fort Mackinac was one of the most important military sites located in the Great Lakes region of the country.

The showing of films takes place in an on-site theater. There are displays that interest kids as well as adults. Places to enjoy snacks are on-site as well as restroom facilities. Pets are even allowed if kept on leashes.

Fort Mackinac History

The narrowing of the passageway between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron is called the Straits of Mackinac. Fur trading was vital back in the days of the Huron Indians and continued with the early French explorers and even enabled John Jacob Astor in the early 1800s to become one of the wealthiest men in the United States.

The French had built a fort on the mainland, but when it fell into British hands, they decided to construct a stronger stone one on Mackinac Island that would be less vulnerable to attack and command a better view of the Straits.

Thus in 1780, on a 150-foot southern bluff overlooking the Straits of Mackinac, the construction of a stone-walled fort took place during the time of the American Revolutionary War. Several fierce battles ensued, and at the end of the War of Independence between the United States and the Kingdom of Great Britain, the fort reverted to the Americans after the Treaty of Ghent.

It was a United States military post, but as the westward expansion was taking place, it became increasingly less important. Fort Mackinac held a few Confederate prisoners during the Civil War but was decommissioned in 1895 and has become a museum and historic site within the Mackinac Island State Park.

Military Medicine Discovery

Here is an interesting bit of trivia concerning military medicine at Fort Mackinac.

Dr. William Beaumont made great strides in experimenting and recording information about the human digestive tract. This discovery happened because of an accident to one person who survived a shooting in the stomach but who ended up having a gaping hole from which the good doctor could see and study the workings of the digestive system.

Sometimes that is how medical progress is made, by happenstance in this particular example. Dr. Beaumont was the author of "Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and Physiology of Digestion," published in 1833.

A National Park Becomes a State Park

In 1875, Mackinac Island National Park was the second national park created in the United States. The first one was Yellowstone. But after Fort Mackinac was closed in 1895, it reverted to the State of Michigan and became their first state park. Personally, I know of no other United States national parks that have in effect been decommissioned as such.

This state park accounts for about 74% of the entire landmass of Mackinac Island, which is only a total of 3.78 square miles in area. Now perhaps one can understand why it is easy to get around the island by walking, bicycling, or by horse-drawn carriages. The ban on automobiles took place in 1898.

Photo taken facing east from Mackinac Island

Photo taken facing east from Mackinac Island

Lake Huron

Visiting Mackinac Island located on Lake Huron is like stepping back into time. Glaciers stemming from the Ice Age sculpted all of the Great Lakes. In the case of Lake Huron, the deepest part of the lake is at 750 feet or 229 meters.

This lake is the second-largest freshwater one of the five Great Lakes, and in the entire world, it is the third-largest freshwater lake. When the French explorers "discovered" it, they thought that it was a freshwater sea. Just like the sea, one can view nothing but a seemingly endless horizon of water meeting the sky when one is on the shoreline gazing out at its vastness.

There are thousands of islands in Lake Huron, and also thousands of shipwrecks have taken place in the sometimes turbulent waters when storms whip up the wind and waves.

Notice how the border between Canada and the United States goes right through portions of the Great Lakes in the map featured below.

The Wyandot-Hurons

"Huron" refers to the second largest of the Great Lakes and also the native American people found living there. At the time of French exploration, they were assigned the name Huron by the French.

These native people were great navigators of the waterways and also hunted, fished, and farmed. The fierce Iroquois frequently battled with them, and between that and diseases which were introduced by the Europeans, ones to which they had no resistance, their numbers were decimated. Small numbers of descendants from the Wyandot-Huron tribes live in Canada and the United States today.

Indian encampment on Lake Huron by artist Paul Kane (1810–71)

Indian encampment on Lake Huron by artist Paul Kane (1810–71)


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Peggy Woods