Where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron, you’ll find a small, quaint island totaling five square miles named Mackinac Island (pronounced Mack-i-naw). But don’t let its size fool you—this tiny island has a big story. From serving as a fur trading post to playing an integral role in the American Revolutionary War, Mackinac Island has a rich history worth exploring. Today, much of its past is preserved. In fact, not a single car is allowed on the island, and it has been car-free for over 100 years, relying on horse-drawn carriages and bicycles to navigate the cobblestone streets.
Throughout this post, we’ll take a deep dive into Mackinac Island history, with a particular focus on the Revolutionary War history of Mackinac Island. For eager readers looking to experience Mackinac Island first-hand, you can take a look at Road Scholar’s educational learning adventures at Mackinac Island.
The History of Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island history dates centuries, going back more than 400 years ago when the Anishinaabek People (Odawa, Ojibway, and Potawatomi) called this place home. The Indigenous Peoples of Mackinac Island preserved its history through oral traditions and written history and used the island for fishing, trapping, and traveling through Michigan’s northern waterways. In fact, the name for Mackinac Island comes from the French-interpreted name Michilimackinac, which translates to the “Place of the Great Turtle.”
Once European settlers entered the New World, French explorers began to expand toward the Upper Great Lakes, where they eventually came across Mackinac Island and established a Catholic mission. As time went on, Mackinac Island proved useful to the French, serving as a prominent trading post for fur, which fueled New France’s economy well into the 19th century. To safeguard their post, the French constructed Fort Michilimackinac, which kept them protected until the British seized control after the French and Indian War.
Half a century later, when the Americans gained independence from Great Britain, Mackinac Island still didn’t belong to the United States until a treaty was signed after the War of 1812. During the War of 1812, the Battle of Mackinac broke out, and over two years, the fight for control of the island ensued, as it proved to be a key player in the Great Lakes fur trade. When the Treaty of Ghent put an end to the War of 1812, control went back to the United States, where American soldiers took control of Fort Mackinac.
In the sections below, we’ll look closer at the Revolutionary War history of Mackinac Island and the role Mackinac Island played in the War of 1812.
Mackinac Island During the American Revolutionary War
Now that you have a basic understanding of Mackinac Island history, let’s take an in-depth look at the Revolutionary War history of Mackinac Island. The Revolutionary War spanned from 1775-1783, and during that time, the small island of Mackinac played an integral role in American independence.
After the French lost control of Mackinac Island as a result of the French and Indian War, the British claimed the island. Once in control, the British felt that Fort Michilimackinac, the French’s fort built on the mainland at the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula (now present-day Mackinaw City), was too vulnerable to American attacks. With this in mind, the British constructed Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island.
While no attack on Fort Mackinac occurred during the American Revolutionary War, it helped the British fend off French and Native American forces during this time. Control of Mackinac Island was handed over to the United States once the American Revolution concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. However, this didn’t put an end to the desire to control Mackinac Island.
Mackinac Island During the War of 1812
While the Revolutionary War history of Mackinac Island was relatively tame and uneventful, things took a change during the War of 1812 where the U.S. and Great Britain fought over maritime rights. Fort Mackinac’s history is storied, and after the U.S. gained control after the Revolutionary War, British, Native American, and Canadian soldiers seized the island from a small American garrison.
The Americans were taken by surprise, not knowing the war was declared, resulting in their loss of Fort Mackinac. The British built a second fort, Fort George, behind Fort Mackinac for further protection. However, two years later in 1814, the first and only battle of Mackinac Island occurred—the Battle of Mackinac. During this clash, the Americans aimed to recapture the fort but proved unsuccessful. It wasn’t until the Treaty of Ghent, signed later that year, where control of the island was handed back over to the United States.
Mackinac Island Today
After Mackinac Island was put back in the hands of the Americans, it began to thrive as a fur trading post and fishing village. Then, after the Civil War ended, Mackinac Island became a popular tourist spot, becoming a National Park in 1875.
Today, Mackinac Island serves as a booming tourist hotspot due to its rich history, tranquil atmosphere, and scenery. With automobiles banned after 1898, Mackinac Island offers guests a glimpse into old-world hospitality. You can even tour or stay a night at The Grand Hotel, which is home to the longest porch in the world, overlooking the serene waters of the Straits of Mackinac.
Explore Mackinac Island History With Road Scholar
The history of Mackinac Island is filled with adventure. If you’re ready to experience what life once was, take an adventure with Road Scholar. Victorian summer cottages, untouched military outposts, charming squares, and natural spaces make Mackinac Island one of Road Scholar’s most interesting places in the world.
With a variety of learning adventures to Michigan’s first National Park to choose from, such as a trans-border discovery of Sault Ste. Marie and Mackinac Island, you’re sure to have a memorable learning adventure you won’t forget. You’ll learn through expert-led tours, make friendships with your unique cohort, and discover the history that makes Mackinac Island one of America’s best-kept secrets.