If you happened to be enjoying the beaches of Northern Michigan in the
summer of 1811, chances are you were a member of the Chippewa or Odawa
Imagine living in a bark lodge along Lake Michigan or the inland lakes
that summer. Much of the season was spent fishing and drying the catch in
preparation for the winter to come. Nights were spent under a fresco of
stars that we rarely see these days, yet these stars had gazed down on a
way of life that had existed along these shores for thousands of years.
Next year, we will honor the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 between
Britain and the United States -- a country which was barely out of its
cradle at the time. Northern Michigan played a key role in the war, and
the Mackinac Straits in particular were of global strategic importance.
So lets set the Wayback Machine for the summer before the war to set the
stage for what well be celebrating this time next year.
By most accounts, soldiers posted to the American fort at Mackinac Island
felt they had been exiled to a dreary fate at the end of the world. In the
early 1800s, Mackinac Island was at the far end of the Northwest
Territories of the United States, which had not yet acquired the lands
west of the Mississippi.
This was the wild west of its day, and yet the island was also a prize
sought by jealous empires since it guarded the water route to the fur
trade in the Old Northwest. It was North Americas version of the
fortress at Gibralter in the Mediterranean.
The fur trade originated in Montreal. Voyageurs would paddle the Ottawa
River to Lake Huron, and then through the Mackinac area, continuing on to
the western end of Lake Superior. From there, they portaged and paddled
through a chain of lakes and rivers deep into northern Canada, trading
with the Ojibwa for beaver, mink, lynx and other pelts. The furs were
shipped to London to be traded all over the world -- even as far away as
China in exchange for silk and spices.
But controlling this route was a dismal job for the troops on Mackinac
Island. Not much to do there, far from home. Boredom, heat and flies in
the summer and deadly cold in the winter.
And little did they know that on the following June, the United States
would declare war on Britain without bothering to inform the small
garrison on Mackinac Island.
In the summer of 1811, Americans had good reason to be riled up at the
British, whom wed kicked out only a generation before in the Revolution
We had three bones to pick:
For years, the press gangs of the Royal Navy had been boarding U.S.
merchant ships on the high seas and seizing our sailors to serve in the
war against Napoleon. A virtual wall of British ships blockaded French
and Spanish ports for years on end to prevent the invasion of England. The
blockade took tens of thousands of sailors in addition to hundreds of
ships, and the Royal Navy felt justified in raiding the U.S. merchant
fleet for sailors it believed to be British citizens.
The British were also believed to be egging on their Indian allies to
attack settlements in the Ohio River Valley. American settlers were
pouring into the valley, which was rich in agriculture and trade
opportunities. This understandably enraged the Indians who lived there.
The settlers had good reason to be alarmed in turn because the Shawnee
war chief Tecumseh -- a brilliant diplomat and general -- was organizing
an Indian Confederacy with the goal of uniting tribes from the Canadian
border to Florida in a bid to turn back the white tide. In the coming
year, Tecumseh would join forces with the British.
The third reason was control of Canada and the Old Northwest. The
British had grudgingly handed over their fort on Mackinac Island at the
end of the American Revolution, but they wanted it back. They maintained
their own garrison nearby on St. Josephs Island in Canadian territory.
Further south, U.S. citizens lobbied to invade Canada to seize the country
from the British.
So there you have a snippet of the summer of 1811, with the stage set for
For the Indians living in Northern Michigan, this may have been an idyllic
time before the flood of white settlement and their unfair treaties. The
first white missionary wouldnt arrive in the Grand Traverse area until 28
years later in 1839; and it wasnt until 1855 that the first missionary
landed at what is now Petoskey.
At Fort Michilimackinac at what is now Mackinaw City, a small settlement
of traders and their families served the growing commerce of the Great
Meanwhile, on Mackinac Island, the American troops endured the monotony of
life in an obscure outpost: drilling and keeping watch over the Straits,
with their cannon pointed over the waters 150 feet below.
It wasnt until the following summer that fort commander Lieutenant Porter
Hanks heard alarming reports that a large number of Indians had gathered
at the British fort on St. Josephs Island 45 miles away: Sioux from the
upper Mississippi, Menominee and Winnebago warriors from Wisconsin, along
with the regions Chippewa and Odawa.
How was Lt. Hanks to know that war with Britain had been declared in June
and an American force had already invaded Canada by crossing the Detroit
River some 350 miles to the south? There had been no news from Washington
D.C. of any kind for the past nine months.
He and his men had that revelation on July 17, 1812 when the British and
their Indian allies landed on the north shore of Mackinac Island. That
morning, two British six-pounder cannons were trained on the fort from the
defenseless high ground to its rear. With the woods swarming with 40
British troops, 180 voyageurs and 300 Indians, Lt. Hanks had a bitter
choice: the certain massacre of his garrison of less than 60 men and all
the people of the town -- as had happened at Fort Michilimackinac in 1763
-- or take a chance at surrender in the hope of mercy.
Lt. Hanks and his men surrendered without firing a shot.
Downes ebook Planet Backpacker: The Good Life Bumming Around the World
is now available on Kindle and Apple iBooks. With 75 photos from around