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British invaders overwhelmed Mackinac 200 years ago this week

Patrick Sullivan - July 16th, 2012  

British soldiers didn’t take Mackinac Island entirely by surprise 200 years ago, though they may as well have.

When the British invaded on July 17, 1812, they found the Americans unprepared because news of the war had not yet reached this frontier outpost, even though President James Madison had declared war on the British a month earlier.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some suspicious activity going on around the Straits of Mackinac leading up to the siege -- a day before the British arrived in a flotilla from St. Joseph Island, near Sault Ste. Marie, the commander of Fort Mackinac had a sense of foreboding.

Lt. Porter Hanks watched as canoe after canoe carrying Native American warriors cut through Lake Huron and passed the southern shore of the island, headed east toward Fort St. Joseph.

What was more disconcerting, said Craig Wilson, museum historian for the Mackinac State Historic Parks, was the temperament of the Native Americans.

“He had noticed large numbers of native people heading up towards St. Joseph Island, but he also says that the native people were acting coolly toward him, they weren’t as friendly as they had been, so that kind of aroused his suspicions,” Wilson said.

A day before war was to break out in Michigan, the American commander decided to send a spy into Canada.


A question arises, though, as the British prepared an attack and the Americans on Mackinac Island were completely unaware -- how was it that the British forces in the Upper Great Lakes found out so much sooner than the Americans that war had been declared?

Didn’t the Americans make it a priority to alert their forts in the frontier?

“I don’t know that they didn’t make it a priority,” said Phil Porter, executive director of Mackinac State Historic Parks and chairman of the Michigan War of 1812 committee. “You have to be cognizant of communication processes at that time. There was really no way to get word out here until it was physically brought.”

It happened that the British were lucky. John Jacob Astor, magnate and owner of the American Fur Company, was near Washington when war was declared.

Astor wanted to protect his interests so he sent out a messenger to warn his far-flung fur trading offices. One of those happened to be on St. Joseph’s Island, in Ontario, where Astor’s messenger reached his company and also alerted the British to the war around July 4, 1812.

Having early knowledge of the war first gave the British a huge advantage, but the news shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. There had been tension between the Americans and the British for years.

Although much of the conflict between the countries took place on the Atlantic Ocean over trade and the impressing of American sailors by the British to fight Napoleon in Europe, there was also concern in the west among Americans that the British were arming native tribes and encouraging hostility toward the Americans.

“I think both British and American forces on the frontier were aware that there was a declining relationship between the United States and Great Britain, and had been for some time,” Porter said.


When British Capt. Charles Roberts, commander of Fort St. Joseph, learned of the war, he knew immediately he needed to bolster his force, which consisted of a garrison of 39 men.

Roberts began enlisting fur traders and French Canadians to help with the task of taking Mackinac Island, a fort the British had built and then lost after the Revolutionary War. Roberts also recruited hundreds of Odawa, Ojibway, Winnebego, Menominee and Dakota warriors.

The British wanted Mackinac because, in addition to its strategic importance, it was the hub of the fur trade, which at the time was the region’s economic engine.

“The fur trade was essentially what everybody was up here to do, there wasn’t much else,” Wilson said.

In less than two weeks, Roberts had assembled a force of over 600 men. The small army launched on the schooner Caledonia, along with a fleet of canoes, for the 45 mile journey to the island, which they planned to take by surprise.

“One of the things that the British had worked very, very hard at, for about five years, was cultivating these good relationships with Native peoples, with local Canadians, and really keeping their troops on their toes,” Wilson said. “The Americans were content to just believe that once war was declared, everyone would up and volunteer for the war, which did not happen.”


Just as this flotilla of the British and their allies headed to Mackinac Island, the spy recruited by Lt. Hanks was headed the opposite way to St. Joseph’s.

Hanks had tapped a man who owned a farm in the island for the mission, Michael Dousman, because Dousman was a member of the American militia and he was a fur trader. Hanks believed this meant he could be trusted and his presence on St. Joseph’s wouldn’t arouse suspicions.

Dousman’s mission was doomed, however.

“He only made it about half way there when he got captured by the flotilla that was coming this way for the attack,” Porter said.

It’s unclear exactly what role Dousman played for the British -- whether he was forced by circumstances to cooperate, or whether he actually switched sides and willingly aided the British. Either way, he served the British well during the invasion.

“When they got to the island, he was allowed to go free with the understanding that he would go to the village, gather the civilians under the protection of the British, and he would not warn the American commander,” Porter said. “It appears as though he did keep his word.”


On a typical day on Mackinac Island, for an ordinary soldier, life would have been pretty dull in 1812.

“Your normal daily routine would consist of waking up at the same time, taking your meals at the same time, performing a lot of manual labor to keep the fort maintained, doing construction work and things like that, performing standing guard duty, going to drills -- basically the same thing day in and day out,” Wilson said.

An invasion of the island by foreign troops definitely would have gotten the American troops’ hearts pumping.

On July 17, 1812, for almost all of the soldiers at Fort Mackinac, the day was like any other day, until 10 a.m.

“The events of the 17th were probably the most exciting thing that most of these men had experienced, but not in a good way, “ Wilson said. “It literally seems like the British showed up and it was a complete surprise.”

At 10 a.m., the British shot a cannon ball over the fort.

“You would have woken up in the morning and at 10 o’clock, you would have been quite surprised to hear the roar of a cannon behind your fort,” Porter said. “That’s when the British fired a single shot to announce they were in position and prepared to attack.”

The Americans soon learned the British and their allies had occupied high ground above the fort and the Americans were outnumbered.


Hanks must have been in an awkward position. He didn’t ask to become commander of the military at Mackinac Island. And now it was under siege.

Taking command of the island “was probably something he never expected to do,” Wilson said. “He had gone up there with a commanding officer who happened to die in 1811, and no replacement was ever sent up, so Hanks got the job.”

Hanks might have suspected something was up that day, but he apparently didn’t expect an invasion.

“He even says in his official report to William Hull (the Army commander in Detroit), the moment he saw this British force up on the heights, he says, ‘This was my first information of war,’ this is the first time he’s even aware this was happening,” Wilson said.

That morning, the British and their allies landed on the north end of the island at around 3 a.m.

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