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 Indian tribes.
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 let’s set the Wayback Machine for the summer before the war to set the stage for what we’ll 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 drear 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 America’s 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 we’d kicked out only a generation before in the Revolution of 1776.
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. Joseph’s 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 war.
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 wouldn’t arrive in the Grand Traverse area until 28 years later in 1839; and it wasn’t 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 Lakes.
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 wasn’t 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. Joseph’s Island 45 miles away: Sioux from the upper Mississippi, Menominee and Winnebago warriors from Wisconsin, along with the region’s 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 the world.