Long ago, Native Americans paddled their birchbark canoes to the Straits of Mackinac during summertime searches for whitefish and lake trout. Their catches were so plentiful that they called the Straits “the home of the fish.”
Native American legend has it that a turtle named Makinauk helped to create Mackinac Island. Makinauk let his animal friends rest on his back if they were cold or tired. Sometimes they would gather around Makinauk and listen to him tell stories. One of those stories was about how the Great Spirit of the Sky decided to build a lovely piece of land for animals to rest upon, but first, an animal needed to dive deep into the water, return with a handful of soil and place it upon Makinauk’s back. Loons, otters and beavers tried, but a muskrat was finally successful. Rocks, trees and colorful flowers grew from the soil the muskrat put on the turtle’s back, creating a special place surrounded by brilliant deep blue water. The outline of the island resembled Mackinauk’s large, round back, so the Native Americans called the special, peaceful place Michilimackinac Island, or “Land of the Great Turtle.”
Natural features contributed to the island’s sacredness. Arch Rock, rising nearly 150 feet above the water, is an eroding limestone formation caused by retreating glaciers, water and wind. Native Americans regarded this place as where the Great Creator blew the breath of life into the earth. Sugar Loaf, another limestone mass standing 75 feet above the forest, was regarded as the Great Spirit’s original dwelling place.
In 1668, two Jesuit priests named Father Jacques Marquette and Father Claude Dablon arrived at this special place in present-day northern Michigan, establishing a mission in to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. They gave converts rings marked with the symbol of the Jesuit order and the Cross of Lorain, a distinctive piece that became popular trading barter.
After establishing a settlement called Sault Ste. Marie, the priests built a birchbark chapel on Mackinac Island in 1670. Two years later, Father Marquette left to join an expedition to explore the course of the Mississippi River throughout the American West.
The Catholic presence on Mackinac Island continued with the construction of a new church named Sainte Anne de Michilimackinac in 1715. A new church was built in the 1820s at its present location on the east side of the island’s harbor, which was replaced with the current building in the 1870s.
Other places of worship on the island followed, including the Protestant Mission church built in 1829 and the Union Congregational Church’s Little Stone Church, built with island stones and dedicated in 1905.
Mackinac Island’s geographical location made it an especially desirable place at which the British established a military fort during the Revolutionary War. Sitting high atop a limestone bluff overlooking the Straits of Mackinac, Fort Mackinac was taken over by the Americans in 1796, then recaptured by the British during the War of 1812. It remained an active military establishment until 1895. Today, visitors can tour the fort’s 14 original buildings and participate in military re-enactments.
During peak season, Girl Scouts from throughout Michigan are selected to participate in the Mackinac Island Scout Service Camp, spending seven days welcoming visitors to Fort Mackinac’s buildings, participating in flag ceremonies and performing service projects.
Fur traders were also drawn to the island because of its ideal location as a stopover for men delivering fur pelts to the east and trade goods to the west. In 1808, John Jacob Astor established the American Fur Company, which was headquartered on the island until the fur trade peaked in the early 1840s. Today, the American Fur Company’s circa-1817 headquarters is known as the Robert Stuart House Museum, named for Astor’s resident manager. The museum includes fur company ledgers, fur weighing scales, and even a collection of wooden historical markers depicting scenes from the island’s history that were created during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration.
As the religious, military and fur trading heyday waned, a new industry that would revolutionize the island was just about to begin – tourism.
For more on Mackinac Island’s history, read The Legend of Mackinac Island, by Kathy-jo Wargin and Mackinac, by Donna Marie Lively.