2004-12-11 / Editorials

Mackinac Island Once Enjoyed Population Equal to Detroit, Chicago

A Look at History Fur Trade
By Frank Straus

A Look at History
Fur Trade

In the winter of 1804, 200 years ago, the populations of Chicago, Detroit, Mackinac Island, and St. Louis were roughly equal. Mackinac Island had about five hundred people living in it, which was a little more than the number it has today. Detroit and St. Louis had a few more people, and Chicago had a few less. Also in late 1804, 33 American explorers headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were in their winter camp in what would become North Dakota, preparing to head westward along the upper Missouri River toward the Pacific Ocean.

Today, millions of people live in Greater Chicago, millions of people live in Greater Detroit, a couple of million people live in Greater St. Louis, and a few hundred people live year-around on Mackinac Island.

Remnants of the American Fur Company. The Stuart House in 1943, after restoration by the Park and Harbor Commission. A portion of the Clerk’s Quarters is at right. That site is now occupied by the post office. (Photo by Robert Benjamin, courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann.)Remnants of the American Fur Company. The Stuart House in 1943, after restoration by the Park and Harbor Commission. A portion of the Clerk’s Quarters is at right. That site is now occupied by the post office. (Photo by Robert Benjamin, courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann.) What happened?

In 1804, Mackinac Island was the center of the American fur trade. More animals that produced pelts of the types demanded in Europe were harvested from the upper Great Lakes, centering on Mackinac Island, than from anywhere else in the young country. The aggressive young New York millionaire, John Jacob Astor, was directing the workers of his American Fur Company to harvest furs from the Great Lakes. Shops, stores, and even a large warehouse (1810) rose on Mackinac Island’s Market Street. With one of America’s most lucrative industries at its back, the economic future of Mackinac Island seemed to be assured.

Although the Lewis and Clark expedition’s primary goal was to find a route to the Pacific, they had also been asked by President Jefferson to take careful notes of the wildlife and natural history of the lands through which they traveled. They did, and when they returned to “civilization” in late 1806, they brought news that the upper Missouri and the Pacific Coast both contained lucrative new fur-bearing territories. In addition to beaver and other fur-bearing animals, the upper Missouri country contained countless buffalo, which could be killed for their hides. The Pacific Northwest coast was the home of many aquatic mammals, including the sea otter, whose pelt was valued above all others by the wealthy men of China.

After reading reports from the Lewis and Clark expedition, Astor began to shift his attention westward. He issued orders that led to the construction of America’s first Pacific Coast trading post, Astoria, Oregon, on a site adjacent to the explorers’ Fort Clatsop. He also re-invested an increasing percentage of his profits from the Great Lakes in a new business office, based in St. Louis, and ordered his employees there to take over a dominant market share of the upper Missouri River fur trade.

After the War of 1812, the American Fur Company’s Mackinac Island headquarters played a steadily diminishing role in the affairs of the overall company. Most of the company’s financial records are lost, but the overall picture is clear: more and more of the Company’s employees and trade goods were assigned to posts west of the Mississippi River, while the Mackinac Island division tightened its belt and increased the efficient utilization of what it had. Although the Great Lakes fur trade was still profitable, and the company built a fine new house on Market Street in 1817 for Mackinac Island division chief Robert Stuart, Mr. Astor paid less and less attention to the doings of his subordinates on the Northern border.

Meanwhile, the reputation of Lewis and Clark as explorers continued to grow, especially after Lewis’ tragic death in 1809. William Clark was appointed Governor of Missouri Territory and served from 1813 to 1820. As governor, he used his experience in dealing with the American Indians to foster the St. Louis-based fur trade. Under Clark’s leadership, Missouri grew rapidly. It was admitted to the Union and became a state in 1820, while Michigan Territory, which had become a backwater, did not become a state until 1837.

The late 1830s and 1840s saw St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit all take starts toward their destiny as urban centers. Heavy immigration from countries in Europe other than England, such as Germany and Ireland, began to furnish thousands of aggressive young families. Many of them settled in America’s fledgling cities. During the same period, Mackinac Island’s remaining fur trade entered its time of final collapse. The American Fur Company withdrew from the Island, abandoning most of its books and records in the Stuart House. There, almost all of them were dispersed, with the exception of one box of papers that give a glimpse of the prices of furs and trade goods quoted by the Company and its traders.

The life of Mackinac Island began to center on its docks, the shipping of barreled fish, and the entertainment of a steadily growing number of travelers. By 1898, Mackinac Island had finalized its new destiny as a summer tourist center. The preservation of most of the land of the Island within the boundaries of the three-year-old State Park ensured that Mackinac’s year-around population would never rise above a few hundred people.

1898 was also the year that the people of the Missouri River held the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, and dedicated to Lewis, Clark, and the American Indians. From all directions, 2.6 million Americans traveled to attend the immense fair and celebrate the agricultural and industrial bounty of the Great Plains, which Lewis and Clark had opened to the United States. As part of the celebration, the faces of Lewis, Clark, and a bull buffalo were stamped on a newly printed $10 bill, which was reissued every year until 1927.

In the fall and winter of 2004-05, interest in Lewis and Clark was greater than ever, with increasing interest in Indian and Meti expedition participants such as Sacajawea, Charbonneau, and Drouillard. The federal mint began to stamp images from the Lewis and Clark expedition on a series of five-cent pieces. Huge sacks of these coins were shipped to banks in Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, Portland in Oregon, and other cities that were born out of the world that Lewis and Clark had helped to make.

Meanwhile, the slap of the beaver tail was once again heard on the wetlands of northern Michigan. Not so often did this enterprising rodent have to fear the cruel traps set for it by the gatherers of previous generations. Furry pelts were no longer an essential part of the world’s fashions. As the fall tourist season drew to an end, the white walls of Fort Mackinac returned to their winter sleep on the top of a quiet hill in northern Michigan.

Return to top