2016-07-23 / People

Dunnigan Earns Lifetime Achievement Award for History Research

By Jordyn Hermani


Mackinac Island resident Brian Leigh Dunnigan in the William L. Clements Library Map Room at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Mr. Dunnigan is being honored with the Lifetime Achievement award from Fort Niagara for his work with the Battle of LaBelle-Famille. (Photograph courtesy of Philip Datilo at the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan) Mackinac Island resident Brian Leigh Dunnigan in the William L. Clements Library Map Room at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Mr. Dunnigan is being honored with the Lifetime Achievement award from Fort Niagara for his work with the Battle of LaBelle-Famille. (Photograph courtesy of Philip Datilo at the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan) After roughly 20 years of work with historic Fort Niagara, Mackinac Island resident Brian Leigh Dunnigan will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work regarding the Battle of LaBelle-Famille, colloquially known as the Battle of Youngstown.

To be presented Sunday, July 24, at Fort Niagara in Youngstown, New York, the award comes 20 years after leaving his position as Fort Niagara’s executive director. He is credited with research that helped pinpoint the correct location of the Battle of Youngstown.

Mr. Dunnigan began researching the Battle of LaBelle-Famille when he became convinced the historical marker at the location of the skirmish was in the wrong location. By poring over notes, journals, and other historical artifacts from around the time of the battle, he learned that recollections of the battle placed the marker a mile closer to the fort than it currently stands.

“A lot of research is cumulative in a place like Fort Niagara,” Mr. Dunnigan said. “You find something and file it away until you end up having a fair amount of information in the file to write about. I was interested in where the battle site was, and during the course of my research, I quickly became convinced the marker was about a mile too far from the fort.”

While he attributes some of his work to the help of his colleagues at Fort Niagara, Mr. Dunnigan did much of the legwork in study- ing the Battle of LaBelle-Famille. At the award ceremony, employees of Fort Niagara will move the placard to the correct location of the battle, as indicated in Mr. Dunnigan’s research.

By 1996, Mr. Dunnigan had studied the battlegrounds surrounding Fort Niagara, prior to writing “Siege 1759: The Campaign Against Niagara” regarding the Battle of LaBelle-Famille. The book revolves around British efforts to capture Fort Niagara from occupation by the French. Mr. Dunnigan describes the battle as a fight between the British against the allied French and Native Indian population of Canada.

The fighting itself only lasted 15 minutes, Mr. Dunnigan said, which he tacks up to “French overconfidence.” As the British knew where the French would be attacking from, they established a 450-man “blocking force” which forced nearly 800 Frenchmen and a few hundred Native Canadians to retreat and subsequently lose the fort in a matter of days.

The success of this battle was largely considered a key factor in the victory of the British in the French and Indian War.

One of his favorite aspects about studying history is realizing that, while the battles and problems took place long ago, many of the driving forces and reasons for fighting are factors people fight for today. Mr. Dunnigan uses the example of the Battle of LaBelle-Famillie, citing the overconfidence of the French as a trait which is both the motivation and the downfall of military battles both in post-1750s battles and beyond.

“Times change, but people don’t really,” he said. “People always have similar reactions to things. The overconfidence of the side of the French at the battle led to their downfall and the loss of new French territories in Detroit and Ohio, which was a major part in the War (of 1812).”

Mr. Dunnigan continues his historical research, taking up topics related more to Michigan. In the works and on the horizon are a biography of a Fort Mackinac officer, early Detroit, and the Straits of Mackinac.

He holds master’s degrees in Historical Museum Practice from State University of New York College and in history from the University of Michigan.

His family had a summer home on the East Bluff and his interest in history began in his youth on Mackinac Island playing at Fort Mackinac. Then, the fort had yet to undergo reconstruction, and the young Mr. Dunnigan spent much of his time playing in the blockhouses. As a result, history became a major point of interest for him, specifically military history.

The Battle of LaBelle-Famille in particular became a focal point in his research career owing to his interest in the “colorful military history” that time period holds.

When not working at the University of Michigan as the Curator of Maps of the William L. Clements Library, Mr. Dunnigan lives in Jackson with his wife, Candice. They also have a home on the east shore of Mackinac Island.

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