2017-07-14 / News

A History of the Borough of Michilimackinac, City of Mackinac

By Cathryn Lien


“Michilimackinac from Round Island,” by Major Francis Belton, September 1817, is part of the Richard and Jane Manoogian Collection. Fort Mackinac can be seen in the forefront of the Island with Fort Holmes at the peak. This is the only composition that shows Fort Holmes in use. A Native American encampment is shown on the jut of land where Round Island Lighthouse now stands. A steamer can be seen in the traffic of merchant vessels. Steamers were not used in Straits of Mackinac until 1819. According to historian Brian Dunnigan, the steamer was added later by Belton, presumably to modernize the composition. “Michilimackinac from Round Island,” by Major Francis Belton, September 1817, is part of the Richard and Jane Manoogian Collection. Fort Mackinac can be seen in the forefront of the Island with Fort Holmes at the peak. This is the only composition that shows Fort Holmes in use. A Native American encampment is shown on the jut of land where Round Island Lighthouse now stands. A steamer can be seen in the traffic of merchant vessels. Steamers were not used in Straits of Mackinac until 1819. According to historian Brian Dunnigan, the steamer was added later by Belton, presumably to modernize the composition. On July 7, 1817, Mackinac Island’s first established local government, the Borough of Michilimackinac, held its inaugural meeting. That makes 2017 the bicentennial year for the City of Mackinac Island. Historians Phil Porter and Brian Dunnigan share their knowledge of the Island’s history before and during those 200 years with Town Crier readers.


This portrait of Major Charles Gratiot, by Thomas Sully, is in the West Point Museum Art Collection at the U.S. Military Academy. Fort Gratiot, an American stockade that stood in present-day Fort Gratiot Township of St. Clair County, was named in his honor. The site of the former fort is now Pine Grove Park in Port Huron. Gratiot drew up several elaborate plans for renovations of Fort Holmes, but before construction could begin, the relationship between the U.S. and British had improved. Gratiot drew details of Fort Mackinac, Fort Holmes, and at least three proposed plans for future forts. This portrait of Major Charles Gratiot, by Thomas Sully, is in the West Point Museum Art Collection at the U.S. Military Academy. Fort Gratiot, an American stockade that stood in present-day Fort Gratiot Township of St. Clair County, was named in his honor. The site of the former fort is now Pine Grove Park in Port Huron. Gratiot drew up several elaborate plans for renovations of Fort Holmes, but before construction could begin, the relationship between the U.S. and British had improved. Gratiot drew details of Fort Mackinac, Fort Holmes, and at least three proposed plans for future forts. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1815, ending the War of 1812 and subsequently returning Fort Mackinac from the British to the United States. By 1817, it was apparent Michilimackinac, the former name of Mackinac Island and its surrounding waters, would remain a U.S. territory.


Benjamin K. Pierce, commandant at Fort Mackinac in 1817, at an unknown location. Historian Brian Dunnigan said it’s likely that Captain Pierce was at the inaugural meeting of the Borough of Michilimackinac. He was the brother of 14th U.S. President Franklin Pierce and the son-in-law of Madame Magdelaine La Framboise, a successful fur trader and philanthropist of French and Native American descent. Capt. Pierce married Josette La Framboise in 1816 and helped build Madame La Framboise’s retirement home, which now operates as the Harbour View Inn. He also may have been involved in the 1816 building of the officers’ quarters at Fort Mackinac. He served 38 years in the U.S. military. Fort Pierce in Florida is named in his honor. Benjamin K. Pierce, commandant at Fort Mackinac in 1817, at an unknown location. Historian Brian Dunnigan said it’s likely that Captain Pierce was at the inaugural meeting of the Borough of Michilimackinac. He was the brother of 14th U.S. President Franklin Pierce and the son-in-law of Madame Magdelaine La Framboise, a successful fur trader and philanthropist of French and Native American descent. Capt. Pierce married Josette La Framboise in 1816 and helped build Madame La Framboise’s retirement home, which now operates as the Harbour View Inn. He also may have been involved in the 1816 building of the officers’ quarters at Fort Mackinac. He served 38 years in the U.S. military. Fort Pierce in Florida is named in his honor. On February 2, 1817, Indian Agent William Henry Puthuff requested on behalf of the people the establishment of the borough and funding for the building of a jailhouse. On March 15, 1817, Michigan Territory Secretary William Woodbridge proclaimed the formation of a township called Michilimackinac, citing the region’s remote location from the territorial capital of Detroit.


This 1817 map of Mackinac Island by Lt. William S. Eveleth shows a cluster of buildings below Fort Mackinac that probably includes the Indian Council house, the building which is believed to have held the first meeting of the Borough of Michilimackinac 200 years ago. (Map courtesy of William Clements Library, Ann Arbor) This 1817 map of Mackinac Island by Lt. William S. Eveleth shows a cluster of buildings below Fort Mackinac that probably includes the Indian Council house, the building which is believed to have held the first meeting of the Borough of Michilimackinac 200 years ago. (Map courtesy of William Clements Library, Ann Arbor) On April 6, 1817, a territorial act established the Borough of Michilimackinac, joining the established districts Detroit, Eerie, and St. Clair. In 1818, the territorial governor of Michigan, Lewis Cass, created Michilimackinac County and appointed the Borough of Michilimackinac as the county seat.

Undergoing both a change of name and a progression as a more sophisticated governing body, the Village of Mackinac replaced the borough. In 1898, the City of Mackinac Island became the local government. The City of Mackinac Island remained the county seat of Mackinac County until 1982, when it was moved to St. Ignace.

Fort Mackinac was a vital U.S. military post immediately after the War of 1812 for a number of reasons, says Phil Porter, director of Mackinac State Historic Parks, chiefly because of its nearness to the Canadian border, which at the time was under the control of the British Empire.

Because of its strategic importance to the United States, Fort Mackinac received its largest contingent of soldiers, more than 300, in 1817. Fort Mackinac’s garrison also was necessary to maintain U.S. relations with the Native Americans, who outnumbered European settlers on Mackinac Island. The garrison protected the flow of the fur trade, a significant national industry.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs established offices on Mackinac Island and the Indian Council building became the interface for the U.S. government and the Anishinaabe tribes. The Indian Council, house, which is where the inaugural meeting would have taken place, likely was among a group of government buildings that stood on the grounds of today’s Marquette Park. These buildings can be seen on a hand-drawn map by Lieutenant William S. Eveleth, provided by Brian Dunnigan, curator of the map collection at William Clements Library, University of Michigan.

Eveleth’s map also shows the army wharf, located where the Visitor’s Center dock now stands. Skull Cave (then Skull Rock), Sugar Loaf Rock, and Arch Rock also are on this map, proving that these natural monuments attracted the attention of Island visitors as they still do today.

The inaugural meeting of the Borough of Michilimackinac, Mr. Dunnigan said, was held to appoint William Henry Puthuff as warden (mayor), two burgesses (councilmen), a clerk, a treasurer, and a marshal. Borough of Michilimackinac officials’ powers included road commission, tax collecting governing over markets and commerce, and supervising wharves and anchorages.

Fort Mackinac and the local governing body always have been the two entities managing Mackinac Island. The Borough of Michilimackinac was given legal jurisdiction over Island property not under other governmental control. Fort Mackinac has retained its control over 80 percent of the Island’s grounds, first as a military garrison and now as one of Michigan’s state parks. From 1817 to the present day, the City of Mackinac Island has had authority over 20 percent of the Island.

A recent decision by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission to sell three parcels in Hubbard’s Annex through a bid process is an example of how the original guidelines of the Borough of Michilimackinac territorial act still are implemented today. The parcels, not connected to the state park, will go on the city’s property tax rolls, once they’re approved. The buyer will need a city zoning variance to build on the property.

A continuity that has been part of Mackinac Island’s culture since the earliest Native American settlements has been its seasonal cycle of active summers and quiet winners. It was sacred ground and a significant trade and fishing post for the Anishinaabe tribes, which are believed to have been coming during the summer months since 1,000 A.D.

When European settlement began in 1670s with the Jesuit missionaries, trade on Michilimackinac expanded. The earliest mention of fur trade is French officer Baron la Houtan’s journal entry during the 1680s.

The British built Fort Mackinac during the American Revolutionary War to control the Straits of Mackinac and, by ex- tension, the fur trade on the Great Lakes, bringing garrison activity to Michilimackinac and furthering the growth of summer activity.

The American Fur Trade, founded by John Jacob Astor and brought to Michilimackinac in the early 1800s, was a transient operation, with fur trapping occurring during the winter, when the furs were most valuable, and then sold during the summer months. Now, Mackinac Island draws seasonal tourism, selling fudge in place of furs or fish, and its economy is dependent upon summer business operations.

In 1848, the Borough of Michilimackinac became the Village of Mackinac Island, and in 1898, the City of Mackinac Island. Mr. Dunnigan said these changes reflect the population growth and sophistication of the government over time, emphasizing the great number of changes Mackinac Island has experienced since the City was established 200 years ago.

Then and Now: How the City of Mackinac Island has changed in 200 years.

“You can trace the Mackinac of 1817. It has not entirely disappeared,” Mr. Dunnigan said.

In the year 1817

Fort Mackinac is an active military post on a strategic border for the United States. It’s located on the Straits of Mackinac, the upper Great Lakes highway system, and is very close to Canada, which is governed by the British Empire, which the United States recently fought in the War of 1812.

Fur trade is the dominant industry. Native Americans outnumber the European settlers, and tribes own large sections of Michigan territory. There is seasonal rhythm to the island, with the summer population rising to ten times the winter population.

The population is eclectic and diverse, containing American, French, British, Canadian, Irish, and Native Americans. With Fort Mackinac under U.S. control, British and Canadians gradually move out, but the fur trade keeps a great many from leaving.

The Borough of Michilimackinac is congested with traders. Employees work in warehouses and on the docks. Until the 1950s, people will come to the Island in big clumps by merchant vessels, cruise ships, railroads, or lake steamers. The first ferry system, Arnold Mackinac Island Ferry, will not be established until 1838. On the Island, the main mode of transportation is horsedrawn carriages.

Tourism is active, though it will not be the dominant commerce of the Island until the early 20th century.

The 1810s are a decade of military tourists, with officers surveying and inspecting the northern frontier.

In the 1820s, the Island draws scientific tourists who come to record geological and botanical research of the Island.

The 1830s usher in literary tourism, attracting writers such as Margaret Fuller. Henry David Thoreau will visit in 1861 and Ernest Hemingway in the 20th century.

The 1840 and 1850s see residential tourism, with many southerners coming to enjoy the Island’s cooler climate, the fresh air, and the natural environment. The Civil War ends southern tourism until the 20th century.

In 1817, four or five farms operate on the north end of the Island, in today’s area of Harrisonville, Stonecliffe, and Hubbard’s Annex. Wawashkamo Golf Course and the Mackinac Horseman’s Association Community Equestrian Center are on the site of a farm owned by Michael Dousman, one of the wealthiest and most influential men during his time. Most of the people settle downtown.

The natural park area is only half the size it is today, owing to the farms and a large cutting of timber. By 1815, the garrison and the American fur company cut their timber from Bois Blanc Island. The state park now sees natural regeneration.

By 1840s, tourists begin to write about their appreciation for the forest area of the Island.

The Anishinaabe tribes come to Mackinac Island to fish, trade, and worship. In Ojibway legends, Sugar Loaf Rock is the wigwam of the Great Spirit, Gitchi Manitou. These tribes stay for the summer months but never permanently settle.

In the year 2017

The Borough of Michilimackinac has become the City of Mackinac Island. Fort Mackinac is a historical site and tourist attraction operated by Mackinac State Historic Parks. The State Park State Commission and the city council still maintain a partnership and comanage the Island.

The road system established in 1817 remains. Main and Market streets have expanded east and west, from Mission Point Resort to Windermere Point and beyond. 1887 sees the opening of Grand Hotel and subsequent establishment of Harrisonville, where many Island residents and employees are housed.

Other present day settlements include Woodbluff, Stonebrooke, and the East and West Bluffs. Farming has become obsolete.

There is a fair amount of architectural

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