2018-12-08 / Columnists

A Look at History

Mackinac County Celebrates Its Bicentennial This Fall

Mackinac County

This fall, 2018, marks the bicentennial of Mackinac County. This is the county of Michigan that contains Mackinac Island, and it used to have our Island as its county seat. The 1839 Mackinac County Courthouse, which stands today on Market Street as the Island’s police station, is a reminder of our county heritage. The boundaries of Mackinac County on the Upper Peninsula’s mainland that stretch many miles to our west, and cover the islands to our south and east, are faint reminders of a time two centuries ago when our Island was the largest organized Euro- American settlement in northern Michigan.

In October 1818 in Detroit, thenterritorial governor Lewis Cass, who was the presiding officer over that section of the American frontier called “Michigan Territory,” issued an order and drew lines on the map, and Michilimackinac County came to be. The new county would have the right, like America’s older counties, to have courts, a jail, and a sheriff. These were essentialities. We know a lot about what 19th-century people wanted to create county governments to do, because we have a record of another Michigan county that did not do them – and paid a price for it. In his annual State of the State report to the legislature, Governor John Bagley said in 1877 of Manitou County: “No courts have been held for years. The county offices are vacant a large portion of the time; there is no jail; debts cannot be collected by process of law.” Therefore, the governor said, “I recommend the county organization be discontinued.” In 1895 the inactive county, which centered on Beaver Island, was officially dissolved and its islands annexed into nearby mainland jurisdictions.

In 1818, money was starting to get invested on Mackinac Island and in neighboring patches of the Michigan mainland. Owners of property tend to want to have a courthouse. Up until the War of 1812 the Straits of Mackinac was dominated by Native North Americans and by the fur trade, the act of bringing gifts and goods to the Natives to exchange for their surplus peltry. Until the 1810s, the dominant laws of northern Michigan were the tribal customs of the people who lived there and, in the spots where Euro-American soldiers lived in forts, European and American military law.

With the coming of peace in 1815, this was no longer enough. The dominant political voice of his time, James Monroe, made the rapid pacification and reduction of security on the northern frontier of the young United States a keystone of his postwar work as Secretary of State. At the time, on the other side of the frontier was the United Kingdom, the world’s greatest superpower, and the U.S. had barely survived fighting against it. Monroe believed that a policy of tough friendship with Great Britain, and its colonies in Canada, would swing key London bankers from hostility into support for the troubled young country south of the border. Monroe further strategized, accurately, that this policy would be a political platform that could get him elected President in 1816. After taking the White House oath of office in March 1817, Monroe continued and intensified his administration’s focus on this goal. Territorial Governor Lewis Cass, who answered directly to Washington, was very much plugged into this overall national policy when he created our new county.

Governor Cass also listened to a voice from New York City. By far the biggest investor and employer at the Straits of Mackinac was John Jacob Astor and his American Fur Company. The Company’s business model depended on maintaining authority over a lot of employees, many of them rambunctious young men, who had signed long-term employment contracts as a necessary condition of being licensed to come inland to what was then “Indian country.” One of these youths, the young Vermonter Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, who would become the founder of our Island’s “Hubbard’s Annex,” had a typical story. Searching for a way out of his poverty-stricken family into a world of hard work and possible success in life, the teenage Hubbard had signed a five-year contract earlier in 1818 with the Fur Company. From his clerk’s depot on Mackinac Island, Hubbard would work devilish hours for half a decade, staking out trapping lands and Indian contacts for the Company in western Michigan and northern Illinois. Throughout the late 1810s and the 1820s a small army of Mackinac-based clerks and traders, Hubbard’s friends and in-house rivals, would do the same: and in New York, Astor grew very, very rich. Yet employment contracts of this sort had to have some sort of machinery of enforcement.

And so Governor Cass made Mackinac Island the governing seat of a county with sprawling boundaries. Old hand-colored maps of Michigan show half of the future state bearing the tint that says “Michilimackinac County.” The county’s powers further increased when Michigan became a state in 1837. The frontier years were coming to an end, the Native tribes and bands of the Upper Great Lakes were coming under ruthless pressure to cede their lands and accept big chunks of American law, and in 1839 the proud county built the soaring wooden Courthouse that stands on Market Street to this day.

Yet in these same trends was something that would bring Mackinac County’s late-1830s boom years to a quick end. The new state’s legislature was starting to count the settlers who were starting to pour in. Just as Cass had drawn his lines, so starting in 1840 did the legislature draw theirs. They subdivided the Upper Peninsula and the northern half of the Lower Peninsula into smaller, neater land parcels. By the end of this process, all Mackinac County had left was a great chunk of Upper Peninsula square mileage around the new county seat of St. Ignace – and, in the Straits of Mackinac, the islands of Bois Blanc, Round, and Mackinac, to remind the old county of the Great Lakes empire over which it had once ruled. To this day the people of Bois Blanc, even though they buy all supplies through Cheboygan, must go to St. Ignace to do their county business.

Mackinac is still mildly grateful to Lewis Cass for his long-ago generosity and recognition to our Island, and a historical marker honors him on our East Bluff.

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Great article and certainly

Great article and certainly one of the most comprehensive I have read. Many of us island natives have taken the great work of our forefathers for granted. Their vision of the future amazes me
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