Mackinac, Straits of, and Mackinac Island

views updated


MACKINAC, STRAITS OF, AND MACKINAC ISLAND. The waters of lakes Michigan and Superior unite with Lake Huron by the Straits of Mackinac and the Saint Marys River. Lying at the crossroads of the upper Great Lakes, in the middle of the straits and within striking distance of the outlet of the Saint Marys, is Mackinac Island, widely famed for its scenic beauty and as a summer resort. When waterways were the chief highways of travel, it was renowned as a strategic center of military and commercial operations.

Historically, the Indian name Michilimackinac, and its shortened form, Mackinac, applies not only to the straits and to the adjacent mainland, but also specifically to three distinct place sites: the island, Saint Ignace on the northern mainland, and Mackinaw City on the southern mainland. In modern times, the final syllables of both island and mainland names—nac and naw—are pronounced alike to rhyme with "paw," but originally the French pronounced nac as they spelled it, to rhyme with "pack."

Before the establishment of French rule in Mackinac in the 1660s, Ottawa, Chippewa, and Huron Indians inhabited the area. Almost immediately upon arrival, the French began to intermarry with Indian women, which resulted in the creation of a Métis society that combined both French and Indian ways into a new culture. Within a century, most babies born on Mackinac Island were of mixed heritage.

The French missionary, Claude Dablon, wintered in 1670 with the Huron, and, in 1673, Louis Jolliet launched his successful search for the Mississippi River from Mackinac. The first marine disaster on the Great Lakes occurred at Mackinac in 1679, when the Griffon, the ship of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, vanished. British rule arrived in 1761, and during the American Revolution, the British moved their fort from Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island. The United States gained possession of Mackinac by the Treaty of Paris of 1783, and, in 1795, the United States and various local Indian tribes agreed to the Treaty of Greenville, which gave the United States possession of the area in exchange for annuities. During the War of 1812, however, the British forced the surrender of the garrison, and Fort Mackinac fell into British hands until 1815.

After the war and until the 1830s, Mackinac Island was the center of John Jacob Astor's fur trading business. The advent of the railroad and the decline of the fur trade,

however, wrought the doom of Mackinac as a military and commercial center. Since then, it has been promoted as a summer resort. In 1895, most of Mackinac Island became a state park, and it has retained its turn-of-the-century setting by banning automobiles from the island.

Construction of the Mackinac Bridge, from Mackinaw City over the straits to a point near Saint Ignace, began in July 1954, and the bridge opened in November 1957. It connects the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. Residents also depend on airplanes to travel to the mainland. In addition, by mid-February, an ice bridge often forms over the straits, which temporarily allows islanders to walk or snowmobile to Saint Ignace. The year-round population of Mackinac Island in 2002 was about 550.


Burley, David V., Gayel A. Horsfall, and John D. Brandon. Structural Considerations of Métis Ethnicity: An Archaeological, Architectural, and Historical Study. Vermillion: University of South Dakota Press, 1992.

Rubin, Lawrence A. Bridging the Straits: The Story of Mighty Mac. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1985.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Widder, Keith R. Battle for the Soul: Métis Children Encounter Evangelical Protestants at Mackinaw Mission, 1823–1837. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999

M. M.Quaife/a. e.

See alsoFerries ; Fox-Wisconsin Waterway ; Fur Companies ; Fur Trade and Trapping ; Indian Intermarriage ; Indian Missions ; Jolliet-Marquette Explorations ; Michigan ; Portages and Water Routes .

About this article

Mackinac, Straits of, and Mackinac Island

Updated About content Print Article