A look at Mackinac history through the centuries

Published on December 25th, 2019

Last updated on December 6th, 2022

Mackinac Island is one of the country’s most intriguing islands for many reasons. One big reason is the history of the place and how it has shaped what Mackinac Island is today.

After all, Mackinac Island maintains deep roots in its past, and the vacation destination you know and love in the 21st century owes a lot to its history.

So, what exactly was it like on Mackinac Island in previous centuries? Here’s a look at Mackinac Island prior to 1620, 1620, 1720, 1820 and 1920. Each snippet gives us a broader sense and appreciation of why Mackinac Island is so special still today.

More than 400 years ago – Long before Europeans settled in Northern Michigan, Indigenous Peoples called this area home. Mackinac Island has been considered a sacred place for Anishinaabek People (Odawa, Ojibway, and Potawatomi) for centuries. The historical significance has been documented through oral traditions and written history. It serves as sacred burial grounds as well as an instrumental place of gathering for fishing, trapping, and navigating the northern water ways. Even the name Mackinac Island is derived from the original Native American name interpreted by the French as Michilimackinac, meaning “Place of the Great Turtle”.

400 years ago – While the Mayflower was bringing Pilgrims to New England in 1620, French explorers were venturing westward toward the Upper Great Lakes into what was then known as New France. It would be 14 years until a European first laid eyes on Mackinac Island, and 50 years until a Catholic mission was established on the island. The Missionary Bark Chapel of Mackinac Island with Opened Door Next to Signreconstructed Missionary Bark Chapel on Mackinac Island commemorates that mission. It’s located in Marquette Park, which is named after the French missionary who started settlements in nearby St. Ignace and Sault Ste. Marie. The park, which also features a giant statue of Marquette, happens to be the best picnic spot in Michigan.

300 years ago – By 1720, the Straits of Mackinac had become the primary transportation corridor in the Upper Great Lakes, fueling a vibrant fur trade that powered the economy of New France. Just five years earlier, to safeguard the fur trade, the French built Fort Michilimackinac on the mainland at the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in what is now Mackinaw City. But while the fur trade would remain the primary economic activity in the Mackinac area well into the 19th century, in just over 40 years the French would relinquish control of Fort Michilimackinac to the British following the French & Indian War.

200 years ago – Even though it had been nearly a half-century since the Americans declared independence, Mackinac Island only recently had come under the control of the United States by treaty after the War of 1812. That war included the famous Battle of Mackinac when the British repelled an American attack on the grounds of what is now Wawashkamo Golf Course, the oldest golf course in Michigan. Why were they fighting on Mackinac Island? Because in 1780 the British moved Fort Michilimackinac to the Mackinac Island’s high bluffs, where it remains to this day as Fort Mackinac. Still today, you can relive 19th-century life at Fort Mackinac aSepia Photograph of Horse-Drawn Carriage on Mackinac Islandnd several other Mackinac State Historic Parks including a blacksmith shop, fur company store, circa-1820 house, and Fort Holmes, which the Americans renamed after a U.S. Army major who perished in the Battle of Mackinac.

100 years ago – While the fur trade continued well into the 1800s, the military and economic significance of Fort Mackinac began to wane. By the latter half of the 19th century, tourism began to emerge as the hallmark of Mackinac Island. Much of the island was designated as a national park, staffed by soldiers from the fort, and beautiful hotels and Victorian cottages began sprouting. As more vacationers arrived, entrepreneurs worked to make Mackinac Island synonymous with fudge. In the 1920s, downtown shops innovated the brilliant techniques of demonstrating fudge making right in front of customers and using large ceiling fans to waft the sweet scent out into the street. And although R.E. Olds started churning out automobiles in Lansing two decades ago, Mackinac Island banned cars – a distinctive characteristic that remains to this day.

Today – You can come and travel around the island by horse-drawn carriage, just as they did back in 1920. You can stay in hotels that date as far back as 1852. You can tour the Biddle House and get a feel for domestic life on Mackinac Island during the era of the fur trade.

You can fire a cannon at historic Fort Mackinac or explore the beauty of America’s second national park, which is now Mackinac Island State Park. You can come face to face with the same geological oddities that enthralled native peoples on Mackinac Island many centuries ago, long before Marquette arrived.

What will this next year bring to Mackinac Island? Hopefully, you! Plan your trip today!