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Fort Mackinac was a military outpost garrisoned from the late 18th century to the late 19th century on Mackinac Islandmarker in the U.S. state of Michiganmarker. Built by the Britishmarker during the American Revolutionary War to control the strategic Straits of Mackinacmarker between Lake Michiganmarker and Lake Huronmarker (and by extension the fur trade on the Great Lakesmarker), it was not relinquished by the British until fifteen years after American independence. It later became the scene of two strategic battles for control of the Great Lakes during the War of 1812. During most of the 19th century, it served as an outpost of the United States Army. Closed in 1895, the fort is now a museum on the grounds of Mackinac Island State Parkmarker and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.


Revolutionary War

Before 1763, the Frenchmarker had controlled the Straits of Mackinac by the similarly named Fort Michilimackinacmarker on the mainland on the south shore of the passage. After the 1763 Treaty of Paris, the British occupied the French fort but deemed the wooden structure too difficult to defend. During 1780-1781, Patrick Sinclair, the lieutenant governor of Michilimackinac constructed a new limestone fort on the limestone bluffs of Mackinac Island. The British held the outpost throughout the war. After the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the British did not relinquish the fort to the United States until 1796.

War of 1812

In June, 1812, at the start of the War of 1812, the British General Isaac Brock sent a canoe party 1,200 miles (1,900 km) to confirm that a state of war existed. This party returned with an order to attack Fort Mackinac, then known as "Fort Michilimackinac."

At that time, Fort Mackinac was manned by a small U.S. garrison of approximately 60 men under the command of Lieutenant Porter Hanks. While a diligent officer, Hanks had received no communication from his superiors for months.

On the morning of July 17, 1812, the fort was attacked by a combined British and Native American force of seventy war canoes and ten bateaux under the command of British Captain Charles Roberts. Coming from Fort St. Josephmarker to the north, Captain Roberts landed on the north end of the island, 2 miles (3.2 km) away from the fort. The British quietly removed the village inhabitants from their homes and trained two cannons at the fort. Hanks, taken by surprise, realized his garrison was badly outnumbered. The officers and men under Roberts numbered about 200, supported by a few hundred Native Americans of various tribes.[68028]

Fearing a massacre by the Native Americans on the British side, Hanks accepted the British offer of surrender without a fight. The American forces were paroled (essentially allowed to go free after swearing to not take up arms in the war again) and the island inhabitants were made to swear an oath of allegiance as subjects of the United Kingdom. After capturing the island, the British, under the command of Colonel Robert McDouall of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, built a stockade and blockhouse on the island's highest point, naming it Fort George. In an interesting epilogue to the capture of Fort Mackinac, Lt. Hanks made his way to Detroit and the American military post there. Upon arrival, he was charged with cowardice in the quick and bloodless surrender of the fort. However, before Hanks' court martial could begin, British forces attacked Fort Detroit. Lt. Hanks was killed in the ensuing battle, apparently decapitated by a British cannonball.

In July 1814, the Americans attempted to retake the island as part of a larger campaign designed by Colonel George Croghan and his superior General William Henry Harrison to capture control of the Great Lakes and sever the fur trade alliance between the British and the tribes of the region. The two-pronged campaign included an assault on Prairie du Chienmarker on the Mississippi River.

On July 26, a squadron of five U.S. ships arrived off the Mackinac Island carrying a landing force of 700 soldiers under the command of Croghan. To his dismay, Croghan discovered that the new British blockhouse stood too high for the naval guns to reach, forcing an unprotected assault on the fort's wall. The Americans shelled the fort for two days, with most of the shells falling harmlessly in vegetable gardens around the fort.

A dense fog forced the Americans back from the island for a week before returning. Upon their return the Americans, led by Major Andrew Holmes, assaulted the north end of the island, near the location of the 1812 British assault. The Americans worked their way to the fort through dense woods which were protected by Native American allies of the British, finally emerging into a clearing below the fort.

McDouall, in the meantime, had placed a small force bearing muskets, rifles, and two field guns, behind low breastworks at the opposite end of the clearing. When the Americans emerged from the woods into the clearing, they were easy targets for the British guns. Thirteen Americans, including Major Holmes and two other officers, were killed, and 51 were wounded. Because of the heavy losses, Croghan was forced to order his men to retreat back through the woods to the beach. The Americans rowed back to their ships, leaving the fort in the hands of the British through the end of the war.

Later years

The Americans reoccupied the fort in July 1815 following the Treaty of Ghent. They renamed Fort George as Fort Holmes, in honor of Maj. Holmes, who had been killed in the 1814 attack. During the mid 19th century, the fort became an important staging area for exploration of the northern Michigan Territory, including the 1832 expedition under the command of Lewis Cass to explore the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The post of Indian agent at the fort was held for a time in the 1830s by Henry Schoolcraft, who conducted pioneering studies of the Native American languages and culture of the region.

After the War of 1812, Fort Mackinac gradually declined in military significance. No longer needed as a front line border defense against the British in Canada, the fort instead took on the role of a strategic troop reserve. Essentially, troops who were not needed elsewhere could be deployed to Fort Mackinac until the need arose for them to be transferred to other locations of military importance. This arrangement led to the near-total abandonment of the post at Mackinac on numerous occasions. The fort was also used a fur trading post. On June 6, 1822 a fur trader named Alexis St. Martin was waiting to trade in his furs when a gun accidentally discharged just inches from him. The gun blew a hole in his abdomen. The fort Doctor, William Beaumont, was summoned to attend to the man. Dr. Beaumont cared for the obviously doomed St. Martin the best he could. To his surprise, the man appeared to be making a recovery. Beaumont took the man into his home and cared for him for several years. During that time, St. Martin healed, but with a hole connecting his stomach to the outside world. Beaumont seized the opportunity and began observing and conducting experiments on the man. Through these experiments Beaumont was able to describe digestion in detail and unlock the mysteries of digestion. He wrote a book about his experiments and later became known as "The Father of Gastric Physiology."

During the Mexican-American War and for long periods during the Civil War, the care and upkeep of Fort Mackinac was left to a single man, an Ordnance Sergeant. Despite these periods of relative inactivity, the fort did manage to play a small role in the Civil War, briefly acting as a prison for three Confederate political prisoners. Brought to the Mackinac Island and the fort during the summer months, these three men enjoyed relative freedom, guarded only by a volunteer militia. However, when faced with the prospect of enduring a long, harsh winter on the island, two of the prisoners signed loyalty oaths and were released. The third refused, and was ultimately transferred to another post, thus ending Fort Mackinac's brief participation in the war.

An 1872 oil painting of the fort by Seth Eastman is part of the collection of the United States Senate. From 1875 to 1895, the fort and much of the island were part of Mackinac National Park, the second national park in the United States after Yellowstone National Parkmarker. During the National Park years, the troops stationed at Mackinac acted as park rangers, there being no National Park Service at the time. These men were tasked with maintaining and policing the park, and so spent much of their time performing mundane tasks such as cutting new roads or footpaths through the park. A mood of progressivism appeared at the fort during this time, as a bathhouse (in which every man at the fort was required to bathe at least once a week), a post toilet (complete with flush toilets), and a post canteen (where the men could read current magazines, play pool, and, most importantly, buy beer and wine) were constructed to boost morale and truly make Mackinac a "desirable station." Military duties were not ignored, however, as the troops drilled on the parade ground and took target practice at least once a week on either a 600- or 1000-yard rifle range. The skills learned and honed at the fort, seemingly trivial at a peaceful post such Mackinac, could prove important for the troops, many of whom were later stationed in the still-dangerous American West. After its closure in 1895, it became part of Mackinac Island State Park, the first state park in Michigan. The current museum includes 14 historic buildings.

Modern history

The fort today

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Today, Fort Mackinac (pronounced: MACK-in-awe) is a popular tourist destination. Situated on 150 foot bluffs above the beautiful Straits of Mackinacmarker, it is one of the few surviving revolutionary war forts in the United States, and one of the most complete forts in the country. In 2005, Fort Mackinac celebrated 225 years standing guard over Mackinac Island.

During the main tourism summer months (June through August), visitors ascend into a bustle of activity within the Fort's old British-built stone walls. Once they enter the weathered gates they are greeted by costumed interpreters portraying life in the 1880s, and who are available for pictures, questions and tours throughout the day. Some of these 'soldiers' carry with them original 45-70 Springfield Model 1873, the type which were used at Fort Mackinac during the 1880s. Others still play music, or just simply greet and mingle with the crowds of visitors.

Many times during the day a visitor might be startled by the firing of the second largest cannon regularly demonstrated on the Great Lakes, the 1841 model six-pounder, positioned just as it would have been during the attack and bombardment of Fort Mackinac in the War of 1812. There are rifle firings, court martial re-enactments, even dances of the type done during the early days of Fort Mackinac, with music provided by the many musicians that Fort Mackinac has to offer.

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There are 14 original buildings standing on the site as well, including:
1. Commissary Building: Once used for food storage; today houses a video program.
2. Post Headquarters: Used for the paymaster and offices.
3. Quartermaster's Storehouse: Held any and all equipment needed by the soldiers during the Fort's history.
4. Post Bathhouse: The newest building, built in 1885, housing 6 baths for the soldiers comfort.
5. Soldiers Barracks: Used to house the 100+ soldiers stationed there, but today houses a museum and the gift shop called the Sutler's Store.
6. Post Schoolhouse: Where the soldiers went in the last years of Fort Mackinac's military existence to become better educated.
7. Hill Quarters: Many Lieutenants lived within these walls, notice the difference from the Barracks.
8. Post Hospital: Where the post doctor/surgeon treated patients until a new hospital was built in 1860.
9. Officer's Stone Quarters: Michigan's oldest building (1780) and used to house officers. Today holds the Kids Quarters and the Tea Room. Operated by the Grand Hotelmarker, the Tea Room offers light lunches and exquisite dinners eaten on the Fort's primary veranda overlooking the Straits of Mackinac, Marquette Park, and the town below.
10. Wood Quarters: Used for various purposes over the life of the building, including officers' quarters and a post canteen that served Schlitz beer, but no whiskey.
11. Post Guardhouse: Prisoners had been held on this site for over a century.
12-14: North, East, and West Blockhouses: Stone towers built by the first Americans garrisoning Fort Mackinac standing like restless sentinels, watching over the three main palisades of Fort Mackinac.


Since 1895, Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Islandmarker and the other surrounding historic sites Colonial Michilimackinac, Historic Mill Creek and The Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, and Mackinac Island State Park have been governed by a semi-autonomous organization, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission (MISPC). The Commission is appointed by the Governor of Michigan, and then that commission meets many times during the course of a year to govern Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP). Since 1895 when Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island were given to the State of Michigan creating Michigan's first state park, the MISPC and MSHP have been preserving, protecting, and presenting the rich and natural history of Mackinac Island and the Straits area, and will continue to do so as long as it is the will of the public.

As of the 1950s the MISPC created a new way of running a park, based on the system that helped to create the Mackinac Bridgemarker completed and opened in 1957. The bridge was build on a revenue bond system, with the construction of the bridge financed through bonds later repaid from the bridge's cash flow. The MISPC modified this idea to park restoration purposes, with Fort Mackinac admission fees serving as the cash flow. Today, more than 75% of Mackinac State Historic Parkmarker's budget comes from admission fees and other self-generated cash flow. Most U.S. parks-and-recreation agencies are dependent upon public subsidies. The MISPC operates one of the largest U.S. parks that generates a significant majority of its own operating budget.


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