The Forts of the Mackinac Part I
Fort Michilimackinac

Mackinaw City, MI

June 5th, 2000

As we delved into the history of northern Michigan and later along both shores of the Great Lakes, we would be remiss in not introducing the single outstanding cause for all that transpired here, in the 1700s and 1800s. Surprisingly, European expansion into the Great Lakes area, was not the exalted plan of some great political architect, building a new land for the Europeans, nor was it the result of fierce military adventurism brought on by aggressive generals. No, none of these things created the peak interest Europe found in this new land built up around the Great Lakes. It was a lowly rodent. That's right, a rodent. Not withstanding that it was a very large rodent by rodent standards, all the same it was in fact, the unobtrusive, quiet, non-aggressive, but fashionable beaver that caused thousands of Europeans to flock to the shores and surrounding ponds and lakes to buy from the local Indians, all the beaver skins that could be purchased. And fashionable he was, after being skinned and dried, with his outer ruff fur removed to expose an almost felt-like inner fur which was all the rage in top hats throughout northern and central Europe. It was said that no proper man would step out on the street without his top hat, and beaver skin was the desired material, and of course a correct man would have a hat that matched the rest of his fine apparel and as such, several beaver hats would be required. It was the market driven by this insatiable desire that drove the fur trading industry of the Great Lakes area. First exploited by the French, then the British and finally the Americans this lowly animal was hunted to near extinction for that fabulous fashion statement that the men of that time had to have. The trade was never interrupted, as it withstood famine, disease, and war, with land often changing hands between countries. However, the lowly beaver was never far from the drying rack. The first to explore and reap the benefits of the lake shore area were the French, and with them came the Army to see that the trade routes were kept open and products continued to flow. Thus in 1715, Fort Michilimackinac was built at what is now Mackinaw City, MI. Primarily a trading post, Fort Michilimackinac was none the less a military fort with its detachment of infantry lead by a Post Commandant. In fact, throughout the French (1715-1761) and British (1761-1781) regimes, the Post Commandant implemented imperial policy at Michilimackinac and the upper Great lakes. He regulated fur trading activities, negotiated with Indian nations, and organized war parties of regular troops, militia, and Indians to fight on distant battlefields. Among other duties, the Post Commandant was required to keep detailed notes of the daily activity of his men, the fort and the surrounding area. Some commandants were quite efficient such as Major Arent Schuyler De Peyster of the King's Eighth Regiment of Foot and his wife Rebecca, who accepted the post in 1774. Major De Peyster's even disposition and fair treatment of people won him the respect of traders, Indian Chiefs, and soldiers. A vivacious woman, Mrs. De Peyster oversaw her household, entertained trader's wives and served as the leading woman in the community. The French, understanding what was necessary for a lasting relationship with the Ojibwa (Chipewa) built a barter system in which only Indians could trade pelts. This eliminated the white man's corruption and resulted in the steady stream of furs out of the lake area. This was lost on the British who failed to treat the Indians in a similar manner resulting in the Fort being lost in battle. Upon returning, the British being driven by the vast profits to be made, incorporated many of the French ideas in running the fort as well as the utilization of the French traders who had remained.

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