The Ottawa, Potawatomi and Ojibway nations of Native Americans, collectively known to the French in the 17th century as the Council of Three Fires, inhabited Michilimackinac in the straits between three of the Great Lakes, namely, Huron, Michigan and Superior. Today, this strategically located place on the northern tip of Michigan State’s Lower Peninsula goes by the name of Mackinaw.
Jean Nicolet, an explorer, fur trader and interpreter from Quebec sent by Samuel de Champlain in 1633, was the first white man to stay in the region (see Green Bay for more information). In 1670, Claude Dablon, a Jesuit missionary born in Dieppe, France, spent the winter at Michilimackinac en route to establish the mission of the Holy Spirit near Fond du Lac (Duluth) on Lake Superior.
The St. Ignace Mission
In 1671, Father Jacques Marquette established a mission named St. Ignace at the straits of Mackinac. Sustained by a number of priests it remained active until 1706. During an evangelical trip on the shores of Lake Michigan, Marquette died suddenly in 1675 near the city of Ludington on the westcoast of present-day Michigan State. He had expressed the wish to be interred in his beloved St. Ignace. A group of Ottawa people brought his remains back. His body was then buried under the chapel by Father Henri Nouvel, from Pézenas, France.
In 1679, The Griffon, the first vessel to navigate the Great Lakes, anchored at the St. Ignace Mission with Robert Cavelier de La Salle on board. He had the ship loaded with a considerable amount of furs. At the end of August La Salle sent it away with a crew, but without him, to the Niagara River post, its port of departure. However, The Griffon never arrived at its destination. This made in America vessel became the first ship to sink in the Great Lakes.
The construction of Fort Buade in 1681, near the St. Ignace Mission, was an attempt by New France’s Administration to establish a military presence in the straits. After 20 years of operations Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, under the authority of the French Ministry of Marine and Colonies, closed the post and brought the garrison with him to Fort Pontchartrain of the Detroit he had just erected. As of now, the remains of Fort Buade have yet to be discovered.
The French colonization of “Michilimackinac”, allegedly meaning “the Great Turtle” after the shape of a sacred nearby island worshipped by the region’s Native Americans, began in 1715 with the construction of Fort Michilimackinac. The place was both a fort and a trading post protected by the Marine troops. Many indigenous people and French speaking merchants inhabited the immediate surroundings. This bustling metropolis was the hub for the fur trade economy in the western Great Lakes. Present-day Mackinaw City developed around Fort Michilimackinac, which has been designated as a National Historic Landmark of the United States of America.