Monday, June 2, 2014

A Deadly Game at Fort Michilimackinac

Moments later the players rushed the open gate of Fort Michilimackinac.

It must have been an exciting game.  Certainly June 2, 1763 was a perfect day for it.  Spring had finally come to Fort Michilimackinac, the ice was clearing from Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.  The sun was shining.  The men of the fort, and some of their women, too, spilled out of the palisaded walls to watch the excitement.  Others went about their business inside.  The semi-permanent Ojibwe trading village outside the walls was overflowing with visitors for the contest of baaga’adowe, a stick and ball goal game—a forerunner of lacrosse—with scores of young men, stripped to the waist, dashing back and forth across a broad field flaying with their clubs.  It must have been quite a spectacle, and a welcome relief from the boredom of having been cooped up in the Fort for the long northern winter.
Then, on some sort of signal, the players turned from their game and rushed the wide open gate of the fort, their game clubs now turned to deadly weapons.  The warriors clubbed all of the Englishmen they could find but unless they resisted or there was a mistake left the French unmolested.  The English not killed outright were rounded up.  Their prolonged executions were more gruesome than those felled in the initial rush.  One or two Englishmen hid or managed to escape and attempt the long, treacherous trip to the safety of far off Fort Detroit.  The handful of English women were taken captive.
Michilimackinac was not a military outpost.  It was a key trading post for the fur trade.  But it was situated in one of the most strategically important locations in North America, the southern shore of the strategic Straits of Mackinac connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, at the northern tip of the lower peninsula of the present-day Michigan.  Thus is stood athwart the trading highway that stretched from the mouth of the St. Lawrence, through the Great Lakes and by connection via portage to the drainage of the Mississippi River.
The French from Quebec had established a presence in the area back in 1671 when the Jesuit explorer Père Jacques Marquette established St. Ignance Mission.  Then French authorities built Fort de Buade in 1683 and a mission at Sault Ste. Marie in 1688.  But these distant out posts were imperiled when some of the tribes murdered their Jesuit missionaries in isolated villages and rebelled against French trading practices.  Fearing a general war and the permanent rupture of valuable trade relations with the tribes, the Sieur de Cadillac moved the French garrison to Fort Detroit and closed the mission.
But the area was too vital to be permanently abandoned.  The French returned in 1717 and built the first palisades for Fort Michilimackinac.  Over the next decades the Fort grew into a complex of buildings, a real village, as the log walls were expanded.  There was a small military garrison, but the fort was filled mostly with French traders, priests, and numerous Métis—French and native “half breeds” who made up the indispensable core of the voyagers who made the vast fur trade possible.
Since the French lost the prolonged dust-up known to Americans as the French and Indian Wars, they had to surrender Michilimackinac, along with half a continent in 1716.  The English recognized the post as a key trading post and as a possible check to any possible attempt by France to reclaim the fur trade by encroachment from their settlements in Louisiana  Although they did dispatch a small garrison, the post remained what it always had been—a trading post.  The English allowed the French and Métis inhabitants to stay and to practice their religion.  They had to.  In order to take over the fur trade they needed them.  But a layer of new English traders were brought in to run things.  And the English had a different way of doing business.
The French both well understood the local culture, which valued gift giving, and had developed long standing relationships—often blood relationships—with the tribes.  So naturally, the Ojibwe were resentful of the displacement of their longtime friends.  But they were far more resentful of English trade policies.  The newcomers with their mercantile tradition were loath to make gifts or payments without explicit direct return.  So they greatly reduced the annual gifts presented to tribal leaders.  Then they re-set the value set on a variety of furs and pelts essentially reducing payments across the board.  In addition, goods in the post stores were priced higher and some were subject to the new duties imposed by Parliament to pay for the cost of the wars—the same duties Colonists on the Atlantic seaboard would soon become restless about.
More over the English just seemed more contemptuous of the tribes and their people.  As they were less interested than the French in saving the souls of the “savages”, they were less likely to treat them with respect.  To be frank, a deep racism had already infected the English to a degree different, and worse, than the French.
So it should not have been surprising that resent building among the tribes was bound to boil over.  Yet it was, so clueless were the English to all of the signals around them, so confident in their superiority to rule.
Dissatisfaction was not just limited to the Ojibwe.  It was shared by many tribes spanning the Ohio valley, Great Lakes, and the newly acquired Illinois Country.  Representatives of many tribes had been called together for a Great Council on April 28 of 1763 where the Ottawa leader Pontiac purportedly called for a confederation of the tribes to unite in a concerted effort and drive the English out.
Runners went out across the wilderness.  Quickly remarkably coordinated attacks were launched against English outposts across the wide area.    On May 7 Pontiac led an attack on the keystone fort in the west—Detroit, which settled into a long siege.  Meanwhile attacks were carried out on other posts and five more were captured—Fort Sandusky on Lake Erie, Fort St. Joseph on the river of the same name near Lake Michigan, Fort Ouiatenon in the Illinois Country (modern Indiana), Fort Miami near modern Ft. Wayne, and then Michilimackinac. Despite the wide spread warfare, the garrison there was completely unaware of the other attacks.
In all of these attacks, except the one on Fort Ouiatenon, the garrisons and civilians were massacred.  But at the Illinois outpost the Weas, Kickapoos, and Mascoutens not only spared the garrison, but apologized to the English commander for the attack.  They did not want to do it, they said, but they had promised the other tribes that they would support the uprising.  The fact that the Illinois tribes were at best reluctant participants helped unravel the whole rebellion.
Despite the success of early attacks and the defeat of an English relief force in the field at the Battle of Bloody Run on July 31and a second wave of attacks that captured forts in the Ohio region, forcing the English back to Fort Pitt where they were besieged,  Pontiac was not able to take Fort Detroit.  By late August his warriors, used to warfare by raid and unaccustomed to a prolonged siege campaign began melting away.  He pinned his hopes on the arrival for support from the Illinois Country, but eventually came to the conclusion that it would never arrive.  By October he had to lift the siege.
Meanwhile after serious fighting and raids deep into Pennsylvania and Virginia, the siege of Fort Pitt had been relieved by reinforcements and the English systematically introduced small pox to the eastern tribes by way of infected blankets causing what would eventually be a devastating epidemic eventually killing as many as 400,000 natives during and in the years following the rebellion.
The following year the English commander, Lord Jeffrey Amherst was able to mass reinforcements and take back most of the lost forts, including Michilimackinac with relatively little fighting.  The Ojibwe and their French and Métis friends could find no market for their furs with the English still controlling the east and St. Lawrence, meaning none of the trade goods on which the local economy had become dependent on were available.  They were willing to treat with the English.
For their part the English seem to have learned a lesson.  Instead of punitive expeditions aimed at annihilating the tribes, Amherst promised a return of annual gifts and more favorable trade policies.  A local peace was made.  This pattern was repeated over the wide contested areas.  Pontiac was never able to rally the tribes for a second season of coordinated warfare.  Although some fighting—including brutal raiding and counter raiding between the tribes and frontier settlers and their militias along the eastern frontier—continued, local peace took hold many places and Pontiac himself signed a treaty at Fort Ontario in July of 1766.  It was hardly a surrender—no lands were ceded, no prisoners returned, and no hostages were taken, but it did end the conflict with a broad acknowledgement of English sovereignty.
News from England of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which drew a boundary line between the British colonies along the seaboard, and Native American lands west of the creating a vast Indian Reserve that stretched west to the Mississippi and from Florida to Quebec, undoubtedly appeased the tribes.  But it also infuriated the American Colonies, particularly Pennsylvania and Virginia which had claims to land beyond the mountains and settlers clamoring for new land.
The English rapprochement with the tribes was so successful that when the American Revolution broke out, most sided with the Red Coats and were recognized as irregular native troops in bloody frontier warfare.  The Americans, for their part, had been so hostile and punitive that few tribes allied with them.
Back at Michilimackinac, the English came to the conclusion that the old fort was indefensible, especially after George Rogers Clark launched successful captured their western outposts at Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes during the Revolution.   In 1781 they began the construction of a new, modern limestone fortification on nearby Mackinac Island.  Once the walls were up, the building of Ft. Michilimackinac were dismantled one by one and rebuilt on the island.  When the transfer was complete, the palisades of the old fort were burned.
The English were supposed to surrender the fort to the newly independent United States by the Treaty of Paris in 1783.  But the English were loath to surrender such an important strategic location and still quite profitable trading post.  The Americans were not able to take possession until 1798,
In the war of 1812 the English were able to retake the fort without firing a shot from the small American garrison there.  An American attempt to retake the fort in 1814 failed and it remained in enemy hands for the duration of the war.  It was returned to American hands in 1815.
Today a recreation of Ft. Michilimackinac stands in Colonial Michilimackinac State Park in Mackinaw City.  It is considered one of the most accurate of such recreations, although it features only on palisade, not the double palisades of the old French fort.  Across the water Fort Mackinac is well preserved as part of Mackinac Island State Park and is the site of regular historic reenactments.  Both are major tourist attractions.

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