Posted by: Kath Usitalo | August 3, 2011

The Dirt At Colonial Michilimackinac

Major DePeyster, writing orders or odes?

Every day folks crossing the Mackinac Bridge between the Lower and Upper Peninsulas zip past the fort at the Tip of Michigan’s Mitten, unaware of the dirt within its palisaded walls.

Fr. Pierre Gebault (aka college student A.J.) on tin whistle and Jonathan, a British Private in the King's Eighth, recreate a peaceful moment between the fort's French and English inhabitants

Colonial Michilimackinac, on the Lake Michigan shore just west of Big Mac, is one of the Straits of Mackinac sites of the Mackinac State Historic Parks. The fort was first built in 1715 by the French who’d arrived in the area decades earlier to explore, establish Jesuit missions, and develop a fur trade.

The simple grey, stockade structure shelters a complex history that involves French voyageurs, fur trappers, traders, priests, a number of Indian tribes, Englishmen and mad dogs too, I’m sure.

Over time, using Michilimackinac as a base for heading to battles elsewhere in the region, the French and the Indians fought each other, and the French with the Indians fought the British.

When the French lost the fort to the British, in 1763 the Indians fought the new occupants.

Indians fought Indians.

Visitors and residents fought amongst themselves.

Almost everyone fought boredom in the long, cold, icy winters at the Straits of Mackinac.

The exception may have been British Major Arent Schuyler DePeyster who, as an officer and a gentleman—and a poet—undoubtedly spent some of those dreary days putting quill pen to paper (see one of his poems, below).

DePeyster of the King’s Eighth Regiment took command of Fort Michilimackinac in July 1774 and remained in charge of the outpost for five years.

He and his wife Rebecca were well-regarded in the little community and in 1779 the French-Canadian and British fur traders presented him with a European-crafted silver punch bowl. It features a turtle, which has an important role in Native American legends of Mackinac.

The elegant silver bowl is one of the few artifacts that survived Michilimackinac intact and above ground. Most of the history of the site had been carted off, or was burned, and over time evidence of life at the fort was buried by the shifting sands.

Michilimackinac wasn’t destoyed by enemies but in anticipation of an attack.

Back in October 1779 British Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair relieved DePeyster of his post and for several reasons, including fear of the newly minted Americans, in 1781 he moved the community to a stone fort on a high bluff on nearby Mackinac Island.

Walk through history in recreated homes and buildings at the fort

The soldiers burned what was left of Michilimackinac, and the rubble was eventually overgrown.

When Mackinaw City was established in 1857 the former fort site was made into a park; in 1909 it became Michigan’s second state park (after Mackinac Island).

Although the fort’s stockade was recreated in the 1930s it wasn’t until 1959 that the archaeological dig began. The excavation continues today, and is the longest ongoing archaeological dig in the U.S.

With about 65% of the site explored, a million pieces of Michilimackinac’s past have been uncovered. Today, 13 recreated structures are open for exploration including homes, gardens, Ste. Anne Church, the blacksmith’s shop, King’s Storehouse, soldiers’ quarters, and French Guardhouse.

Groundbreaking takes place this fall on the largest reconstruction at the fort, the six-unit South-Southwest Rowhouse; it’s scheduled to open in 2013.

I remember visiting Michilimackinac with the family as a kid, and again when Graham and Paige were young. (On that day it was pouring rain and I believe we and another family were the only “guests” at the reenactment of a French Colonial Wedding.)

Overdue for a fort refresher I stopped by on a cloudy Sunday afternoon when the color of the sky matched the grey of the fort. Visitors were sparse and most of the daily reenactments and activities had ended.

But I kind of liked the relative quiet and the uncrowded feel of the place. It seemed that the other families did, too, as their kids tried on uniforms and delighted in have the run of the fort. They scampered up steps and followed the Chemin de Ronde, finding look outs over the parade grounds, the Straits of Mackinac, and the Mackinac Bridge.

Chemin de Ronde: Historic fire hydrant---or not

My French is rusty, so when I saw the sign for Chemin de Ronde I thought the archaeologists had uncovered a rare, centuries-old fire hydrant.

Then I heard the kids overhead and realized that Chemin de Ronde is actually a raised walkway that circles the fort’s protected interior walls.

It was important in defense of the fort then, and to the sanity today’s parents whose kids need to work off a little steam.

The fort's Chemin de Ronde

Oftentimes on summer days you’ll see archaeologists at work on site. You can learn about their discoveries from them, and dig beneath the surface by following the steps to exhibits below the fort.

In a (new) basement under the Chevalier House you’ll see the centuries-old charred remains of the fort’s powder magazine, which were unearthed in 1975.

An underground museum displays “Treasures from the Sand,” a sampling of the items unearthed on site including buckles, buttons and jewelry, tools, door hinges, keys, and locks, plus pottery pieces, scissors, utensils, and a meager few recreational items including pipes and jaws harps.

There are curiosities that even the archaeologists haven’t identified, and a few items that mysteriously appeared at the site, such as military insignia of units that never served at Michilimackinac.

Here’s a slideshow from my couple of hours at Colonial Michilimackinac:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Colonial Michilimackinac is open through October 9; hours vary.

A soldier of the King's Eighth

Upcoming special events include:
-August 5-7 Marines Encampment and Voyageurs Rendezvous
-August 20 God Save the King! The 250th anniversary of the British at Michilimackinac
-August 20-21 60th Royal American Regiment of Foot
-September 17-18 King’s 8th Regiment Encampment
-October 7-8 Fort Fright: Spooky stories and legends of Michilimackinac (family-friendly)

An Officer and a Gentleman and a Poet

In 1813 Major Arent Schuyler DePeyster published a collection of his poems, Miscellanies by an Officerwhich includes the following:

“Traveling In A Batteau From Quebec To Montreal On Her Way From Quebec To Mitchilimackinack, In 1774”

On the fourth day of May, she embarked at Quebec,
In an open batteau, in a squall,
When the snow, like goose-feathers, soon covered her neck,
Which served her instead of a shawl.

Had it rained, I had thought the tears of her friends
Showered down from the rock on the strand,
How dreadful that rock (when a whirlwind impends)
To travellers who there too must land.

Dear Woodfield, of thee she but got a faint sight,
Near the cove where Wolfe landed his men;
Dread scene of regret! of which much I could write,
But leave it to some abler pen.

Visitor Info Clicks:

Mackinac State Historic Parks

Mackinaw City

Pure Michigan

Related Posts:

Logging On To Mackinaw City History

A Fort-able Fun



  1. I have loved visiting the fort, Kath. The last time we stopped by the kids were maybe teenagers. Maybe should stop in some time on a trip downstate alone and enjoy a long stroll through the historic fort. Thank you for the incentive!

  2. It’s a very cool spot… We always seem to be in such a hurry to get across the bridge (northbound because we want to get to the U.P. and southbound because we leave as late as possible and have to head straight home 😉

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