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Great Forts Of The Great Lakes

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Bringing fur from the North American wilderness to Europe to satisfy the latest fashion demands was big business in the 17th and 18th centuries. The enterprise made great wealth for some and opened opportunities for others, such as tradesmen and laborers, as well as adventurers who didn't quite fit in with regular society back East -- men like the French Canadian voyageurs. Those strong and hardy workhorses crisscrossed the frontier by foot and canoe while carrying heavy cargos and often lightened their hard work with a song.

The fur trade also set the stage for the region's first permanent settlements.

Travelers today in the United States and Canada have an opportunity to see what life was like at these frontier outposts, thanks to efforts at preserving and/or re-creating the forts and settlements that were the scene of this trade.

Overlooking Mackinac Island's Marquette Park
Fort Mackinac in Michigan was built during the American Revolution by British soldiers.

Gateway To The Frontier

Many of the forts are found around Lake Superior, and a visit to them can be part of a driving tour around the greatest of the Great Lakes. But a good place to start is where Huron, Michigan and Superior come together. Here, three noteworthy forts can be found: Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island and Colonial Michilimackinac on the Straits of Mackinac near Mackinaw City in Michigan and Fort St. Joseph on St. Joseph Island, Ontario.

The French established Michilimackinac in the early 18th century to serve as a military installation and hub for fur trade, but it was taken over by the British after the French and Indian War. The British continued to use it for fur trading until they abandoned it in 1781 for a location on Mackinac Island, which was easier to defend against rebel attacks during the American Revolution. The island and fort became the property of the newly born United States, although the British did not turn it over until the mid-1790s, when they moved to nearby St. Joseph Island in British Canada.

When war broke out between the two nations in 1812, the British launched an attack on Mackinac Island from Fort St. Joseph. Americans were caught off guard and surrendered the fort without a fight in what is called the first battle of the War of 1812. The United States got the fort back again as part of the treaty that ended the war more than two years later. In the interim, American forces burned Fort St. Joseph, and it was abandoned by the British after the war.

Fort Mackinac remained in operation until 1895 but by then was more of a tourist attraction than a military post. Today Fort Mackinac and Colonial Michilimackinac are part of the Mackinac State Historic Parks system.

Sitting atop a 150-foot limestone bluff, Fort Mackinac offers outstanding views of the island's village and the Straits of Mackinac, where Huron and Michigan come together. The fort features 14 restored buildings, and interpreters dressed in period costumes help entertain and educate visitors with exhibitions and reenactments of fort events ranging from a court-martial and a military concert and dance to demonstrations on rifle and cannon firing.

The buildings contain exhibits covering fort life of soldiers and their families and include a schoolhouse, furnished officers' quarters and canteen. There are exhibits on the history of Mackinac Island and its evolution into a popular resort community following the Civil War, plus an animatronic presentation in the North Blockhouse on the surprise attack of 1812.

Colonial Michillimackinac
Historic interpreters (1770s British Redcoats) demonstrate how to load and fire muskets.

Three ferry services take visitors to the island from either St. Ignace or Mackinaw City. Cars are not allowed on the island, so the only way to get around is by foot, bicycle or horse. A good place to get oriented is at the Mackinac Island State Park Visitor's Center.

Colonial Michilimackinac is located off Interstate 75 at the southern end of the Mackinac Bridge, which spans the Straits of Mackinac. Inside its reconstructed walls are replicas of the 1715 military outpost and more than a dozen 18th-century buildings. During peak season, from mid-June to mid-August, costumed interpreters add to the understanding of that era through demonstrations and reenactments, such as a French wedding and the arrival of voyageurs.

A permanent exhibit, Redcoats on the Frontier: British Soldiers at Michilimackinac 1761-1781, is displayed in the reconstructed soldiers' barracks and tells the story of how British soldiers lived at the fort.

Frontier Outposts

Ontario's Fort St. Joseph was considered an isolated post in its time and still seems so even with today's conveniences of automobiles and paved highways. Located on the southern tip of St. Joseph Island, about 50 miles southeast of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Fort St. Joseph lies at the mouth of the St. Mary's River, which connects Huron and Superior lakes. Scattered through this serene site, which has beautiful views of St. Mary's River and Lake Huron, are ruins of the old fort. There are interpretive nature trails throughout the area, plus exhibits and films in the visitor center. The fort is open June 1 through Thanksgiving.

To compete in the fur trade against the powerful Hudson's Bay Co. in the late 18th century, owners of the emerging North West Co. wanted to tap into North America's pristine frontier north and west of the Great Lakes. In the 1780s, the company established an outpost on the western shores of Lake Superior at a location the Ojibwe called kitchi onigaming, "the great carrying place." It got its name from the 8.5-mile trail used for centuries by the Ojibwe to get between Lake Superior and the Pigeon River while bypassing miles of rapids and waterfalls, including the 120-foot-tall High Falls. From there, fur traders could access a network of waterways all the way to British Columbia. Grand Portage, as the area came to be called, became the company's inland headquarters and a hub for its western fur trade.

Today, Grand Portage National Monument serves as a center to preserve not only the history of this enterprise and its impact on the region, but also the culture and heritage of the Ojibwe. The fort palisades and several buildings have been reconstructed on the site of the original structures, and costumed interpreters explain the history of the fort.

The Fur Trade

The original portage has been preserved and is a trail open to visitors.  The less ambitious can drive a few miles down the road to Grand Portage State Park and then hike a half-mile paved trail to get a close look at High Falls.

After establishing themselves at Grand Portage, the North West Co. experienced some highly profitable times. But the establishment of a border between the United States and British Canada in the 1790s, and the imposition of duties by the United States on its furs, prompted the North West Co. to move 50 miles north into Canada.

The company established Fort William near the mouth of the Kaministiquia River in present-day Thunder Bay, Ontario, and saw its fortune continue to grow; it peaked around 1815. By the 1820s, the North West Co. had merged with Hudson's Bay, and the importance of Fort William diminished, but fur trading continued there into the 1870s.

Back To Life

Today's 20-acre Old Fort William Historical Park contains 42 buildings that re-create the lively fort as it was in 1815; the site is one of the largest living history sites in North America. But it's the sights, sounds and smells that help bring the past to life. Fort William is live theater as much as it is a place of learning and historical discovery. The fort is built several miles from the original site but still on the Kaministiquia River in a spot secluded enough to feel like the mid-19th-century frontier.

Costumed interpreters portraying historical figures staff the exhibits and mingle with visitors. Throughout the day, Ojibwe natives, French voyageurs, Scottish gentlemen and others break into skits depicting life at the fort, such as the arrest of a rebellious fur trader and the arrival by canoe of company partners.

The final destination, Fort Wilkins, differs from the others because it was never used as a site for fur trading, and it wasn't used as a fort for long.

Opened in 1844 to keep the peace in the copper mining country of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, it was abandoned after two years and only briefly re-garrisoned in the 1860s. Fort Wilkins and the Copper Harbor Lighthouse are located inside Fort Wilkins State Park. It contains 19 well-preserved buildings, numerous exhibits and costumed interpreters who offer accounts of life at this remote outpost.

Dean Geroulis. A freelance writer from Des Plaines, IL. Great Forts Of The Great Lakes. Home & Away. March/April 2005.


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