Michilimacinac – Historic Landmarks

THE dispute with Great Britain had resulted in a declaration of war by the Congress of the United States; yet, notwithstanding an appeal to arms had been made by the infant republic, there appears to have been but little preparation made to carry it on. Not the least of the many subjects which appear to have been almost wholly neglected by the executive departments of the Government, was the notification of the several military posts, on the frontiers, of the declaration—a neglect which was, subsequently, productive of great mischief to the country.

At the period in question, the United States occupied the Island of Michilimacinac (since called Mackinac) with a small garrison of regular troops, not more for the protection of traders, than for the purpose of holding a check over the Indians of the northwestern part of the country. This island is situated in the straits which lead from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron; is of a circular form, about seven miles in circumference, and from three to four miles from the main. It is a rock of limestone, covered with a rough but fertile soil, on which is borne a heavy growth of timber. The fort occupied a high bank on the southeastern side of the island, overlooking and commanding a fine harbour; and was, itself, commanded by the high ground in its rear, on which had been erected two block-houses, each of which was ‘defended by two long nine-pounders, two howitzers, and a brass three-pounder; and a company of fifty-seven men, officers included, commanded by Lieutenant Porter Hanks, of the United States Artillery, formed the garrison. About fifty miles northeast from this post, General Brock, in the spring of 1812, had erected a small work, called Fort St. Joseph, and had garrisoned it with a detachment of the Tenth Royal Veteran Battalion, forty-five in number, under Captain Charles Roberts.

Intelligence of the declaration of war having been conveyed, by express, from New York to Queenstown and Montreal, at the expense of some British merchants residing at the former city, the enemy had been apprised of the measure at a much earlier date than that on which the American officers had received the information, and the latter, therefore, laboured under great disadvantages. One of the most notable instances of this official neglect, which resulted in the most serious consequences to the country, was that of the neglect to notify the commanders of the northwestern posts, especially that of Michilimacinac, whose first information of the existence of war was received from the enemy, with a demand for his surrender.

As before related, the enemy received early advice of the declaration of war from the British merchants residing in New York; and one of the first cares of Sir Isaac Brock was to notify Captain Roberts, at St. Joseph’s, with orders to make an immediate attack on Michilimacinac, if practicable; or, in the event of an attack on his post, by the Americans, to defend it to the last extremity. At a subsequent date the order was renewed, with directions to summon the neighbouring Indians to his assistance, and to ask for the same purpose, the cooperation of such of the employees of the British fur companies, who might happen to be near him; and, still later, the Captain was left to his own discretion to adopt either offensive or defensive measures, as circumstances might warrant. With a degree of promptitude which reflects honour on his professional character, Captain Roberts decided to act offensively; and he took immediate measures to insure a successful termination of his enterprise. He was far beyond the limits within which he could have commanded the assistance of other portions of the Royal forces; and he fell back on the limited resources of his secluded position with remarkably good judgment and success. Calling to his quarters Mr. Pothier, an agent of the Southwest Company, who was then at St. Joseph’s, he laid before that gentleman his proposed plan of operations, and solicited his assistance. Mr. Pothier, struck with the importance of the projected enterprise, and the feasibility of the plan of operations, immediately opened the stores of the company, and placed everything they contained, which might contribute to the success of the expedition, at the command of Captain Roberts; while, at the same time, he offered his own services, as a volunteer, with those of one hundred and eighty Canadian voyageurs—employees of the company—one-half of whom he armed with muskets or fowling-pieces. Captain Roberts also invited the assistance of the neighbouring Indians—both American and British—and about four hundred and twenty-five of the savages responded to his call.

On the day after the receipt of the orders last referred to (July 16), at ten o’clock in the morning, Captain Roberts embarked, with his entire force—regular, volunteer, and savage—and two iron six-pounders, and under the convoy of the Northwest Company’s brig Caledonia, which was laden with stores and provisions, he approached the Island of Michilimacinac. At three o’clock in the morning of the seventeenth of July, the flotilla reached the place of rendezvous; and one of the two guns was immediately taken up the high ground in the rear of the fort, and placed in battery in a position which completely commanded the garrison.

In the meantime, Lieutenant Hanks and his little command remained comparatively ignorant of their impending danger. It is true, an Indian interpreter had told the Lieu-tenant, on the sixteenth, that the Indians at St. Joseph’s intended to make an immediate attack on the post; and from the sudden coolness which some of the chiefs, in the vicinity of his post, had displayed, he appears to have been inclined to believe the interpreter’s information. He immediately called a council, and invited ” the American gentlemen at that time on the island ” to participate in the deliberations; the result of which was the appointment of Captain Daurman, as a scout, to proceed to St. Joseph’s to watch the motions of the Indians. The Captain embarked about sunset, and had proceeded only a short distance before he met the enemy’s flotilla, by whom he was captured, and returned to the island. At daybreak he was landed, with instructions to remove all the inhabitants of the little village to the west side of the island—where the enemy’s flotilla then laid—in order that their persons and property might be protected; at the same time forbidding him from conveying any information to the garrison, and threatening with extermination all those who might seek refuge with the garrison and offer any resistance. The inhabitants of the village appear to have obeyed the order without any delay; and the intelligence of their exodus, which was carried to the fort by Doctor Day, who was passing that way, was the first intimation which Lieu-tenant Hanks had received of the presence of an enemy of any kind, nor did he then suspect that the intruders were subjects of his Britannic majesty, lawfully prosecuting a warfare which his own government had declared, nearly a month before that time. He lost no time, however, in ordering the block-houses, on the high ground in his rear, to be occupied and supplied with ammunition and stores; and every gun in the main works was prepared for action.

By this time, however, the enemy had gained the heights, and placed his gun in battery, as before referred to, while the Indians, in great numbers, showed themselves in the margin of the woods, near the fort. At about eleven o’clock a flag was sent, requiring the surrender of the fort and its garrison to his Britannic majesty’s forces—the earliest notice which the garrison had received of the character of their enemy. After consulting his officers and the American gentlemen who were present; and taking into consideration the strength and disposition of the enemy, it was resolved to yield to the demand; and the fort and the island were, accordingly, surrendered to the arms of Great Britain.

Of the great importance of this conquest, both parties were immediately fully sensible. Not only were the stores which were taken quite valuable, but seven hundred pack-ages of furs were among the trophies of the victory. But not alone from the value of the spoils does the interest which has attached to this affair arise. General Hull has shown its effects in the most vivid colours when he said, ” After the surrender of Michilimacinac, almost every tribe and nation of Indians, excepting a part of the Miamis and Delawares, north from beyond Lake Superior, west from beyond the Mississippi, south from the Ohio and Wabash, and east from every part of Upper Canada, and from all the intermediate country, joined in open hostility, under the British standard, against the army I commanded, contrary to the most solemn assurance of a large portion of them to remain neutral.” The same views were entertained by the enemy; and the standard British authorities on the history of those times, have left on record their testimony to the same effect.