In the first “battle” on U.S. soil during the War of 1812, the British won the day without a shot fired at an enemy.
There were at least 400 reasons for that – the 400 or so American Indian warriors from about a half dozen different tribes who came to help the 200 British troops wrest control from the Americans of the remote Fort Michilimackinac on Mackinac Island on Lake Huron in what was known as the Michigan Territory.
The numbers alone demonstrate why the British felt capturing the fort – a military post and trade center – was so critical despite its remote location on an island in Lake Huron.
The British knew they would only have a chance to win the war through strong alliances with Native nations – and critical access to those allies meant the need to control Fort Michilimackinac, strategically and centrally located in regards to those Native nations, according to Phil Porter, director of Mackinac State Historic Parks headquartered in Mackinaw, Michigan.
There were trade and social relationships between the tribes and both the American and British sides, Porter said, but the question was “when push came to shove, when the two nations came to war, who would the Native people ally with?”
The skirmish took place on July 17, 1812, and this year, 200 years later, at Fort Mackinac, as it’s called today, there will be a commemoration of that event with dramatic re-enactments, music, activities and presentations by representatives of U.S., Canadian and Native nations.
One of those speakers will be Eric Hemenway, Anishinaabe/Odawa, who works in the Cultural Preservation Department for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
The several hundred warriors who arrived to help the British in mid-July 200 years ago did not really side with either British or American interests, Hemenway said. “They had their own separate side, their own separate fight. We weren’t fighting to help Britain. … It has to be seen in a bigger picture in terms of a bigger resistance.”
The resistance was to the expanding encroachment of American interests and settlers onto Native lands.
That the tribes would side with the British made sense, Porter said. “They naturally side with the British because the British had less interest in settlement. … The British were actually encouraging the Native people to resist that expansion.”
The facts around the specific battle are simple and short – much as the fight itself was.
U.S. President James Madison signed the Declaration of War against the United Kingdom on June 18, 1812.
Living near Washington, as soon as U.S. businessman John Jacob Astor, owner of the American Fur Company, heard about the declaration, he quickly sent an employee to Fort St. Joseph at the border region some 40 miles north of Fort Michilimackinac to move the company goods farther south. “It was before the word (of the declaration) had traveled to Mackinac Island,” Porter said.
This gave the British military in the area, who recognized why the American Fur Company was moving its resources, a tactical advantage in planning a surprise attack on Fort Michilimackinac. That fort had about 60 U.S. troops under the command of young Lt. Porter Hanks, who in his 20s had just taken over command of the fort after the death of his superior officer.
The British troops, led by Capt. Charles Roberts, were aided employees of the British North West Company and by their American Indian allies. The night before the attack, they crossed Lake Huron to Mackinac Island on the British brig Caledonia and numerous canoes.
The British forces set up two cannons on a hill overlooking Fort Michilimackinac and Porter said, “When the British were in place, they fired one shot to communicate that they were there.”
So on the morning of July 17, the 60 U.S. troops in Fort Michilimackinac awoke to find the British above them with a force that outnumbered them 10 to 1. Lt. Hanks wisely surrendered, Porter said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt he made the right decision. There was great concern that the battle would flow over into the town.”
The British took over the fort, which American troops would try, unsuccessfully, to regain in 1814. “The Native forces were significant in that battle as well,” Porter said. The fort was not returned to American controls until the summer of 1815, after the war ended.
It was remarkable in many ways that 400 warriors arrived to aid the British in that first battle, according to Eric Hemenway. First, there was no real love for the British, with whom tribes had done battle in the past and who also had ignored American Indian requests for help after the American Revolution. “The British shut the gates of their forts and wouldn’t let the Indians in to seek shelter.”
The second remarkable thing was the tribal affiliations of the warriors who arrived to do battle. Warriors were from the Ojibwe, Ottawa, Odawa, Lakota, Dakota, Menominee, Winnebago and Sac and Fox people, Hemenway said. “A lot of these tribes were enemies for many years,” but they set aside differences because of the belief that “we have a greater concern than our inner tribal conflict. … If we don’t band together and fight, there will be no tribes.”
Hemenway said, too, that unlike the European and American nations, where a declaration of war might obligate military service by its citizens, the same was not true for tribal nations, where the men could choose to follow – or not – the call to battle. “Warriors chose whom they would follow and how long they would follow them,” he said. Even on the field of battle, the warrior could choose to leave, deciding for himself “this is appropriate” or “I’m not getting a good feeling about this.”
It was quite a feat (to gather such a force),” Hemenway said. “The real rallying point was the call for this, a return of land and of a way of life. This was the glue that bound these alliances together.”
The end of the War of 1812 would prove devastating to tribal nations and their British allies abandoned them in favor of signing peace with American forces.
But for this first battle, the victory was significant and important in many ways. For the British, “they scored a major victory in limiting what the Americans could do,” Hemenway said. “It was such a strategic location.”
From this battle, the British launched attacks against Detroit, a fight in which the U.S. Lt. Porter Hanks died, and other cities to the east.
For the American Indians, there was the victory of coming together to fight. There was also a more cultural significant victory for this place.
Michilimackinac was named from the Anishinaabe or Ojibwe word for “the Great Turtle,” as Mackinac Island – which resembles a turtle – was called.
“The Straits of Mackinac have a deep cultural aspect of the Anishinaabek,” Hemenway said. “It goes into the traditional beliefs of the Anishinaabek. It was a large boost for the warriors.”
This summer when he gives his portion of the July 17 presentations and talks about the significance of the War of 1812 and of this battle for Natives, Hemenway said he hopes that visitors take away more than a sense of history. He hopes they better understand what survives today.
“What I’m really hoping that they come away with is that Anishinaabe are still here,” he said, “and that they know who the Anishaabeks are.”
The Capture of Fort Machinac
July 17, 2012
Mackinac Island, Michigan
A commemorative re-enactment of the taking of Fort Machinac with 50 re-enactors involved. U.S., Canadian and American Indian speakers will give brief presentations about the war and its impact on their nation. The program will include military music (fife and drum and bagpipes) and musket and cannon salutes. Activities begin at 7:30 a.m. and continue throughout the day.