New programs, exhibits illustrate attack on Fort Michilimackinac 250 years ago

Visitors to Colonial Michilimackinac gather outside the
newly built rowhouse. (DNR photos)
Most Michigan school children have heard the story of when the Ojibwa tribe attacked Fort
Michilimackinac. Now, 250 years later, the Department of Natural Resources is commemorating the attack with new a building and new programming at Fort Michilimackinac. A new rowhouse, which has been under construction since October 2011, has recently been completed and is now open to the public.

On June 2, 1763, more than 400 Ojibwa men had assembled outside the fort walls to play a game of baggatiway (a game similar to lacrosse) against visiting Sauk tribesmen. Upon hearing a prearranged signal, the players tossed the ball near the fort gates, which were open at the time. (While many have heard that the ball was tossed over the wall, the account from Capt. George Etherington states that the ball was tossed near him, as he watched the game.)

As the players ran towards the ball, native women watching the game distributed weapons that they had hidden under their blanket robes. Now armed, the players rushed inside the gates, immediately taking the fort’s commandant (Etherington) and another officer prisoner. Other soldiers, surprised by the speed of the attack, could not offer resistance. Many were quickly run down and killed.

When the attack ended a few minutes later, 15 soldiers were dead, the rest were prisoners, and the Ojibwa controlled Michilimackinac. Native people around the Great Lakes, inspired by the Odawa war leader Pontiac, made similar attacks on other British forts. By the end of the summer of 1763, Forts Michilimackinac, Ouiatenon, Miami, St. Joseph, Presque Isle, Venango, Le Boeuf and Sandusky had fallen. Only four British posts (Detroit, Ft. Niagara, Ft. Pitt, and Ft. Edward Augustus) remained in British hands as the uprising ended.

VIsitors await the start of the new audio--visual program,
"Attack! At Michilimackinac," 250 years after the event.
The largest reconstruction ever undertaken at the site -- and the first in 23 years -- the South Southwest Rowhouse represents more than just a year and a half of building. It is the result of archaeological excavations dating back to the 1960s and years of planning and research.

“Our staff has worked tirelessly at every level to make this a reality,” said Phil Porter, director for Mackinac State Historic Parks, the organization responsible for the care of Colonial Michilimackinac and other historic sites in the Straits of Mackinac.

“Everything -- from the archaeological and historical research, the architectural style of the building, the brand-new exhibits, concept and filming of the audio-visual program -- has been executed to the smallest detail,” Porter said. “We’ve worked hard to make an authentic, memorable experience for our guests.”

One half of the reconstructed rowhouse features an audio-visual presentation of the attack at Michilimackinac. Principal photography took place in the summer, with some additional shots taken this past winter. Using a green screen and lighting effects, the actors look as if they are standing right inside the rowhouse in the finished product, a feat that seemed impossible during construction. Now complete, the immersive 15-minute experience shows not just the single attack at Fort Michilimackinac, but the events leading up to and following this and several other attacks throughout North America as part of Pontiac’s Uprising.

Artifacts at a new Colonial Michilimackinac exhibit illustrate
the story of the French influence on the Straits of Mackinac.
A new book, authored by Keith Widder and co-published by Michigan State University Press and
Mackinac State Historic Parks, has been released to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the attack. “Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow: Michilimackinac and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763” is a richly illustrated work. Painstakingly researched to feature the variety of causes and events that led to these orchestrated attacks of British military garrisons, the book details the attack at Fort Michilimackinac.

The opposite end of the new rowhouse is home to “France at Mackinac.” Detailing the French influence on the Straits of Mackinac, it features a number of artifacts excavated from the site and interactive displays describing the people of the region. Among the featured components of the new exhibit are the ruins of the fireplace from the original building, which was constructed more than 250 years ago. This particular fireplace is one of the few remaining structures left standing after British soldiers demolished the fort in 1780-81.

As part of one of the longest ongoing archaeological digs in North America, the remnants of the rowhouse and the fireplace were carefully excavated over a number of years from 1963 to 2007. Stone fireplaces such as this one were found in nearly every house at Michilimackinac, but this is the only one that remains, as it was covered and preserved in a hill of sand soon after the demolition. This fireplace ruin served as a model for the stone masons to create a similar fireplace on the east end of the building, showing how the stone hearth would have looked when originally built around 1750.

The South Southwest Rowhouse is only one of more than a dozen historically reconstructed buildings at Colonial Michilimackinac. Open seven days a week until mid-October, Colonial Michilimackinac features regular daily programming including cannon and musket firing demonstrations, hearth cooking, crafts and an on-site archaeology excavation where explorers continue to pull centuries-old artifacts from the soil.

Admission is $11 for adults, $6.50 for youths age 5 to 17. Children 4 and under are free.

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