Michilimackinac Island Treaty No.1 (1781) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Michilimackinac Island Treaty No.1 (1781)

In May 1781, the Anishinaabeg (Chippewa/Ojibwe) of the Straits of Mackinac region deeded Mackinac Island to the British (see also Upper Canada Land Surrenders). The treaty was recorded both in writing and in wampum. It utilized Anishinaabeg and British legal traditions to confirm the transfer of the island’s ownership to the British Crown. This agreement confirmed British use and occupancy of the island where a new fortification and village were under construction.


In 1775, violence broke out between the 13 Colonies and Great Britain. As a result, the Straits of Mackinac became strategically important. At this time, Fort Michilimackinac was a British fort on the southern shore of the straits. It served as a trading post and diplomatic centre. Fort commanders used the location to reinforce alliances. They encouraged Indigenous Peoples to fight the Americans or remain neutral. By 1778–79, American success at the southern end of Lake Michigan made the British acutely aware of the fort’s vulnerabilities. It had an exposed wooden stockade and an unsheltered harbour.

Lieutenant-Governor and Superintendent of Michilimackinac, Patrick Sinclair, arrived in 1779. He quickly began plans to move the British to a more defensible position. After his arrival, Sinclair, along with a mason, carpenter, brick maker and farmer, surveyed Mackinac Island. Here they located a good harbour, which Sinclair named Haldimand Bay. The harbour was defensible. A fortification could be built on the overlooking bluff. The harbour also contained all the necessities to build a new fort and village — wood, stone, clay and some arable land. Following this survey, Sinclair sketched the plans for the new fort and sent them to Governor Frederick Haldimand in Quebec. Rather than accept Sinclair’s proposal to name the planned fort after the Governor, Haldimand ordered it to be named Fort Mackinac.

Before undertaking any land clearance or construction, the Lieutenant-Governor needed Anishinaabeg permission. Sinclair planned to construct a wharf and village on Haldimand Bay at the south end of the island. The Anishinaabeg had used that place as a gathering place for generations. Additionally, the bluffs where he sought to create a fortification held spiritual significance for the Anishinaabeg. As such, Sinclair employed Charles Gautier to present wampum to the local Anishinaabeg to gain permission to use the island’s resources. The Chief agreed to allow the British to “cut down some bush this winter.” Sinclair immediately began clearing lands where he intended to build a fort.

Over the winter of 1780, Sinclair employed soldiers, employees of the Indian Department (see Federal Departments of Indigenous and Northern Affairs), and traders overwintering at Fort Michilimackinac. They worked to clear land for the new village and fort, saw timber, hew stone and create mortar. Since the British military had failed to send an engineer to assist Sinclair, he alone designed the fort and appointed Captain Samuel Richardson to supervise day to day construction. Sinclair employed traders, their employees and British troops to construct the fort and assist with the layout of the village. Sinclair had the troops dismantle and move the barracks, King’s Storehouse, and the guardhouse to the island. To encourage the inhabitants to relocate to the new village site, he had their church dismantled and reassembled on the island. By the summer of 1781, British troops moved from the mainland to the island.

The agreement with the Anishinaabeg only involved clearing brush. Despite Sinclair considering the original agreement complete, the Lieutenant-Governor needed to secure more formal recognition of Mackinac Island’s occupation. According to regional historian Stanley Newton, the Anishinaabeg believed that Sinclair had violated the original agreement and they contested the island’s occupation and threatened British troops in 1780. By spring 1781, Sinclair and the Anishinaabeg managed to come to an agreement over Mackinac Island. After gathering a treaty council, according to the instructions in the 1763 Royal Proclamation, Sinclair secured Anishinaabeg consent to surrender or deed the island to Great Britain. To confirm the agreement, Sinclair presented the Anishinaabeg Chiefs with a seven-foot wampum belt to commemorate the surrender as well as two identical deeds. Chiefs Kitchie Negon, Pouanas, Koüssie and Magoussehigan accepted the wampum and signed both deeds with their totemic marks. Sinclair, John Mompessor, R.B. Brooke and John Robert McDougall signed on behalf of the British military and King. Matthew Lessey, David Rankin, Henry Bostwick, Benjamin Lyon, Etienne Campion and Pierre Antonie Tabeau signed as Settler witnesses.

Finally, the loss of Fort Mackinac and the island under the terms of the Treaty of Paris 1783 and subsequent 1794 Jay’s Treaty forced the British to look for a new strategic location in the Upper Great Lakes. They eventually settled on St. Joseph Island in Lake Huron in 1796.

Treaty Terms & Negotiations

Sinclair recorded Mackinac Island’s surrender in two identical deeds. The documents were signed by Sinclair, as well as representatives of the military and civilian community. The Anishinaabeg placed their totems on each document to indicate their acceptance. One copy of the deed was sent to the Governor of Quebec, while the other copy remained at the post. Following Anishinaabeg protocols, the Chiefs were given a seven-foot Belt of Wampum that they kept. The deeds and wampum were meant to serve “to perpetuate, secure and be a lasting memorial of the said transaction to our Nation for ever hereafter.” Additionally, the Chiefs, on behalf of their people, accepted £5,000 New York Currency in the form of various trade goods as payment for the surrender.

Did You Know?
After the two deeds for Mackinac Island were signed, one deed was sent to the Governor of Quebec and the other remained at the fort. The deed kept at the fort was lost shortly after its signing. In 1957, the deed was found in Scotland and was ultimately donated to the University of Michigan.

Legacy & Significance

The Michilimackinac Island Treaty created a lasting Settler occupation on Mackinac Island. Additionally, obtaining a surrender of an entire island for military, trade and settlement served as a precedent for the 1796 St. Joseph Island Treaty.

Fort Mackinac

Mackinac Island was formerly transferred to the United States in 1796. Subsequently, it was recaptured and held by the British throughout the War of 1812 (see also Battle of Mackinac Island). The end of the war saw the island returned to the United States. The island’s importance as a military post, trade centre, and shipping hub declined throughout the 19th century. After the conclusion of the Civil War, tourism became the focus of the island’s economy. In 1875, Mackinac Island became the second national park in the United States. In 1895, the US federal government transferred all its land on Mackinac Island to Michigan, thereby making Mackinac Island and Fort Mackinac the first state park. Today, the state park, village and fort continue to draw tourists to the island to learn about its history, a key part of which is the 1781 surrender.

Further Reading

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