Q: How DO you pronounce Michilimackinac?

A: Here’s the short answer [so you won’t embarrass yourself in front of people who know]:

The area known to the Odawa Indians as Michilimackinac means “Big Turtle.” For them, Michilimackinac is the birthplace and center of the world. The Three Fires Confederacy (a long-standing alliance between the Ottawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi) took place there.

Two historic references:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Henry Schoolcraft’s journal of Aug. 3, 1833

The name of the place, as pronounced by the Indians, is Mich-en-e-mauk-in-ong. The ultimate syllable indicates locality. There is a strong accent on the fourth syllable.

   “I asked the Indians the meaning of this term. They said the “old fort” stood on the apex of the peninsula, about three miles distant. The island, then bore its present name. It was deemed sacred. They thought it had always been inhabited by spirits. A kind of these, which it is thought may have tallied with our faries, is said to have been seen on its cliffs. They are called Mich-in-e-mauk-in-nok-oag. The last syllable of this term is a common one for plural. Whether the others have any relation to their name for a tortoise – Mik-e-nok is not clear, but probable. Mish is clearly the equivalent for ‘great.’”

 Bishop Frederic Baraga

Bishop Baraga, who did missionary work among the Indians of the Upper Peninsula for many years, is an authority on the Chippewa tongue, having published, in 1878, A Grammar and Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language Explained in English. Here are his entries:

In this photo by Matthew Brady, Bishop Baraga holds his Dictionary. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Page 165, Mackinaw or Mackinac, Makinang, Mishinimakinang.
Page 272, Turtle, makinak, or mikkinak.
Page 300, Michimakina (Otchip.) , from: misi-mikkinak , big turtle. Some pronounce: Michilmikki ak, whence the “Michelmakina” of the Canadian voyageurs.

André—and I—struggled:

In “Uncharted Waters,” Book 3, my character André hopes to stop at Michilimackinac, having heard tales from his foster father. But because his canoe is very late and heading into unknown waters, he knows he can’t make that choice.

Visiting there is still on my bucket list as well. Every time I wrote about the place, I struggled with the pronunciation. And I also puzzled over the fact that there seem to be 2 places with similar names. With occasionally different spellings.

What I learned is the modern pronunciation is the same — NAW — regardless of the spelling.

Now about the locations, both of which are great for history buffs and tourists:

  • Michilimackinac is on the mainland, on the south side of the straits. It’s now called Colonial M…
  • Fort Mackinac is on an island in Lake Huron.

The history lesson on Michilimackinac:

For eons, Native peoples camped at the Michilimackinac straits. For a hundred years, French voyageurs and traders used the site as a supply post and a primary stopping-off point between Montreal and the interior fur posts. Finally in 1715, French soldiers constructed a fort at Michilimackinac near the Odawa community and Jesuit mission on the south.

Peter Pond is one trader (one of my favorite journal writers because of his unconventional spelling) who used Michilimackinac as a depot in about 1755:

I Cumplyed and we Lade in a cargo to the amount of four thousend Six Hundred Pounds & I went into the Entearor Part of the Cuntrey first to Mishlemackenack … thare was a Britsh Garason whare all the traders aSembel yearley to arang there afairs for the InSewing Winter”

With Great Britain and France — and the fledgling United States — constantly at war, the British took Michilimackinac from the French after the fall of New France in 1763. It remained a center for the fur trade.

When the war was over, the Ojibwa Indians who lived there resented the British takeover, finding the policies harsh, compared with those of the French.

  • Fun Fact: In 1763, Alexander Henry, age 22, wanted to make a quick fortune, and tried to pass himself off as a French voyageur at Michilimackinac (using his guide as the actual trader) but the Natives quickly understood the ruse. The chief Minivavana terrified Henry with this speech:

Englishman, you know that the French king is our father. He promised to be such; and we, in return promised to be his children … Englishman, although you have conquered the French, you have not yet conquered us! We are not your slaves. These lakes, these woods and mountains, were left to us by our ancestors. They are our inheritance; and we will part with them to none. … Englishman, your king has never sent us any presents, nor entered into any treaty with us, wherefore he and we are still at war.”

And the history lesson on Fort Mackinac:

Fort Mackinac (the island) was founded during the American Revolution.
Believing Fort Michilimackinac was vulnerable to American attack, the British moved the fort to Mackinac Island in 1780. What was not moved was burned.
The Americans took control of it in 1796, so the British built Fort St. Joseph [where André stops briefly in Book 3]. The British captured Fort Mackinac on July 17, 1812. It was returned to the United States after the war. The fort remained active until 1895. Eventually Mackinac Island was transformed into a major summer resort.

It’s a confusing history as it shifts back and forth to different governments. But you’re in luck — there won’t be a test.

Final Thoughts:

For further reading

  • Birchbark Brigade: A Fur Trade History” by Cris Peterson. Calkins Creek, Honesdale, Pennsylvania, 2009).
  • Five Fur Traders of the Northwest,” Charles M. Gates, ed. Minnesota Historical Society (St. Paul, Minnesota, 1965). Includes the Narrative of Peter Pond

The overhead view shows the Straits of Mackinac with Lakes Michigan (left) and Huron (right). What is now Colonial Michilimackinac is on the mainland at the bottom whereas Fort Mackinac is the large island. The photo is from NASA-Johnson Space Center, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This