Sightseeing in Northern Michigan: Fort Michilimackinac

Hard to imagine what life would be like in Northern Michigan in the 1700s, but there’s a place that can help us all understand it a little better.

Corey Adkins takes us to Fort Michilimackinac to get a better look at how the commanding officers lived.      

“We’re in the Commanding Officer’s House. The original would have been built here in the 1750s by the French as a home for the commanding officer. We have it interpreted as it would be in the mid 1770s,” says Craig Wilson, Mackinac State Historic Parks museum historian. 

Around 300 people lived in and around the walls of Fort Michilimackinac.

It was a community of Native Americans, enlisted soldiers and traders coming and going to feed the Great Lakes fur trade.

And in the mid-1770s it was all under the command of Arent DePeyster, and with him was his wife Rebecca.

“He was born in New York, so he was an American. He was born there in the 1730s. He joined the British Army at 15 in the early 1750s. He served throughout Europe and came to North America in 1768 and was the CO here from 1774 to 1779,“ explains Wilson.

Life on the Straits of Mackinac back then wasn’t easy.

“In some of his letters he does mention the monotony of winter and how cold it can be, and how strange and extreme the weather can be at times.”

But that didn’t mean the commanding officers didn’t live the good life.

“They’re at the top of the society, so they get to enjoy the finer things, the imported ceramics and china and things like that. The DePeysters had a servant here, so she would be able to prepare meals for them. We know that they were throwing parties on a regular basis, parties that would last all night long with dancing and music and drinking and things like that,” says Wilson.

Arent and Rebecca never had children. He would pass the time by writing poetry. One poem was about a chipmunk they fell in love with, They named Tim.

“He wrote a poem about Tim in 1775 and unfortunately it was an epitaph for Tim, because he died. So DePeyster wrote a poem to console Rebecca, reminding her of how Tim liked to fling himself in circles,” explains Wilson.

The Mackinac State Historic Parks have been excavating the grounds of Fort Michilimackinac for decades. The commanding officers house was reconstructed in 1963.

“The exhibit we had here had been here for several years, and it didn’t give an actual sense what this house was actually like for the DePeysters, what life was like for other commanding officers there,” says Wilson.

But now this fully renovated house and new exhibit helps unravel the mysteries at Fort Michilimackinac.

“We do want people to know this was a fully established community with all the things you might expect in a larger city, and people could live very nicely here as the DePeysters did and as some of the other leading merchants did here. So I hope that this house help us expand our story here a little more," says Wilson. 

Categories: Northern Michigan In Focus