|Routes to Mackinac Island|
|Records kept by the American Fur Company|
Connected by narrow straits, three of the five largest Great Lakes, Huron, Michigan and Superior converge near Mackinac Island. Located amidst these waterways, the Island and some of its surrounding shores served as a base for exploring and, later, for developing an expansive fur trade in the Great Lakes.
In the 17th century, the French claimed the territory surrounding the Great Lakes. At this time, their Jesuit priests and explorers paddled up the Ottawa River from Montreal, eventually making their way through Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay and then on to Superior and Michigan. Some even canoed through Lake Michigan to the rivers of Wisconsin and with a short portage made their way to the Mississippi River.
What drove people to undertake these life-endangering expeditions? The very earliest explorers, like Samuel de Champlain, were searching for a new route to China that would enrich themselves and the French nation. For priests like Father Jacques Marquette, the answer was clear: saving souls by bringing the Indians the sacraments of the Catholic Church. For the voyageurs like Jean Nicolet, the response was a search for adventure and fortune.
The lands and waterways surrounding the Great Lakes were rich with fur bearing animals – such as beaver, marten, lynx, mink, otter, bear, and fox. Once the Indians learned what the Europeans had with them – knives, hatchets, cooking pots, muskets — they sought to acquire these modern metal items. Local Indians brought the highly valued pelts to the trading post on Mackinac Island where the exchange of goods took place. Each side had a clear incentive and therefore trade flourished.
Control of these great northwestern territories shifted from French, to British, to American. After the French and Indian Wars, 1756-63, sovereignty was transferred from France to Britain. Soon thereafter, with the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812, the boundaries were settled between the United States and Great Britain/Canada as large parts of the Great Lakes came under the American flag.
|Mackinac Strait Suspension Bridge, i.e. Big Mac|
There was strong competition to benefit from the wealth of the fur trade. In 1809, John Jacob Astor organized the American Fur Company in order to challenge the British monopoly that extended from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest. Astor was a remarkable entrepreneur. In addition to establishing a trading fort in Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River, to compete directly with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he traded along the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains in the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. On Mackinac Island in Lake Michigan, he established a trading center and by 1822 held a monopoly on the Great Lakes fur trade.
At its Mackinac Island base, Astor’s American Fur Company, set up a warehouse, dormitory, retail store and boat yard. A resident manager was put in charge, while Astor himself never came to the island.
Astor became one of the richest men in the world of his time, a credit to his entrepreneurial skills, some well-timed assistance from the federal government in forcing out British competition, and finally, superb timing of selling his fur business just as the European fashions shifted to silk. After he sold out his interest in the company (then a US monopoly) in 1834, he reinvested his wealth in New York City real estate. John Jacob Astor was a man in the right place at the right time, many times!
LAST BLOG IN VOYAGE THROUGH AMERICAN WATERWAYS.