This undated photo from Mackinac State Historic Parks shows cannon firing demonstrations by costumed interpreters at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, an important site in the War of 1812.
The stories and events surrounding the War of 1812 may seem far removed from most Michiganians’ lives. In truth, it was a critical time in our state’s history — with outcomes that influenced the realities of everything from Michigan’s geographic boundaries to the opportunities available to those who wished to build a home and find their livelihood here.
This year, as Michigan commemorates the bicentennial of the War of 1812, there are plenty of ways for residents and visitors to both learn about the rich history of the early 19th century and immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and significance of an important chapter in the story of how Michigan came to be.
“The United States has been involved in many wars, in many places during its long history,” said Phil Porter, executive director of Mackinac State Historic Parks. “But only once did U.S. soldiers see combat on Michigan lands, and that was during the War of 1812.”
Porter, who also serves as the chair of the Michigan Commission on the Commemoration of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, explained that at the beginning of the war Michigan was essentially “captured” by the British — beginning with the victory at Fort Mackinac on July 17, 1812, and concluding with the capture of Fort Detroit on Aug. 16 that same year.
“The attack at Mackinac was the first military encounter on U.S. soil,” Porter said.
“While Detroit was later retaken by American troops, Mackinac remained in British hands throughout the war. Had the Treaty of Ghent (Dec. 24, 1814) not returned Mackinac to the United States, the border between Michigan and Canada might well begin at the Straits of Mackinac rather than Sault Ste. Marie.”
While thoughts of a Michigan without “Yoopers” or the magnificent natural spaces of the Upper Peninsula may seem impossible to grasp, at the time there were far graver consequences to consider.
When the British captured Mackinac Island on July 17, 1812, they required civilians living on the island to sign an oath of allegiance to King George III. Three civilians, including Ambrose Davenport, boldly refused and were sent to Detroit on parole with the American soldiers.
“In rejecting the offer to sign and stay on Mackinac Island, Davenport, a former U.S. soldier who was stationed at Fort Mackinac from 1796-1802, stated, ‘I was born an American and am determined, at all costs, to live and die an American,’” Porter said.
Davenport left behind a wife and six children. After the war, he returned to his family and lived the rest of his life on Mackinac Island.
It is one story out of countless others, but it reflects the fierce determination of many of Michigan’s early residents as well as the age-old belief that freedom isn’t free.
“Freedom is bought and paid for by the sacrifice of those who are willing to defend the freedoms that we all enjoy,” Porter said.
“By putting together a pretty amazing collection of entertaining and educational events surrounding this piece of our history, we hope people will have fun while learning about the Michigan Territory’s role as a key battleground in the War of 1812,” Porter said. “The U.S. was fighting to protect the right of American citizens to settle in the territory and pursue their livelihoods, most especially farming and the fur trade.”
Jim McConnell agrees.
“No matter where you live in the state, chances are there’s a War of 1812 event happening nearby,” said McConnell, special projects coordinator and news editor of the Michigan Council for History Education — as well as a War of 1812 commission member. “This was a pivotal time in Michigan history and we are proud to offer so many ways for people of all ages to recognize their connections to times long gone but still very much a part of how we live today.”
In the Eastern Upper Peninsula, Mackinac Island will host “Americans Surrender to the British and Native Americans” Tuesday, July 17, at 7 p.m. Enjoy a re-enactment that draws out the drama and history of a fateful day. Details at http://www.mackinacparks.com
“Michigan has long been known for its natural and recreational resources. This year, we’re especially proud to also shine a light on the historic and cultural resources that set Michigan apart,” said McConnell.
For full details about the War of 1812 commemoration – including lesson plans, calendar of events, speakers bureau, history and more – visit http://www.michigan.gov/war1812.