The primary purpose of the fort was as part of the French-Canadian trading post system, which stretched from the Atlantic Coast and the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes, and south to the Mississippi River through the Illinois Country. The fort served as a supply depot for traders in the western Great Lakes.
The French had first established a presence in the Straits of Mackinac in 1671 when Father Marquette established the Jesuit St. Ignace Mission at present-day St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In 1683, they augmented the mission with Fort de Buade. In 1701, Sieur de Cadillac moved the French garrison to Fort Detroit and closed the mission.
By 1713, however, the French decided to re-establish a presence along the Straits of Mackinac, and built the wooden Fort Michilimackinac on the northern tip of the lower peninsula. They sent Constant le Marchand de Lignery with a contingent of soldiers and workmen in 1715 to accomplish the job. Over the decades, they made several modifications and expansions to the palisade walls. Chevalier Jacques Testard de Montigny, who was a Lt. and a Knight of the Order of St. Louis, was appointed in 1730 and served for three years as commandant of the fort. He was previously commandant of Fort La Baye (Green Bay, Wisconsin). Many of his relatives settled in Michigan.
The French relinquished the fort, along with their territory in Canada, to the British in 1761 following their loss in the French and Indian War, the North American front of the Seven Years' War. The British continued to operate the fort as a major trading post, but most residents were French and Métis (Ojibwe-French), who spoke predominately French and worshipped at Sainte Anne Church in a small log structure. Other civilian residents included British fur traders, some of whom resided within the fort in the southeastern row house.
The Ojibwe in the region resented British policies as harsh. On June 2, 1763, as part of the larger movement known as Pontiac's Rebellion, a group of Ojibwe staged a game of baaga'adowe (a forerunner of modern lacrosse) outside the fort as a ruse to gain entrance. After entering the fort, they killed most of the British inhabitants. They held the fort for a year before the British regained control, promising to offer more and better gifts to the native inhabitants of the area.
The British eventually determined that the wooden fort on the mainland was too vulnerable. In 1781 they built a limestone fort on nearby Mackinac Island. Now known as Fort Mackinac, it was apparently also initially named Fort Michilimackinac. The British then moved related buildings to the island by dismantling them and moving them across the water in the summer and over ice in winter to the island during the next two years. Ste. Anne's Church was also moved. Patrick Sinclair, the lieutenant governor of Michilimackinac, ordered the remains of the southern Fort Michilimackinac to be destroyed after the move.