Overhead view of the Straits of Mackinac linking Lakes Michigan (left) and Huron (right)
The area around the Great Lakes had been occupied by succeeding cultures of indigenous peoples. At the time of European contact, the Native American nations of the Ojibwa (called Chippewa in the United States), along with Odawa, inhabited the area. The French were the first Europeans to explore the area, beginning in 1612. They established trading posts and Jesuit Catholic missions.
One of the oldest missions, St. Ignace Mission, was located on the north side of the strait at Point Iroquois, near present-day St. Ignace, Michigan. This mission was established in 1671 by the Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette. The area was already known to the Odawa as Michilimackinac, meaning "Big Turtle". Later, it was called "Old Michilimackinac" or "Ancient Fort Mackinac".
The French later established a fort and settlement on the south side of the strait. It was called Fort Michilimackinac. The fort became a major trading post, attracting Native Americans from throughout the northern Great Lakes. After Great Britain defeated France in the Seven Years' War (French and Indian War), their colonial forces took over the fort and territory.
Fort Michilimackinac fell to an Ojibwa attack during the Native American uprising of 1763, sometimes called Pontiac's War. It was reoccupied by the British in September 1764. In 1780, during the American Revolution, British commandant Patrick Sinclair moved the British trading and military post to Mackinac Island, which was held by the British for some time, and abandoned Fort Michilimackinac after the move. After the rebel Americans gained independence in the Revolutionary War, this site became part of a territory of the United States.
Today, Fort Michilimackinac is preserved as a tourist site. Re-enactors portray historic activities of the French and English. An archeological dig at the site is open for viewing.