Michilimackinac – Winter 1958

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Ernest H. Rankin

Mackinac Bridge from Mackinaw City By Peter K Burian – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

With the opening of the new Mackinac Bridge for traffic on November 1, 1957, and its formal dedication on June 28, 1958, a matter which is not only of great interest and importance to Michigan residents, but to the whole country as well for economic reasons, the age-old question of the proper pronunciation of the word “Mackinac” again arises. The residents of the area originally known as Michilimackinac, and which not only included the territory in the immediate vicinity of the straits, but also the northern portion of the Lower Peninsula and most of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, seem contented with the pronunciation, “Mackinaw.” This applies not only to Mackinaw City which is on the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula but also to the Straits of Mackinac, Mackinac Island and Mackinac County, located in the Upper Peninsula. Within the past year a columnist associated with one of Lower Michigan’s established newspapers has set himself up as an authority in this matter and would lead his readers to believe that “Mackinack,” an extremely harsh and non-euphonious word is, largely due to its spelling, the only possible pronunciation. He had heard it pronounced that way when a youngster. Sixty years ago he had played around Detroit’s docks, had seen the old steamship, City of Mackinac, many times and every sailor aboard had called it the City of Mackinack, never “Mackinaw.”

The writer, during the winter of 1957-8, had the privilege of visiting the Manuscript Department of the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C., where he examined many of the yet unpublished papers of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who for many years was Indian Agent at Michilimackinac. While going through one of his journals a paragraph was discovered concerning the place name and pronunciation of “Michilimackinac.” This aroused a renewed interest in the subject. The writer, rather than pretending to act as a final authority in this matter of pronunciation, decided to consult some of the many early authors who had lived in or visited this remote Michigan wilderness and present to the readers his findings, leaving them to accept such pronunciation as seems most logical, or is most agreeable to the ears.

Mr. Schoolcraft lived among the Northern Michigan Indians for many years making his home at both Mackinac Island and Sault Ste. Marie, serving as Indian Agent from 1833 until 1841. His wife, Jane, a half­ breed Chippewa, was the well-educated, cultured daughter of John Johnston and Oshawousgodaywayqua, who was a daughter of the famous Chief Waubojeeg, familiarly known as the “White Fisher.” Mr. Schoolcraft has been recognized as an outstanding authority on Indians generally, and was quite at home with the Chippewa tribe.

From his Journal, under date of 1833, August 3rd, we copied the following:

The name of the place, as pronounced by the Indians, is Mich-en-e-mauk-in­ ong. The ultimate syllable indicates locality. There is a strong accent on the fourth syllable. I asked the Indians the meaning of this term. They said the “old fort” stood on the apex of the peninsula, about three miles distant. The island, then bore its present name. It was deemed sacred. They thought it had always been inhabited by spirits. A kind of these, which it is thought may have tallied with our faries, is said to have been seen on its cliffs. They are called Mich-in-e-mauk-in-nok-oag. The last syllable of this term is a common one for plural. Whether the others have any relation to their name for a tortoise – Mik-e-nok is not clear, but probable. Mish is clearly the equivalent for great.

In Mr. Schoolcraft’s Indians of the United States, published in 1860, Vol. II, page 139, he wrote, in part:

In the Straits of “Me-she-ni-mick-in-auk-ong” (the original Ojibwa name for the Island of Mackinaw), or “Great Turtle,” they parted from their relations, the Ottawa and Po-da-waud-um-eeg (Pottawattomies).

The late Rt. Rev. Bishop Baraga, who lived and did missionary work among the Indians of the Upper Peninsula for many years, and is considered to be one of the greatest authorities on the Chippewa tongue, wrote and published a very comprehensive work, A Grammar and Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language Explained in English. (Edition of 1878).

From the following pages of his Dictionary he gives his version of the Indian names for Mackinac, tortoise and turtle:

Page 165, Mackinaw or Mackinac, Makinang, Mishinimakinang.

Page 266, Tortoise, mishike. Another kind (species of tortoise) tetebikinak.

Page 272, Turtle, jingademik wan, misk wadessi, bosikado: makinak, or mikkinak.

Page 300Michimakina (Otchip.) , from: misi -mikkinak , big turtle. Some pronounce: Michilmikki ak, whence the “Michelmakinaof the Canadian voyageurs.

Another missionary, The Reverend Edward F. Wilson, who lived among the Indians for many years, also wrote a dictionary. The Ojebway Language (Toronto, 1874). On page iv will be found a brief paragraph concerning the Ojebway language.

Their language, in common with those of other Indian tribes, is not a written one, and, though by some considered musical, is very deficient in its phonetic elements, the Alphabet consisting only of nineteen letters, those which are wanting being c, f, h, l, r, v and x.

He supplies the Indian names for tortoise and turtle, as well as fairy and spirit, as follows :

Page 227Fairy; windegooqua.

Page 362, Spirit; muhnedoo.

Page 386, Tortoise; meskeka.

Page 391, Turtle; shingahdamequan, pooseekahdoo, muhkekenauk.

Zeisberger, in his Indian Dictionary (Cambridge: University Press, 1887), under the Delaware language, page 206, gives as the Indian name for turtle, “Memedhackemo.”

Straits of Mackinac, Mackinac Island, City of Mackinaw, etc.

From another source, Names of Places of Interest on Mackinac Island, Michigan (Michigan Historical Commission, Bulletin No. 5, 1916), is found on page 47:

Mrs. Jameson, the noted English author and critic, visited Mackinac in 1837. She has left, in her Winter Studies and Summer Rambles, delightful sketches of Mackinac Island and the Straits While on the Island she stayed at the home of Henry R. Schoolcraft, then Indian Agent at Mackinac….On leaving the Island she wrote to a friend: “O, Mackinaw! that fairy island, which I shall never see again, and which I would have dearly liked to filch from the Americans, and carry home in my dressing box, or per die, in my toothpick case.”

In the Wisconsin Historical Collection, Vol. 19, page 27, LaVinge, a Frenchman, in recording in French the baptism of a slave on March 11, 1794, uses the spelling, “Michilimakina.”

A pioneer resident of Marquette, Michigan, who lived among the Indians and at Mackinac Island for several years during the 1840’s, in writing his unpublished autobiography, invariably wrote “Mackinaw Island,” never “Mackinac Island.”

In consulting six recognized dictionaries, cyclopedias, encyclopedias and a gazetteer they all, with one exception, give the pronunciation for Mackinac or Mackinaw as ‘Creak-in-no.’ The exception is contained in the Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer of the World (Columbia University Press, 1952), and as a second preference give “ma kinak.”

The name, “Michilimackinac,” is also referred to on page 362 of the History of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, published in 1883 by the Western Historical Company, Chicago, Illinois. This reference is given as a matter of interest, rather than as source material, this 1883 history not being documented.

Regarding the derivation of the name Michilimackinac, ancient and modern writers in alluding to it have erroneously stated that it is derived from the Indian word or name for Great Turtle, which is Me-che-me-kin-oc-e-nung­ gonge.

The Indians do not use this word in speaking of this island, but rather use the word Me-she-ne-mock-e-nung-gonge: which means Island of Great or Giant Fairies.

In 1825, this extraordinary name gave place to Mackinac from Mikkina, a turtle.

Mr. Meade C. Williams, a long-time resident of Mackinac Island, has much to say about this in his Early Mackinac (Buschart Bros., Print, St. Louis, 190 1). We quote from Chapter I, pp. 11 to 15, as follows:

Michilimackinac was the old-time name, not for our beautiful island alone, but for all the country around us, north to Lake Superior and west to the head of Green Bay. It was the island only that was first thus called. The word grew out of it, and small bit of land though it is, it threw its name over a vast territory.

The name has been variously spelled. In old histories, reports, and other documents, I have found Mishilimakina, Missilimakinac, Mishilmaki, Michilimachina, Michilimawina, Missilimakina, Michiliakimawk; while in one standard history, when this region was spoken of, it invariably appears as Michilmakinaw. (Henry Adams’ History of the United States.) In its abbreviated form it has been written Mackinack, Macina, Maquina, Mackana, Mackinac, and Mackinaw. In all the earlier periods following the settlement of the island by the whites, in books of travel and of history, and in mercantile records, Mackinac and Mackinaw were used interchangeably, though the form Mackinaw was most commonly adopted. Also in many of the early maps and atlases it is so given. Steamboat companies doing business on the island generally advertised their boats as of the “Mackinaw Line.” Business firms so wrote the word – at least as frequently as the other form. So this was quite general during all that time, except that the official name of the military post held to the termination ‘fat.” But since the railroad companies built their modern terminal town across the straits and called it Mackinaw City, for the sake of convenience in distinguishing, the name of the island is now uniformly written Mackinac. In pronunciation, however, without attempting to settle the question of the laws of orthoepy, it may be remarked that it is considered very incorrect to sound the final c; and that to the ears of the residents, and old habitues and lovers of the island, it is almost distressful and irritating to hear it called anything other than Mackinaw. The pronunciation which has prevailed in the locality and throughout the surrounding region for generations past has become the law of usage, and should determine the question. It is said among the early residents of the island there was but one person who ever called it Mackinack, and he was regarded, in his day, “as an eccentric.” A compromise may perhaps be allowed, by taking the name as if it bore the termination ah, and giving it a sound between the flat and the very broad. Julian Ralph, a noted American traveler and descriptive writer, has referred to the subject, and says the confusion is due to the ‘French manner of “gallicizing” the words of any language they touch, so that all through our West, where they had early settlements, they thus “spelled words one way and pronounced them another, in a style peculiar to their own language, and maddening to the blunt and practical Anglo Saxon mind.” And he charges us to remember that the name is always Mackinaw, no matter how it is spelled. Another traveler visiting the island in 1830, and writing about it, after giving its name in full as Michilimackinac, says in that in conformity with popular usage, “we will henceforth say Mackinaw.”

Col. Wm. M. Ferry, of Park City, Utah, who lived on the island as a boy from 1824 to 1834, and who has a wide intelligence concerning its early local history, tells me the Canadian Frenchmen sounded it as Mack-ee-naw, and from that it came into common use. The word is further familiar to us from what, in our summer wear, is called the “Mackinaw hat.” And the “Mackinaw boat,” as descriptive of a certain build of sailing craft common long ago in these straits, is a term still written as of yore.

The origin and signification of the word is in some obscurity. All agree that the first part of it, “Michi,” means great. It is preserved in the name of the State, Michigan, and in the name of the lake, Lake Michigan – meaning great waters. The French took it up, spelling it Missi; hence the name of the river Mississippi – great river, the father of waters. Concerning the remainder of the name which follows Michi, we are not so sure. The common view is that the form of the island, high-backed in the center, as it rises above the waters, and handsomely crowning the whole, suggested to the Indian fancy the figure of a turtle. Hence that it became known as the land of the Great Turtle.

Heriot, an English traveler in North America, who published his “Travels through the Canadas ” in 1807, touched at Mackinac and reports as the origin of the name that the island has been given, as their special abode , to an order of spirits called Imakinakos, and that “from these aerial possessors it had received the appellation of Michilimackinac.”

Schoolcraft, who is the best authority on all questions pertaining to the Indian language as well as to the customs and characteristics of that race, says that the original name of the island was Mishi-min-auk-in-ong, and that it means the place of the great dancing spirits – these spirits being of the more inferior and diminutive order, instead of belonging to the Indian collection of gods; a kind of pukwees, or fairies, or sprites, rather than Manitous.

At the time of his first visit to the island in 1820, Schoolcraft was inclined to the common view which connected the name with the turtle. But later, after he had lived many years among the Indians, and had made a study of their language and their mode of thought, he preferred the other explanation. The transition from the Indian Mishi -min-auk -in-ong to the French Michili­ mackinac he thus explains: The French used ch for sh, interchanged n for 1, and modified the syllables auk and ong respectively into ack. Perhaps the ack, or ac as we now have it, is but a suggestion of the nasal sound they would give to the final syllable ong, in the Indian word. A further hint may be furnished in the fact that the French form of the name, as we find it in old historical records and other documents, so frequently bears the termination ina instead of ack. We have then, only to give the broad sound to the final a, to see how Mackinaw may have become a common pronunciation….

For a final authority let us quote from Historic Mackinac, by Edwin O. Wood, LL.D. (New York: MacMillan Co., 1918). This reference will be found in Vol. I, pp. 16-17:

Michilimackinac – Application of the Name

The name Michilimackinac, variously applied at different times and by different writers, has given rise to some confusion. It has meant, 1, the Island , probably its earliest application; 2, the region about, larger than the whole drainage area of the Great Lakes; 3, the country of the Straits and the eastern portion of the upper peninsula of Michigan; 4, the post of St. Ignace; 5, the post near the site of the present Mackinaw City, where the massacre took place in 1763. To prevent confusion in a measure, some writers now refer to the post at St. Ignace as Ancient Michilimackinac, and to the post on the south side of the Straits as Old Mackinaw. In the early part of the last century was added to the list the borough (the village) of Michilimackinac, and the County of Michilimackinac, which included the upper portion of the lower peninsula of Michigan and a large part of the upper peninsula,

The proper spelling as applied to the Island is, ending with “nac ” (Mackinac), correctly pronounced as if ending “naw .” When referring to the site on the south side of the Straits, the spelling is “Mackinaw,” with the pronunciation the same as for the Island name. In Historic Mackinac except when quoting the Island is given as “Mackinac,” and the location at the extreme north point of the lower peninsula of Michigan, as “Mackinaw.” In all uses of the word the final “c” is silent, and the pronunciation as if spelled “Mackinaw. ” The name when referring to the Straits is spelled “Mackinac,” and in referring to the Mackinac country, the same spelling as for the Island should be used.

A further search through the records will disclose considerably more documented material on Michilimackinac, however, we believe that we have presented sufficient information on the subject to warrant the pronunciation, Mackinaw.


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About the Author: Mr. Rankin has a special interest in place names and as genealogist of the Marquette County Historical Society has had occasion to carry on detailed research in this field.

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