Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

When I was just five years old, my parents took me to Fort Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City, Michigan. It’s a reconstructed fort built by the French in 1715 and taken over by the English in 1761. These days, it’s host tourists, mainly, as well as a staff of a couple historical interpreters who will talk to you in character, if you play your cards right — or in mundane English if you’re not up to the task.

If you’ve ever encountered these sort of historical interpreters before, they can be great. They can tell you about what an everyday person was eating in that time period, what it was like to do their kind of work, what might be on the mind of a soldier or housemaid or blacksmith, what their hopes for the future might have been — all kinds of things. I love carrying on conversations with over the most minute of details.

The raid on Fort Michilimackinac, as presented to me as a 5-year-old

But when I was five? I wasn’t into such subtle things. I was a highly imaginative child. Makes sense — I’m a highly imaginative adult. So of all the things there were to encounter at the fort, it was one thing, and one thing alone, that truly stuck with me from that day: the retelling of Pontiac’s Uprising and the Native American sacking of the fort. Or, more precisely, it was the way in which the story was told.

And that’s a shame, because they way it was told was so incredibly biased and sensationalistic. It was presented as a scary thing, and boy howdy, did it scare me. But I’m glad to report that now, some *mumble* years later, I’ve returned to the fort and I see that Colonial Fort Michilimackinac has truly improved its presentation not only of the attack on Fort Michilimackinac, but its approach to teaching history all together.

As I walked through the fort and encountered the living history interpreters and displays, it occured to me that the care the state put into showing the history at the fort is exactly the same care I, as a writer of historical fiction, need to be taking as I do my own work.

Sound and fury

What I remember of my childhood visit to the fort was this: My mother and I climbed to the upper floor of one of the fort’s reconstructed houses. Downstairs, audio played of people storming into the home and attacking people inside. Screams poured up through the rafters of the attic where I hid among life-sized dummies, placed there to represent the Englishmen who likewise huddled for their lives against the raiding forces of Pontiac’s Rebellion. I was told that the people who had been caught downstairs had been scalped, which I was told meant that their heads had been cut apart by hatchets, and they were killed.

A living history interpreter holding the a lacross stick, symbolic of Pontiac’s Rebellion at the fort.

To say that this made an impression on me doesn’t come close to describing the impact. I didn’t hate Indians because of it; on the contrary, I was fascinated by them and wanted to know more. But I became terrified of anything resembling places like that house — places where you go to hear or see scary things. You know, like haunted houses around Halloween.

Soldiers at Fort Michilimackinac

In fact, since my birthday is around Halloween, my parents arranged to take me and my friends to one when I turned 12. It didn’t go so well. In fact, I got so terrified that a few minutes in, the crew had to stop everything, turn on the lights and escort me out. Yeah, it was that bad. And it’s still that bad.

I don’t know that any reason was given for the actions of the Ojibwe. It was … just something that Indians did. You know, that’s how they are. And the hapless English were just their victims. And that was that. And I didn’t question it.

I also came away from that fort with a certain idea about Pontiac’s Rebellion. According to what I’d been told, the Ojibwe people had made a plan to attack the fort using a game of lacrosse as cover. When the ball was tossed near the fort entrance, the players approached to retrieve it. In doing so, they were handed weapons by the Native women standing near the gate, who were hiding them inside the blankets they wore.

Know better, do better

Of course, the truth of the matter was much more complex than that. There were much more nuanced reasons for what the Ojibwe did. Pontiac had reasons for “rebelling.” The English were not simple victims that did nothing to bring on their own suffering. And as we toured the fort earlier this month, those things were brought to light by the living history interpreters and museum exhibits.

A house at Fort Michilimackinac

The English had taken over Fort Michilimackinac in 1761 as a result of the French and Indian War. The Ojibwe and French had enjoyed pretty warm relations, but the same wasn’t true between the Ojibwe and the English. To make matters worse, the British had appointed General Jeffrey Amherst to oversee the region. He instituted policies that angered the Ojibwe, such as eliminating the custom of exchanging gifts before engaging in trade, that had been established by the French. To the Ojibwe, this was more than a matter of material goods. Ending the gifts indicated to them that the English thought of them as a conquered people, not an independent nation: it was an insult.

Out toward Lake Michigan

True, the attack was brutal. War is ugly, afterall. But the violence was not indiscriminate. The Ojibwe were careful to direct the violence against the English soldiers at the fort, killing about 15 of the 25 stationed there, and later torturing another five to death. But those were a tiny fraction of the total population at Fort Michilimackinac, which was overwhelmingly populated by fur traders, merchants and other mercantile workers, all of whom were mostly French at that time. During the summer, as many as a thousand people lived in and around the fort.

When I was a child, I had been presented a sensationalized and scary version of the story that presented one side as the good guys and the other as the bad guys. There were terrifying screams and horror-show displays. This time around, the over-the-top emotional displays were replaced with a more factual presentation that took into account several viewpoints, using historical re-enactors and exhibits to show us that the truth was far more complicated than good guys vs. bad guys.

Not history – histories

There was more. For instance, one exhibit showed how diverse the population at the fort was, comprising not just French, English and Ojibwe, but also Metis (French and Indian descent), black and even Michigan’s first Jewish resident.

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable

The exhibit on the black residents took care to explain that while some of the black people at the fort may have been enslaved, not all were. We know that one of them was not. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who would go on to be known as the “Father of Chicago,” lived for a while at the fort. He was a man of African descent who worked for the lieutenant-governor at Fort Michilimackinac.

There was also a display on Ezekiel Solomon, Michigan’s first Jewish resident. He was a merchant who was captured during the raid on the fort, but perhaps because he was born in Germany instead of England, his life was spared. I was amused that they took care to show the tzitzit of his tallit kitan peeking out under the hem of his shirt, but there was no mezuzah to be seen on his door.

A blacksmith working at the fort.

I also got to speak with a young woman who was adopted into a Ojibwe family, and a young man who was working on a French fur trading voyageur crew. A housemaid in the English commander’s house played a violin tune for me and I watched a blacksmith at work. It’s by seeing history through so many eyes that you get to understand the whole picture.

And that’s really the point. History doesn’t belong to any one person or group. There’s no single narrative to it. Everyone alive contributes their own kaleidoscope view to history, and each time we get a chance to glimpse another one of them, we get a truer picture of what history really is.

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