The history of St. Ignace and the Straits of Mackinac begins in the days following continental glaciation. The unique land forms and water courses were created as glaciers perhaps thousands of feet thick moved in a south westerly direction gouging, smoothing and abrading. When the climate moderated, the glaciers retreated northward creating even more channels, lakes and rivers.
The Anishinabeg - an Ojibwa term describing the original peoples - were the first residents. Oral tradition and archaeological research suggest that occupation of the Great Lakes Basin dates back forty to fifty thousand years. The natives of the St. Ignace region were migratory. In the spring, the Anishinabeg gathered maple sugar and fished sturgeon and smelt. Summer found them in settlements surrounded by crops of corn, potatoes and squash, and near the abundant supplies of wildlife, fish and berries. They developed efficient housing, watercraft, hunting and farming tools.
The heritage of the Straits evolved and changed over the centuries beginning with the arrival of Roman Catholic missionaries and then French and British explorers and fur traders. The very name St. Ignace came originated with the Jesuit missionaries who christened the community in honor of the founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius Loyola. Jesuits priests including Fathers Marquette, Charlevoix, and Allouez are remembered in the Upper Peninsula, but the majority of the priests who visited the area have passed, unremarked, into history.
The natural waterway joining Lakes Michigan and Huron at the Straits of Mackinac generated extensive water traffic, and prompted the establishment of an outpost during the period of French occupation. The outpost - Fort de Buade - became the seat of King Louis XIV’s authority in the interior of North America. French notables including Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle and Antoine Lamothe Cadillac spent time at the post. St. Ignace was among the largest settlements in New France from the last decade of the 15th century until the establishment of Detroit in 1701. The British arrived in the St. Ignace region with the defeat of the French during Seven Years War.
St. Ignace played a pivotal role in the fur trade until this industry began to wane. By the mid-1800’s the financial importance of commercial fishing to the economic well-being of the area eclipsed that of the fur trade. Ancillary industries including curing, packing and shipping augmented the fishery. It was during this period that the Mackinaw Boat became a familiar sight on the waters in and around the Straits. As the lumber industry in Michigan evolved, St. Ignace became a center for mill yards and its proximity to the shipping lanes added to its importance as a commercial hub in the northern Great Lakes area. The community experienced further diversification in the 1890’s when the Martel Furnace began iron production.
Its geographic location has long been a blessing as well as a curse for St. Ignace. Because of its locality, the town naturally became a vital maritime junction. This same positioning, however, made the town the end of the line for road traffic and the Duluth South Shore & Atlantic Railroad. Ultimately, a barge called the Betsy was introduced to transport railway cars across the Straits linking railway lines in Upper and Lower Michigan. The barge was replaced by a railroad ferry named St. Ignace in 1888. This marked the beginning of almost one hundred years of railway ferry service across the Straits. Car ferries, beginning with the Ariel in 1923, operated between St. Ignace and Mackinaw City until construction of the Mackinac Bridge was completed in 1957.
St. Ignace enjoys a reputation as one of the oldest continuous settlements in the United States. Its Aboriginal and French roots are readily evident throughout the community and it’s these deep and strong roots that form the basis for this vibrant and thriving city.