Michilimackinac – A short history of the word.
by Charles Psenka
The term Michilimackinac is the modern accepted spelling and definition for an old Michigan Native American term that is widely understood to mean ‘The Great Turtle' presumably named for the shape of Mackinac Island. This interpretation of the word is debated by scholars.
An older written record of Michilimackinac is from the Antoine-Dennis Raudot, the Co-Intendant of New France, who shared the position with his pompous father, the father having wasted his entire legacy quarreling with the governor of New France at the time. The overachieving son felt imposed to make up for his fathers shortcomings, afforded himself no rest and was prolific in his economic developments of New France all the while writing his extensive anthropological memoir of the Native American tribes.
In a Raudot Memoir from 1710 he writes:
“The Outavois [Ottawa] live at the post of Michilimakina. . . . . an island opposite gave it its name of Michilimakina, which means turtle, because it seems to have the shape of this animal, which is very common there.”
A number of other scholars on the subject share the Great Turtle definition of Michilimackinac. The reptilian definition is endorsed by the likes of Chrysostom Verwyst, Jedidiah Morse, Alexander Henry, Bishop Barga, John Tanner, Bela Hubbard, Juliette Kinzie, Jonathan Carver, Pierre Charlevoix and Lamothe Cadillac.
Bacqueville de la Potherie (1753) of his version of ‘Michilimackinak' as the place where Michapous, [Great Hare, a spirit] had stayed the longest.
No one has better discredited the ‘Great Turtle' definition as clearly as Andrew J. Blackbird, also known as Chief Mack-e-te-be-nessy (Black hawk), an Odawa, who wrote emphatically in 1887 that the area had been named for an ancient tribe, the Mi-shi-ne-macki naw-go. Andrew J. Blackbird writes in his History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan from 1887:
“Again, most every historian, or annalist so-called, who writes about the Island of Mackinac and the Straits and vicinity, tells us that the definition or the meaning of the word “Michilimackinac” in the Ottawa and Chippewa language, is “Large Turtle,” derived from the word Mi-shi-mi-ki-nock in the Chippewa language. That is, “Mi-she” as one of the adnominals or adjectives in the Ottawa and Chippewa languages, which would signify tremendous in size; and “Mikinock” is the name of the mud turtle – meaning therefore, “monsterous large turtle,” as the historians would have it. But we consider this to be a clear error. Wherever those annalists, or those who write about the Island of Mackinac , obtain their information as to the definition of the word Michilimackinac, I don't know, when our tradition is so direct and so clear with regard to the historical definition of that word, and is far from being derived from “Michimikinock,” as the historians have told us. Our tradition says that when the Island was first discovered by the Ottawas, which was some time before America was known as an existing country by the white man, there was a small independent tribe, a remnant race of Indians who occupied the Island, who became confederated with the Ottawa when the Ottawas were living at Manitoulin, formerly called Ottawa Island, which is situated north of Lake Huron. The Ottawas thought a good deal of this unfortunate race of people, as they were kind of interesting sort of people; but , unfortunately, they had become most powerful enemies, who every now and then would come among them to make war with them. Their enemies were the Iroquois of New York. Therefore, once in the dead of the winter while the Ottawas were having a great jubilee and war dances at their island, now Manitoulin, on account of the great conquest over the We-ne-be-goes of Wisconsin, of which I will speak more fully in subsequent chapters, during which time the Senecas of New York, of the Iroquois family of Indians, came upon the remnant race and fought them, and almost entirely annihilated them. But two escaped to tell the story, who effected their escape by flight and by hiding in one of the natural caves at the island, and therefore that was the end of this race. And according to our understanding and traditions the tribal name of those disastrous people was “Mi-shi-ne-macki naw-go,” which is still existing to this day as monument to their former existence; for the Ottawas and the Chippewas named this little island “Mi-shi-ne-macki-nong” for memorial sake of those former confederates, which word is the locative case of the Indian noun “Michinemackinawgo.” Therefore we contend, this is properly where the name Michilimackinac is originated.”
Andrew J. Blackbird, History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan (Ypsilanti, MI: Ypsilanti Auxiliary of the Woman's National Indian Association, 1887) Pg. 19-20, Earliest Possible Known History of Mackinac Island.
Knowing what the term ‘Michilimakcinac' means to scholars is only so important. Michilimackinac.com recommends you visit this historic and beautiful area and enjoy it for everything it was and is today.