If you visit Mackinac Island, there’s a good chance you might overhear a conversation that includes something like, “Is it Mack-i-naw or Mack-i-nack?”
Add in Mackinaw City, the Mackinac Bridge and the Straits of Mackinac and it’s no wonder people get confused.
The short answer to this common question is it’s pronounced MACK-in-awe.
But there is a longer answer woven into the history of Mackinac Island from Native American, British and French influences.
NATIVE AMERICAN ORIGINS AND MACKINAC ISLAND
Mackinac Island is a shortened version of the Native American name pronounced Michilimackinac. The Anishinaabek people named this area and Mackinac Island Michilimackinac, meaning place of the great turtle.
Why great turtle? They thought that Mackinac Island, with its limestone bluffs, looked like a giant turtle rising out of the water.
FRENCH INFLUENCE ON MACKINAC ISLAND
In 1715, the French built a Fort (Fort Michilimackinac) in current day Mackinaw City. They translated the local Anishinaabek pronunciation of the area into something that better fit their language. This spelling included their silent “c” but still pronounced it as “aw.” Fort Michilimackinac was a thriving community at the center of the Great Lakes fur trade industry.
BRITISH INFLUENCE ON MACKINAC ISLAND
The British took control of Fort Michilimackinac in 1761 and in 1781, Fort Michilimackinac moved over the ice from the mainland to its current location on present-day Mackinac Island.
Michilimackinac was eventually shortened to Mackinac Island in the 19th century.
In 1857, Edgar Conkling founded present-day Mackinaw City and changed the spelling of the city to reflect the way it is pronounced.
You can see why it’s easy to get confused. There is Mackinac Island, the Mackinac Bridge, Straits of Mackinac, Mackinac County, Mackinaw City and the United States Coast Guard Cutter, Mackinaw.
But whether it’s spelled Mackinac or Mackinaw it’s pronounced the same way, with an “aw” at the end.
TURTLES ON MACKINAC ISLAND
As mentioned above, turtles have a big influence on Mackinac Island. The next time you visit, pay attention to the gifts, art, photos, paintings, names of businesses, and more that pay homage to the original Anishinaabek name, place of the great turtle.
For example, you could visit Great Turtle Park, where yes, there are turtle themed benches and a large ceramic turtle. There’s also Great Turtle Brewery & Distillery, Great Turtle Kayak Tours and Great Turtle Toys.
Now you know how to pronounce Mackinac, you know the history of how it came to be and you know why turtles play an important role on Mackinac Island. The next time you visit take a moment, reflect on the history of Mackinac Island and feel how it continues with us today.