Things to do on Mackinac Island for history buffs

Lots of travel destinations have museums. Many vacation spots are home to historical sites. But what’s unique about going to Mackinac Island is that the whole place is steeped in history.

Mackinac Island is home to not one, but two historic military forts. It’s the site of one of the most incredible medical experiments of all time. And Mackinac Island State Park, which makes up more than 80% of the island, is a living museum of natural history wonders.

Plus, Mackinac Island is one of few places in the world that’s completely car free. That all makes it feel like you’re back in time!

If you’re a history buff, or even just someone who gets a kick out of seeing how people lived in the 1800s, there’s so much to do on Mackinac Island that’s right up your alley.

For starters, check out this sample 3-day itinerary that will immerse you in the storied history of one of America’s most extraordinary places.

Historical reenactments and demonstrations occur daily at Fort Mackinac, one of two military forts on Mackinac Island.

Day 1 on Mackinac Island for History Buffs


Board a Mackinac Island ferry and venture into the past

Because of its location in the middle of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet, Mackinac Island was a pivotal center for fur traders back in the 1600s and 1700s when the primary form of long-distance transportation was by boat. Still today, boat is the most common way for visitors to get to Mackinac Island. Hop on a Mackinac Island ferry from the mainland – either in Mackinaw City at the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, or in St. Ignace on the other side of the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – and feel like you’re leaving the world behind as you make the 16-minute trip to Mackinac Island.

Dial up some authentic Mackinac Island horsepower

Once you arrive at the ferry dock, flag a taxi – a Mackinac Island horse-drawn carriage taxi – to your place to stay. The charming clip-clop of horses makes you feel as though you’ve stepped into the past.

Go back in time at historic Fort Mackinac

The most popular historical landmark on Mackinac Island is Fort Mackinac, which the British moved to the bluffs high above the water in 1780. The fort originally closed in 1895 and since has been restored to its 19th-century glory. You can tour Fort Mackinac and see demonstrations of what life was like at the fort 140 years ago.

Experience Mackinac Island’s lesser known fort

Fort Mackinac is the better known of Mackinac Island’s two forts. The other, Fort Holmes, is a secret treasure. Built by the British during the War of 1812 to defend against American attack, Fort Holmes is set atop Mackinac Island’s highest point. In addition to historical exhibits within the fort, Fort Holmes also offers one of the best views on Mackinac Island. Stargazing from Fort Holmes is the perfect way to end your first night on Mackinac Island.
A map of historical sites on Michigan's Mackinac Island

Day 2 on Mackinac Island for History Buffs


Learn about Mackinac Island’s most incredible science experiment

Dr. William Beaumont isn’t known as “The Father of Gastric Physiology” for nothing. It was 200 years ago that Alexis St. Martin, an employee of the American Fur Co. store on Mackinac Island, was accidentally shot in the stomach with a shotgun. Beaumont, the U.S. Army surgeon at Fort Mackinac, treated the victim but figured the man would die. But St. Martin survived – with a permanent hole in his stomach. The curiosity gave Beaumont an extraordinary opportunity to study the digestive process. After all, he could tie a piece of food to a string and put it directly into St. Martin’s stomach, then pull it out later to see how it was being digested! You can learn all about Beaumont and this incredible experiment at the American Fur Company Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum on Mackinac Island.

Relive the history of horses on Mackinac Island

If your own stomach is feeling a bit queasy after hearing about Dr. Beaumont, maybe you’d prefer to learn about the history of horses on Mackinac Island at the Surrey Hill Carriage Museum.

Observe the history of Mackinac Island through art

Visit the Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum inside the historical Indian Dormitory. That’s where Native Americans stayed in the 1800s when visiting Mackinac Island to collect annuity payments under the terms of a treaty with the United States.

Natural history landmarks abound inside Mackinac Island State Park including geological features such as Skull Cave.

Day 3 on Mackinac Island for History Buffs


Explore Historic Downtown Mackinac Island

While Fort Mackinac has been restored to how it looked in the late 1800s, Historic Downtown Mackinac features attractions that offer a glimpse farther back into the history of Mackinac Island. Both the Biddle House and the McGulpin House showcase what life was like in the first half of the 19th century. One features the prosperous furnishings of a well-to-do fur-trading family and the other showcases the barebones life of a working-class family.

Learn about Mackinac Island’s Native Peoples

The Biddle House has been remodeled and now includes the Mackinac Island Native American Museum. The museum exhibits 19th-century life for Native Americans in the Straits of Mackinac and shares how Mackinac Island remains important still today for native peoples living in northern Michigan.

See a working forge in action on Mackinac Island

Historic Downtown Mackinac also includes the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, which dates to the 1880s. You can watch demonstrations of traditional blacksmithing techniques that were used to shoe horses and fix carriage wheels back in the 19th century. At Forge a Memory in Surrey Hill, you can make your own Mackinac Island souvenir.

Travel thousands of years into Mackinac Island’s past

Of course, no history-themed visit to Mackinac Island is complete without a tour of the natural history wonders in Mackinac Island State Park. Iconic photo spots including Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf and Devil’s Kitchen all bear witness to the Island’s incredible geological past.


On Mackinac Island, even the places to stay are historic

Go ahead and book your stay, then pick and choose which parts of this itinerary sound most interest to you. So many of the resorts, hotels, B&Bs, cottages, condos and homes on Mackinac Island date back more than 100 years. Wherever you stay, you’ll find a charming setting full of modern conveniences that make a great home base for your exploration into the history of Mackinac Island.


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