2014-08-09 / News

Burbeck Papers Include Missing-link Plan of Fort Mackinac

By Brian Dunnigan


Henry Burbeck in 1806. (Courtesy of William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan) Henry Burbeck in 1806. (Courtesy of William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan) Fort Mackinac has overlooked the harbor and town since 1781, the climactic year of the American Revolution. Inside its walls stand buildings of many different time periods, reflecting the military occupation of the place until 1895. Exploring the fort today might generate some curiosity about its odd, nearly triangular shape with its three impressive stone and timber blockhouses. A newly discovered plan helps explain how the British fort of 1781- 1796 was altered by the Americans to the appearance it has today.

The manuscript (hand-drawn) map, titled “Plan of the Garrison of Michilimackinac,” was among the more than 1,600 letters and documents that make up the Papers of Henry Burbeck, recently acquired by the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan. The Clements, which opened its doors in 1923, is one of the premier research libraries in the world for the study of early American history. Its collection of primary sources - books, manuscripts, maps, and graphics - provides the raw materials for writing histories of North America from 1492 to 1900. The Burbeck material was a perfect fit for the Library.


Fort Mackinac’s East Blockhouse stands today atop the grass-covered remains of the east halfbastion of the British fort of 1781-1796. The blockhouse was constructed in 1797-1798. The whitepainted stone wall to the right was part of v-shaped ravelin built in 1782. Fort Mackinac’s East Blockhouse stands today atop the grass-covered remains of the east halfbastion of the British fort of 1781-1796. The blockhouse was constructed in 1797-1798. The whitepainted stone wall to the right was part of v-shaped ravelin built in 1782. Henry Burbeck (1754-1848) is one of those characters of American history whose name is virtually unknown today but who served his country faithfully and effectively for 40 years. As an army officer from 1775- 1815, Burbeck fought the British during the Revolution and the War of 1812 as well as the Indians of the Old Northwest during the 1790s. Later in his career, Burbeck, an artillerist throughout his service, helped strengthen coastal defenses for his country’s port cities and assisted in professionalizing and improving the army’s artillery service. In 1796 he peacefully received Fort Mackinac from its British garrison and then commanded the post until 1799. He was a steady officer and strict disciplinarian. A young British lieutenant who visited Mackinac in 1799 described Burbeck as “a little man, as stiff as his boots, awkwardly consequential and [who] passed for a martinet.” Perhaps Major Burbeck still harbored some animosity toward his old foes and greeted his British visitor with reserve.


Major Burbeck’s plan of Fort Mackinac as altered by General Wilkinson in 1797 to show his proposed blockhouses (“H”). (Courtesy of William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan) Major Burbeck’s plan of Fort Mackinac as altered by General Wilkinson in 1797 to show his proposed blockhouses (“H”). (Courtesy of William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan) The length of Henry Burbeck’s service and the quantity of his documentation were prime reasons why the Clements Library decided to acquire his papers and add them to the more than 2,500 manuscript collections already on its shelves. Many of these relate to contemporaries or correspondents of Burbeck— people such as “Mad” Anthony Wayne, Josiah Harmar, James McHenry, and dozens of army and navy officers of the Early National period. The Burbeck collection includes some 1,300 pieces of received correspondence and reports from military posts from Arkansas to New Hampshire and Georgia, the great majority of them dating to between 1802 and 1815. Another 260 items are drafts of his letters to the same places. Even this represents only about 60% of Henry Burbeck’s entire archive. The remainder is divided among three institutions in the Northeast.

Among the hundreds of letters are 10 manuscript maps and plans, special treasures in themselves. These include a beautifully colored plan of Fort Detroit (circa 1809), and the only known plans of forts Recovery and Defiance (1793 and 1794) in northern Ohio. The others depict coastal forts in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. It was among these that the plan of Fort Mackinac was found. At first glance, it looked like another rendering of the fort as built by the British. On closer inspection, two new features had appeared. Labeled with the letter “H,” they are identified in the table of references as “Supposed Block Houses.”

Upon their arrival in September 1796, Major Burbeck and his men took possession of a dilapidated fort that was begun in 1780-1781 and slowly constructed until work was halted in 1784. Placed to cover the harbor and town, Fort Mackinac was overlooked at only a few hundred yards by higher ground where an attacker could place cannon to fire into the fort—as the British did in 1812. Its walls were a mixture of stone and earth-filled log cribs. The harbor-side walls were mostly made of stone. The land side was log work with two “half” bastions placed to provide flanking fire to cover the walls. In 1782, as something of an afterthought, the workmen built a massive v-shaped stone structure, termed a “ravelin,” to provide some protection against cannon on the higher ground to the north.

Soon after receiving the fort in 1796, U.S. officers made two surveys and drew two different plans of the place. One (the less accurate of the two), was done by Major Burbeck and territorial secretary Winthrop Sargent. The Burbeck/Sargent survey provides the basis of the newly discovered plan.

The final decision as to what to do to Fort Mackinac rested with the commander of the army, General James Wilkinson. He and his aides arrived at the Straits on August 15, 1797. They went right to work inspecting the fortifications and nearby ground. Wilkinson’s decision as to how to strengthen Fort Mackinac hung on the great hill to the north. On August 19, the general revealed his decision to commandant Burbeck. Because of the higher ground behind the fort, Wilkinson announced, “human force and ingenuity could not make it [the fort] tenable against the attacks of artillery,” and any attempt to do so would only be a waste of “labour and treasure.” It was possible, he added, at small expense, to make it “impregnable to the attacks of small armys,” that is, troops and Indians who lacked artillery.

This, Wilkinson ordered, was to be accomplished “by the erection of two block houses.” To convey his precise intent, the general gave Burbeck “a plan of the present works which will at one view exhibit to you the proposed improvements and those parts which must necessarily be demolished.” Wilkinson instructed Burbeck to keep to his design. The major did so, and the plan found with his papers is almost certainly the one given to him by General Wilkinson.

The plan is a veritable “missing link” in the development of Fort Mackinac. The letter “H” identifies the two blockhouses, each drawn with concentric squares to indicate that they were to be two-story structures with the top floor overhanging the ground story. The buildings each stand today atop the demolished half bastions seen on either end of a wall labeled “I – Old works.” These were to be demolished. Once that had been done and the blockhouses constructed, the soldiers set up vertical wooden pickets as a stockade around the perimeter, and Fort Mackinac took on the near-triangular outline it has today. The east and north blockhouses stand on gentle mounds of earth (the two former half bastions; most visible at the east blockhouse). The two buildings were erected in 1797-1798. The much smaller west blockhouse was an afterthought added in 1799. When U.S. Senator Uriah Tracy visited in 1800, he found the picketed walls guarded by “three strong & convenient blockhouses” capable of repelling an attack by Indians or soldiers with small arms.

The seminal 1797 plan of Fort Mackinac is only one of the treasures found in the Henry Burbeck Papers. Also present are numerous garrison strength returns and letters to and from Mackinac’s commandants for the years 1805 to 1811, a period of the fort’s history that has always been poorly documented.

Clements Library manuscript curators have begun processing and cataloging the Burbeck Papers. They should be available for research late in 2014.

For more information about the Burbeck Papers or the Clements Library, visit the library Web site (www.clements.umich.edu) or contact Ann Rock or Brian Dunnigan at 734-764-2347.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. David A. Armour, late deputy director of Mackinac State Historic Parks, who had a great interest in the construction of the three blockhouses and who would have been very excited by the discovery of the 1797 plan. – Brian Dunnigan

Editor’s Note: Brian Dunnigan is the Associate Director and Curator of Maps at William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. He and his family reside on Mackinac Island during the summers.

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