The Mysterious Fort Gratiot
If you can tell from our posts in the winter months, we love Michigan history. We really like to dig into the history of rapid and dynamic growth of the Thumb region in the 1800’s. It was during a photo run of the Port Huron area that we found a new and interesting subject to focus on; Fort Gratiot.
On a single sign outside of the Thomas Edison Depot museum there is a mention of this lonely stockade fort on the edge of the frontier.
“Fort Gratiot was built by the U.S. Army in 1814 to guard the strategic junction of Lake Huron and the St. Clair river. Troops stood ready to defend Michigan and the US against British forces in Canada.
As settlement moved westward, the fort was a stopping point for soldiers and supplies headed for the frontier. During the Civil War era soldiers prepared for battle here, but Fort Gratiot never suffered a hostile attack. In 1879 the flag was lowered, and the fort was abandoned. “
The Americans Take Detroit in the War of 1812
Commodore Perry’s victory on Lake Erie and the Battle of the Thames followed by the retaking possession of Detroit in October 1813, left the Americans in control of the Great Lakes. However most of the Indians in eastern Michigan were hostile to the Americans. Along the St. Clair River, a considerable number of inhabitants on its banks made an easy opportunity for a Canadian band to made raids into American territory. A fort at the mouth of Lake Huron would serve to control the navigation of Lake Huron, protect the settlers north of Lake St. Clair from the Indians, keep back hostile incursions from Canada, and if needed, be a launch point for an invasion of Canada.
Detroit commander, General Harrison ordered fort be erected at the base of Lake Huron and St. Clair River. Captain Charles Gratiot was named as the engineer.
The Site of Fort Gratiot was No Accident
Gratiot came up the river from Detroit in May, 1814, and selected as a site close to the place where 128 years before the French had erected Fort St. Joseph, (also known as Fort duLuth) , on the west shore of St. Clair River about 1,000 feet below the narrow entrance from the lake to the river and on the high bank separated from the water’s edge by a few yards of low sandy ground.
The French first established Fort St. Joseph to secure the control of the river and the fur trade of the Northwest. It also prevented the English from trafficking with the western tribes. In June 1686, M. du Luth, then in command at Fort Mackinac, received orders from M. de Nonville, the Governor of New France, to establish a fort on the “Detroit of Lake Erie”.
In 1687, about two hundred coureurs de bois, five hundred Algonquian, and thirty French soldiers gathered at Fort St Joseph under Marquis de Denonville’s orders to prepare for an attack on the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy during the Iroquois Wars.
With a lack of supplies and no orders from the governor, the fort’s commander, Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan, burned Fort St. Joseph on August 27, 1688, and moved to Michilimackinac. The passage between Lakes Erie and Huron was left undefended until 1701.
Ft. Gratiot’s Form Follows Function
The plan and construction of the fort were simple. The only attack anticipated would be from Indians, therefore a stockade embankment to hold back their frenzied rushes was all that was needed. On the east that guns could be placed to command the river. Logs formed the base and upon them was piled earth with upright timbers forming the stockade.
The Stockade on the River Was Short-lived
There is no record in the War Office of the plan of this fort but the sketch upon the map made by the Commissioners under the Treaty of Ghent indicates the a fort structure as 165 feet in width through the bastions at the north end and about 500 feet in length, the faces at the upper and lower ends commanding the approach on the river from either direction. The fort was occupied by United States troops from 1814 until 1821 when there was no further need of a fortification. Fort Gratiot was abandoned, and the logs and stockade gradually rotted away until the walls became mere mounds of earth.
The US Army rebuilt the fort in 1828 due to unrest among the Wisconsin Indians. However, there was little danger of attack from Indians and no anticipated problems from the English in Canada, so no fortification was built. The mounds of the old walls were levelled and an enclosure made of thick pickets driven into the ground. Log barracks and other buildings that were subsequently covered with boards, remained in use until the final abandonment of the fort in 1879.
The Mystery of the Application of Fort Gratiot to the National Register of Historic Places
Despite a fair amount of research on Fort Gratiot, I was still looking for more background information on the site. The location of the original fort was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The application used to be considered as a historic place contains a wealth of background information. I was surprised to discover that the application for Fort Gratiot was deemed “Restricted” by the National Register Information System. To obtain details, we will have to file an FOIA request.
- The History of Detroit and Michigan or the Metropolis Illustrated – Silas Farmer, 1889
- Michigan History: Volume 4 January 1, 1920, Michigan Department of State
- Armand, Louis (1905). Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed. New Voyages to North-America, Volume 1. A. C. McClurg. pp. xxii-xxiii.
- Title: Fort St. Joseph Site, National Register Information System ID: 73000944
- Title: Fort Gratiot, National Register Information System ID: 80004069
- Michigan Territory. By James Finlayson. From A Complete Historical, Chronological, and Geographical American Atlas, published in Philadelphia by Carey and Lea in 1822. Michigan State University Map Collection
- Fort Gratiot Light Station
- The Lightship Huron
- Leland’s Picture Perfect Fishtown
- Lewis Cass’s 1820 Voyage Around Michigan