Remembering Mackinac Island's Agatha Biddle and her role in American history
On January 26, 2018, the State of Michigan celebrates its 181st birthday. But many historians believe the Great Lakes State would never have been a state at all without a summit that took place at the home of a Native American woman on Mackinac Island in the 1800’s.
Today, Northern Michigan’s Mackinac Island is a popular tourist destination known for ferry boats, fudge and horses. But over a hundred years ago, the island was a thriving Great Lakes trading post, a stopping point for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company with French voyageurs and many Native American tribes in the area.
“Mackinac Island has always been a sacred and important place to Native Americans,” says Phil Porter, Director of Mackinac State Historic Parks. “They would come here every summer to fish as a part of their semi-nomadic lifestyle and the way that they got food.”
According to Porter, Native American tribes had been living here in Michigan for at least a thousand years--but change seemed to be looming on the horizon.
“There was an incredibly harsh winter,” says Eric Hemenway, Director of Archives and Records with the Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians. “Food was scarce. People were starving. There was epidemics of smallpox going up along the coastline from Grand Rapids to Little Traverse. So people are really in a pretty destitute position. There was also the threat of removal at this time.”
History would later call the “threat of removal” Hemenway refers to as the Trail of Tears. Michigan tribes knew it was coming, and that they had to do something to protect their people. So, a meeting of tribal leaders was set on Mackinac Island. Representatives from all over congregated in a house that is still standing today on Market Street, a narrow lane off the beaten path away from the island’s tourist shops and restaurants. The home belonged to Edward and Agatha Biddle.
Edward was a successful American fur trader. But it’s Edward’s wife, Agatha, who really stands out in this moment in time. Hemenway says historic documents reveal Agatha was well-known throughout the area.
“She was always feeding people who needed to be fed,” Hemenway notes. “She was taking in people who needed to have shelter. She was this godmother to countless number of kids. And she was also recognized chief and she was female. I think that's worth noting.”
Agatha Biddle had an Odawa mother and French Canadian father. Because of her heritage and leadership status among tribes, her role in the Mackinac Island meeting of tribal leaders would be key.
“Agatha would have had an unknown amount of guests and friends and dignitaries coming right through this house,” Hemenway says. “Chiefs, head men, head women.
Eating, sleeping, conversing--probably right in this very spot…Dozens of tribal reps from all over Michigan and Canada, all coming here to say ‘What are we going to do?’”
After a lot of deliberation, a decision was made, and they all signed a treaty.
“So two-thirds of the state of Michigan was essentially ceded in that treaty: 16 million acres,” Hemenway says. “And the treaty was ratified by the tribes here on Mackinac Island in July 1836.
It was called The Treaty of 1836. Hemenway says just two years later, tribes across the United States were being marched west during the infamous Trail of Tears, the aftermath of Andrew Jackson’s “Indian Removal Act.” And while some tribes in southwest Michigan were forced to leave their home, Hemenway and other historians believe most tribes in Michigan avoided it because of the treaty signed on Mackinac Island. And because of the land ceded in that treaty, Michigan was able to officially become a state on January 26, 1837.
Today, Hemenway says he doesn’t take telling the story of Agatha Biddle and the others behind the treaty lightly.
“I feel a sense of duty to tell their stories and learn more about them and educate as many people as possible about this so their stories aren't forgotten,” he says. “But it also helps people understand tribal communities today.”
Mackinac State Historic Parks recently collaborated with the Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians on the Native American Cultural History Trail, a series of signs detailing tribal history and legends on Mackinac Island. The next project? New exhibits and renovations in the Biddle Home, detailing the life and story of Agatha Biddle and her contributions to Michigan in 1836. The exhibit is expected to open in 2019.
You can learn more about Agatha Biddle and Mackinac Island history at mackinacparks.com.