History of Fort Michilimackinac, Michigan: the Beaver's Tale

Historical Story of Fort Michilimackinac, in Mackinac City Michigan and the wisdom of one of it's British commanders.

Day after day, the Indian stood at the corner of the King's storehouse inside the Michigan wilderness fort of Michlimackinac. There was a stillness about him as though he was waiting for something or someone.

In 1777 it was not unusual to see Indians wandering about the fort. They were on peaceful terms with the British, who occupied it; and like the white fur trappers, the Indians often traded furs and pelts for British goods. So, it was not the presence of the Indian that first caught the attention of Joseph Louis Anise, a French trader and Indian translator. It was his absolute silent stillness.

When he had first seen the Indian there a few days before, he had thought nothing of it, but when day after day he saw the same Indian in the same place curiosity got the better of him and he decided to mosey on over and have a chat.

The Indian seemed almost relieved when Ainse approached and began asking questions. They spoke a few words of greeting and about a few unimportant matters, and then suddenly the Indian began to recount to the Frenchman a vision he had experienced.

An evil spirit in the form of a white beaver had come to him, the Indian explained. It had ordered him to stand here at the storehouse and wait for the Fort's Colonel Arnel S. DePeyster to walk past. The Indian was then to kill the Colonel.

The Indian had come out of his vision with a heavy heart. He knew Colonel DePeyster to be an honorable an fair man and did not want to kill him. Still, the vision demanded the Colonel's death, so the Indian took up his position and waited for the Colonel to pass, ready to strike when the Colonel did so.

In the several days that the Indian had been standing there, Colonel DePeyster had walked by not once or even twice but several times. Each time, the Indian told himself he must carry out his mission and each time he allowed the Colonel to pass unharmed. He could not bring himself to kill the Colonel, but neither could he defy the vision and leave, so there he stood.

Anise, alarmed by the story, insisted that the Indian accompany him to DePeyster's offer and repeat the story to the Colonel himself. The Indian did so reluctantly.

DePeyster listened to the Indian's story, with the help of the Frenchman's translation, in silence. As the Indian drew to the end of his tale, he suggested to DePeyster that he should be sent out of the country as punishment for his murderous vision.

Punishment? DePeyster thought. He did want to punish this man for he knew how important such visions were to these people and how hard the man had fought not to give in to his murderous vision.

Why, he wanted to reward him not punish him.

A reward was out of the question. To reward the Indian for not following his vision would fill the man with guilt and shame. Neither could he bring himself to punish him.

After much thought the Colonel came upon an idea, that might offer the Indian some hope, however slight, of being able to return to the fort unencumbered by guilt. Perhaps he was hoping that the Indian might have another vision that would cancel out the first. Whatever his reasons, instead of permanently demanding that the Indian leave the fort, he ordered him to return to Beaver Island, where the vision had taken place.

“Find a white Beaver, kill it and bring the pelt to me.” he ordered, telling the Indian that killing the Beaver would destroy the evil vision.

The Indian nodded and left the fort on a quest for this mysterious white beaver.

Throughout the long winter, no sign of the Indian was seen. DePeyster had, in his tenure at the fort, seen thousands upon thousands of beaver pelts, but never a white one. If he gave any thought to the Indian at all during those cold winter months, it must have been how impossible the quest was.

Therefore, it must have been quite a shock to the good Colonel when in the spring the Indian returned to the fort, demanded to see the Colonel and placed a beaver pelt in his arms. A white beaver pelt.

As time passed, the Indian was forgotten; Colonel DePeyster was eventually reassigned to the fort at Detroit and after the revolutionary war, returned to Britain, where he moved to his wife's home in Scotland. When DePeyster died in 1882, the Beaver pelt was found among his things, on the back of the pelt written in his own hand id the tale of the white beaver.

That skin now resides at the Liverpool city Museum.

Reference:  The Great Lakes Pilot Vol.6 No. 4, 2009 A White Beaver for the Colonel

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carol roach
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Posted on Oct 12, 2009