With it is ties to Native American, British, French and even Spanish heritage (in the Niles area in Berrien and Cass counties), Michigan is full of city names that are difficult for many to pronounce and even spell. Yet, no two cities create as much confusion as Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island. The funny thing is, no matter the spelling, the pronunciation is actually the same: Mack-i-naw (as opposed to Mack-i-nac).
The mainland area was first named Michilimackinac by the Native Americans. In 1715, the French (who had an established Catholic mission five miles to the north in St. Ignace) built a fort at Michilimackinac. This became a fortified community thriving as an epicenter of the Great Lakes fur trade industry. During their time in the area, the French translated the local language into something more fitting to their own and while spelled with a “c” the sound became “aw.”
While Michilimackinac came under British control in 1761, the fur trade and community life remained relatively unchanged. What did change, however, was the spelling of Mackinac as the Brits decided to spell it the way it sounded: Mackinaw. Yet, oddly the “c” remained the dominant spelling when Michilimackinac was shortened to Mackinac when the fort was disassembled and moved piece by piece from the tip of the mitt over the frozen waters of the straits* to the 2400-acre Mackinac Island.
In 1857, Edgar Conkling (for whom Conkling Heritage Park is named) changed the name of the mainland city to Mackinaw to match how the word actually sounds.
What does Mackinaw (or Mackinac) even mean? They’re both abbreviated from the Ojibwa word Michinnimakinong (mish-inni-maki-nong) which in English means “great connecting sound fault land or place” which is an accurate description of the Straits area. As the island has a large crevice or crack, the term was used by early Native Americans as an identifying description to fellow travelers.
To confuse things a bit more, “mackinaw” (as spelled with a “w”) is more than just a city name:
A “mackinaw” is a short coat or jacket made of a thick heavy woolen cloth or even a heavy woolen blanket distributed by the U.S. government to the Native Americans (both appropriate for winter in the Straits of Mackinac).
“Mackinaw cloth” is a heavy water-repellant woolen cloth, similar to Melton cloth, of which coats and blankets are made (and which have their origins in the early logging era of the Midwest).
A “mackinaw boat” is a loose, non-standardized term for a light, open sailboat used in the interior of North American during the fur trading area.
A quick recap…no matter if it is spelled with a “w” or a “c” the pronunciation is Mack-i-naw. As for the spelling, “c” is more commonly used:
Colonial Michilimackinac (aka Fort Michilimackinac)
Mackinac Island State Park
Mackinac State Historic Parks
Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse
Straits of Mackinac
*A strait is a naturally-formed, narrow navigable waterway that connects two larger bodies of water. Most commonly, it is a channel of water that lies between two land masses.