Emmet County is at the top of the Michigan mitten. Its northern tip bumps into the Straits of Mackinac and Lake Michigan outlines its western boundary. At first, Ottawa Indians, living in stone-age splendor, occupied the lake shore rim. Beyond the water’s edge there was only the forest, the lakes, the streams, and some swamps dismal enough to discourage a traveling bear. Its strategic location on the great lakes waterways, however, marked it for early discovery by white men and the point of control for the whole upper great lakes territory. By the time Michigan became a state, well over one hundred years of fur trading, war whooping, empire building history was already behind it.</p><p>Recorded history started about 1715, the year the French built Fort Michilimackinac on the Straits, at present day Mackinaw City. The history of the area revolved around this fort for the next 66 years. For the first 46 years, until 1761, the French were in control.
The Indians were generally faithful to them. They agreeably fetched in the furs, and just as agreeably sent war parties far distances to harass the British forces at war with the French. France lost this final aspect of the struggle to get control of the fur trade, called the French and Indian War, and by treaty provisions, the vast great lakes country. British forces moved into Fort Michilimackinac when the French moved out in 1761. With the exception of one little set back, they were there until 1781.
The setback occurred on June 2, 1763 when a group of them expressed their displeasure in colorful and graphic style by an efficient massacre of most of the garrison. This was the most blood curdling episode in the territorial period of the county’s history. It took about two years after the massacre for the British to reestablish themselves at the Fort. They were there when the Revolutionary War was fought. Two years before the end of that historic struggle the Fort Commandant had a new fort built on the more Gibraltar-like Mackinac Island. Old Fort Michilimackinac was abandoned in 1781 and the beehive center of the fur trading, military and political doings shifted from the mainland to that island.
The Indian settlement on the western lake shore rim of the county, however, continued to flourish. In 1840, the year Emmet achieved shape and form as a county of the State of Michigan, Indian villages were almost continuous along the shore line from today’s Harbor Springs to Cross Village. The area was still a wilderness, the Indians, by treaty provision with the U.S. Government, having the right to occupy the land. The county continued to be mostly Indian reservation until 1875. In that period of time it was used pretty much as a political football and went through numerous changes in shape and size.
In 1840 the State Legislature, wishing to take the basic steps necessary to insure proper development of the whole state, passed Act No. 119 laying off and outlining the boundaries of certain northern counties. These counties were unorganized, or prospective only. Section 28 of that Act described the boundaries of Emmet County as that portion of the State lying north of the line between towns 36 and 37 north, and west of the line between ranges 4 and 5 west. The Act designated it as the County of Tonedagana. Two years later another act changed the name to Emmet. Why an area with such a long and colorful Indian history was required to sacrifice its original name to some Irish patriot remains a mystery. These unorganized northern counties were attached to the organized Mackinaw County for judicial purposes.
In 1847 a colony of Mormons under King James J. Strang settled on Beaver Island. Feuding, worse than the Hatfields and McCoys, started immediately between them and the whites in the Mackinaw and Charlevoix areas. The Mormons had the short end of the stick for the Mackinaw group had charge of law and order. In 1852, King Strang, by a brilliant political maneuver, managed to become a member of the House of Representatives of the State Legislature. By January of 1853 he had ushered through Act No. 18 of the Sessions Laws of 1853 entitled, "An act to organize the County of Emmet". The Act provided that the islands contiguous to the counties of Emmet and Charlevoix, together with so much of range 4 west as was theretofore included in Cheboygan County should be annexed to Emmet County and that the former County of Charlevoix should be a township of Emmet County. King Strang now had some law and order of his own and a much larger area of control. There is plenty of evidence, but no official records, to show that he made haste to properly organize the now greatly enlarged Emmet County and put the legal machinery in motion. County business was certainly transacted at St. James on Beaver Island and Mormons were, naturally, the county officials.
The first expedition of the Emmet County Sheriff and his posse resulted in what is known as the Battle of Pine River (Charlevoix). The battle itself resulted only in a badly shot-up posse but because of it the whites on the mainland at Charlevoix thought it best to leave Emmet County territory. Further resistance to the growing Mormon strength was then engineered legally in the State Legislature by Mackinaw and Charlevoix men. In 1855 they succeeded in getting an Act passed to reorganize the County of Emmet. This time, the islands, including the Beavers, were set off into a county by themselves. The Mormons, therefore, were effectively separated from Emmet County affairs. The Act further provided for the elections of county officers and the board of supervisors was directed to fix the county seat.
Forty votes were cast in the first special election. There is no evidence that those elected ever qualified or performed any official act. In the fall of 1856 the first regular election was had and 162 votes cast for county officers. These officers qualified and official records commenced soon after that date. According to an undated certificate, properly signed by county officials, the Board of Supervisors at a meeting held at Little Traverse (Harbor Springs), on April 27, 1857 voted to establish the county seat at Little Traverse.
At this time a group of men was planning an ambitious promotion for the future Mackinaw City. The city, so far on paper only, would rival Chicago and people far and wide would be urged to hurry north and settle where all these natural advantages for establishing a profitable business awaited them. This project may have been the reason why the State Legislature in February of 1858, passed an Act establishing the county seat for Emmet County at Mackinaw City. The Emmet County Board of Supervisors promptly informed the state officials that they had already established the county seat at Little Traverse and in 1861 the Act was declared unconstitutional and repealed.