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Traverse Classics: On Saturday, Sunday and Monday of Memorial Weekend, the 51st Fort Michilimackinac Pageant in Mackinaw City re-enacts the famous Ojibwe revolt against British forces. Click for more information on the pageant. But before you go, here's the story of the deadliest lacrosse game ever played.
Under an unusually hot sun on a late spring day on the Straits of Mackinac, British Major George Etherington, commandant of Fort Michilimackinac, was suffering from an acute case of cultural blindness. And there was no excuse for it. Relaxed at the sidelines of a rousing game of baggatiway (similar to lacrosse) outside the fort, the major should have seen the danger signs in this Ojibwe versus Sauk contest of sweaty, half-naked bodies painted with white clay and charcoal.
The 30-year-old officer was born in the colonies, and most likely grew up on stories of Indian uprisings. He’d even served in the just-ending French and Indian War, in which the English had wrested control of North America from the French—a victory that had put this previously French fort in Etherington’s care. Though the major had been raised on American soil and had fought on it, he was still English. And in that country, a battle was a battle, and a sporting event was a sporting event.
Perhaps that explains why the major missed the clues. Though well armed, his garrison of 35 or so soldiers was vastly outnumbered by the hundreds of Indians encamped around it, there to exchange furs for wares—steel tomahawks and knives included—from French Canadian traders. That there’d been a run on tomahawks of late didn’t seem to worry the major. And he was only irritated by warnings from the many French Canadians who lived at the fort that the Indians were planning an uprising. He threatened to have the next person who spread similar gossip locked up down at Fort Detroit. The unwitting Etherington had not yet heard that Fort Detroit was under siege, attacked several weeks before by a coalition of tribes led by Pontiac, the Odawa chief. Foreseeing that English domination spelled the end of his people’s lifestyle, Pontiac had just begun his famous rebellion.
Etherington even refused to listen to the warnings of the esteemed fur trader Charles Langlade—a man of French-Indian blood who had fought alongside the Indians since he was a young boy and was widely revered by them. It must have taxed Langlade’s charity to warn the major, as England’s control of North America meant the French monopoly over the fur trade was over. But Langlade had seen what terrors his Native American cousins could unleash on their enemies. Evidently, protecting his business interests was not worth shedding that much blood. For his magnanimity Langlade suffered a scolding from Etherington.
Oblivious to all the foreshadowing, when the Ojibwe invited him and his soldiers to watch their match outside the fort, a game they said was in celebration of the King’s birthday, Etherington accepted—probably donning his white wig. After all it was a formal event. He then gathered most of the garrison to watch with him. According to the major’s accounts written later, they left the gates open and their weapons back in the fort. Etherington cheered for the Ojibwe along with the two chiefs of that tribe, Minweweh and Madjeckewiss After all, the major had bet that the Ojibwe would win.
With some 500 players, the game must have looked more like a battle. In the furor Etherington didn’t miss Charles Langlade. He was inside his home in the fort with his family. And Etherington barely noticed the Indian women lingering at the fort gates, wrapped tightly in bulky blankets as if the day was cold and the calendar did not read June 2, 1763.