Over the past few years, I have driven through the city of Mackinaw and crossed the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) and have always wondered why the spelling is different yet the pronunciation is the same? Wait, the pronunciation is the same, right? I have always pronounced them the same and nobody has corrected me…what gives?!?
When I visit the U.P., it is because I’m on vacation – I want to spend my time enjoying the adventure and the natural beauty of the U.P. I don’t want the proper spelling and pronunciations of Mackinaw vs Mackinac to leave me confused as I hit the bridge, so I set out to do a bit of research to finally put this conundrum to rest.
I’ve mixed in a brief history of the area to help put this Mackinaw vs Mackinac mystery into context.
Michilimackinac was the name given to the region initially settled by Native Americans from the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Ottawa (Odawa) and Potawatomi tribes. These three tribes comprised the Council of Three Fires, which sounds pretty awesome if you ask me. They worked together for trade, military, and political matters. Like any other group of people living in close proximity, they had their differences but things were mostly good. Fast forward to 1715 and this is when the region began to change. The French rolled in, built a fort and a booming fur trade business across the Great Lakes region while they were expanding France’s global reach. During this process, they also shortened the region’s name to Mackinac and in doing so, spelled it in French which included “ac” at the end of Mackinac but it was still pronounced with “awe.”
The French enjoyed a bountiful fur trade until around 1761 when the Brits showed up and said, “Thanks for the fort, the fur business, and for removing some syllables from that word but we’re taking it all – take your skinny cigarettes and get out of here.” (At least that is my interpretation of how things went down). The Brits then set up shop, continued to trade in furs but dropped the “c” from Mackinac since it does not read as, “ack” in English but rather “awe” thus giving us Mackinaw.
Like so much else, what this mystery comes down to is rooted in history. The French, then later the Brits came over and picked up on the terms they heard being used for this region by local indigenous tribes. Utilizing the Latin alphabet, early explorers put pen to paper and wrote a shortened version of these names phonetically in their respective languages. Now for whatever reason, the French spelling of Mackinac stuck on nearly everything in the region apart from Mackinaw City, which was established by a gentleman named Edgar Conkling, who of course, was British.
So it turns out both Mackinaw and Mackinac are the correct spellings, but the latter is never pronounced as it appears. Mackinaw and Mackinac are always pronounced with “awe” at the end, NEVER “ack.” So for the sake of Michiganders, please don’t use “ack” – it doesn’t roll off the tongue and someone might think you are choking.
So there you have it. That’s it. Next time you’re driving around the top of the Mitten hopefully this will squash any confusion that may arise.