There was once a time when the best way to get from New York to Chicago was by water! A variety of boats plied a system of rivers and canals between New York City and Buffalo on the eastern end of Lake Erie. Travelers then boarded Great Lakes sailing ships for the trip to the new frontier town and points west. In 1832, the first steamboat visited Chicago. Thus began the Manitou Islands' human history.
Navigating the treacherous Manitou Passage was worth the risk because of the time saved. South Manitou offered a deep and protected natural harbor which provided refuge from the angry seas of gale winds or sudden storms, and the bountiful supply of wood found on both Islands provided for the voracious appetite of the boilers on early steamships!
The Islands are unmatched in beauty and tranquility, and have a mystique that often hooks visitors. It's not surprising that visiting sailors and passengers often decided not to leave with the boat! By the late 19th century the Islands both boasted small settlements, including important Life Saving Service and Lighthouse Service installations. Immigrant farmers were also developing their unique agricultural potential. A strain of rye was developed on South Manitou that eventually tripled the nation's production of this important grain.
As steamboats turned into "propellers", the importance of the Islands began to fade. By the mid-1950's most Islanders had left, including even the Coast Guard. Luckily, some 20-years later the Islands became part of a National Park, so they now belong to us all. Michigan's motto, a component of the State's great seal adopted in 1835, is Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam, Circumspice — "If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you." That is attributed to Louis Cass, then Governor of the Territory. Surely, he must have had the Leelanau Peninsula in mind. The Lakeshore originally happened mainly to preserve the natural beauty of the area. Indeed, that alone makes visits well worthwhile! But a little knowledge of the area's recent human history and cultural traditions — about the pioneers and homesteaders who settled here and what they did here — will guarantee a richly enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Old timers and their ancestors have provided a wealth of resources on this website with the hope of helping you achieve just that. In their time, the area was simply home, and most considered their lives quite common. But, in the words of Lakeshore Historic Architect Kimberly Mann ...
"... this area became nationally important when it became a national park. So this puts the spotlight on your family and others to tell the story of all Americans who had a similar history. Your story is representative of millions who did the same thing across America, but because your families' homes are now part of the National Park Service, it has been determined to be of importance to the nation. It is important to tell the story as accurately as we can and to insure we know where that information came from and how others interpreted those moments in time."
This area has always been special to us, and dear to our hearts. When visiting the Lakeshore, physically or virtually, we hope you'll discover all it has to offer and will leave with those same feelings.
ManitouIslandsArchives.Org is an unincorporated privately funded nonprofit initiative, supported by contributions of licensed and public domain content from private individuals and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (NPS). Financial contributions are not solicited. The website is operated as an educational service to the public, thereby qualifying as a private foundation under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code.
ManitouIslands.Org was the official web address of the Manitou Islands Memorial Society. In February 2010, that web site fell into default, whereupon the hosting service removed it, and within a few weeks the domain name was captured by Chinese domain name pirates. ManitouIslandsArchives.Org is not its successor, nor has any affiliation with the Memorial Society. However, much of the content previously found on the Memorial Society web site is also available here. The Memorial Society has since launched a new website.