St. Ignace Michigan

Event Location: St. Ignace, Michigan

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Established in 1671, St. Ignace is the third oldest city in the United States. It is located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which contains almost a quarter of the land area of Michigan but just three percent of its total population. Residents are frequently called “Yoopers” (derived from "U.P.-ers") and have a strong regional identity.

St. Ignace, MichiganEarly settlers in the area included multiple waves of people from Nordic countries. Large numbers of Finnish, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian emigrants came to the Upper Peninsula, particularly from the Keweenaw Peninsula, to work in the mines. Many of these individuals stayed on and prospered even after the copper mines were closed. There are still Swedish- and Finnish-speaking communities in many areas of the Upper Peninsula today. Other sizeable ethnic communities in the Upper Peninsula include residents of French-Canadian, German, Cornish, Italian, and American Indian ancestry.

The largest ethnic group in the U.P. is the Finns, who make up about 16% of the Upper Peninsula’s population. The area is also home to the highest concentration of Finns outside of Europe and the only counties of the United States where a plurality of residents claim Finnish ancestry. The Finnish sauna and the concept of sisu have been adopted widely by residents of the Upper Peninsula. The television program Finland Calling, filmed at Marquette station WLUC-TV and aired since 1962, is the only Finnish-language television broadcast in the United States. Finlandia University, America's only college with Finnish roots, is located in the U.P. as well. Street signs in Hancock appear in English and Finnish to celebrate this heritage.

Upper Peninsula natives speak a dialect influenced by Scandinavian and French-Canadian speech. A popular bumper sticker shows an outline of the Upper Peninsula and the slogan, "Say yah to da U.P., eh!" This is a parody of the "Say YES to Michigan" slogan promoted by state tourism officials in years past. The dialect and culture are celebrated in many songs by Da Yoopers, a comedy music and skit troupe from Ishpeming, Michigan. 

The History of St. Ignace

St. Ignace claims a heritage that reaches back to the earliest inhabitants of the Great Lakes. Over many years, that heritage grew to include missionaries, French explorers and trappers, fishing and lumbering by an English-speaking population, and the development of transportation from sail to railroad to the Mackinac Bridge. What is unique about St. Ignace, however, is that the ethnic groups, languages, religions, and activities of the early inhabitants are still a vital part of the community today.

The Anishinabeg, a word that simply means “people,” were the first citizens of St. Ignace. Oral tradition and archeological research suggest that their occupation of the Great Lakes Basin dates from forty to fifty thousand years ago. The natives of the St. Ignace region generally migrated with the seasons. In the spring, the Anishinabeg gathered maple sugar or fished runs of sturgeon or smelt. Summer found them in settlements surrounded by crops of corn, potatoes, or squash, as well as abundant supplies of fish or berries in nearby forests. They developed efficient housing, watercraft, hunting and farming tools, and began working on several technological advancements, such as metalworking.

St. Ignace, MichiganThe land formations, water, and wildlife near the Straits of Mackinac played an important part in the religious beliefs of the Anishinabeg. Missionaries, fur traders, explorers and soldiers marked the French rule of St. Ignace. The very name St.Ignace came from the Jesuit missionaries who named the community after the founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius Loyola. These missionaries strove to find Jesus Christ present in the north woods, while at the same time fighting desperately to curb the sale of alcohol to the Anishinabeg.

The merging of the Lake Michigan and Lake Huron at the Straits meant high water traffic, and during the time of French occupation, a fur-trading outpost became necessary. Fort DuBuade became the seat of King Louis XIV’s authority from St. Ignace, and saw officers such as LaSalle and Cadillac pass through its gates. St. Ignace was among the largest settlements in New France for the last decade of the 15th century until the establishment of Detroit in 1701. The British arrived in the St. Ignace region with the defeat of the French in the French and Indian War. The local garrison was Fort Michilimackinac, on the southern shore of the Straits, and then became Fort Mackinac on the island.

St. Ignace continued to play a role in the fur trade, but by the mid-1800’s commercial fishing grew to become more important. St. Ignace’s fishing industry included not only catching, but also curing, packing, and shipping. It was during this period that the well-known Mackinaw Boat was a common sight in the waters. As the Michigan lumber industry grew, St. Ignace also became a center for mill yards, and its proximity to the shipping lanes made it a hub for Northern Great Lakes commerce. Iron production began at the Martel Furnace, located near the present day Coast Guard station, and by the 1890’s St. Ignace was a boomtown.

Its location on the Southern point of the Upper Peninsula was a blessing as well as a curse for St. Ignace. While it was an important maritime crossroads, it was also the end of the line for the Duluth South Shore & Atlantic Railroad. The barge Betsy first transported railway cars, but by 1888 a railroad ferry named St. Ignace went into service. This started a hundred years of railroad ferries that included two named after Ste. Marie, and one after an early Chippewa leader, Chief Wawatam. The advent of the automobile further complicated transportation between the two peninsulas and in 1923, the Ariel arrived as the first car ferry. Eight different car ferries plied the Straits at various times from 1923 until 1957, when the Mackinac Bridge opened.

Established in 1671, St. Ignace is among the oldest settlements in the nation, but many reminders of the past are still present today. The Anishinabeg people are in the local tribes, and the many Christian congregations are remnants of the missionaries’ work in the area. A large number of St. Ignace residents also have French names, and fish continue to be a major source of commerce in the area. Although the car ferries and railroads are gone, the traffic on the Mackinac Bridge proves that St. Ignace is still the gateway to the Upper Peninsula.

(St. Ignace History courtesy of

The Upper Peninsula Pasty

The pasty is one of the staple ethnic foods in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. To many residents of the Upper Peninsula, the pasty is much more than a food, it is a part of their cultural identity. While it is a source of great pride to this region, the pasty itself is shrouded in mystery.

The pasty survived the collapse of mining because it became extremely popular with the Finns, who were the major ethnic group to remain after the mines closed. In 1864, a small wave of Fins came to the U.P., well after the Cornish were established. When the big mining wave of Finns came 30 years later, they likely learned how to make pasties from the older Fins, not the Cornish. The pasty resembles the Finish foods piiraat and kuuko, so when the new Finns saw their countrymen carrying them in their pails, they thought the Finns had invented the pasty. Since there was a similar food in Finland, it was easier for the new Finns to adopt it. During Finnish cultural celebrations, the pasty is often featured as a Finnish specialty. However, the true origin of this popular food is unknown.

Shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac

The Straits have always had a reputation as a dangerous area for ships. Storms originating in the lower Great Lakes often funnel through the Straits, magnifying wind and waves. Over the years, a number of ships were sunken or driven ashore. As a result, many shipwrecks carpet the bottom of the Straits.

(*photos courtesy of and