Richardville remembered

He helped many Miami people retain their land

By the time Indiana was admitted into the Union in 1816, the Miami people had lost Pacanne, a principal leader who died in or around 1814. John Baptiste Richardville succeeded Pacanne and was chosen as the Miami civil chief, an honor he held until his death in 1841. John Baptiste’s father, Joseph Drouet de Richardville, was a wealthy French Canadian trader from Kaskaskia and Vincennes, a member of a noble French family. He was attracted to the headwaters of the Maumee and the potential trade opportunities the rivers presented.

As historian Bert Griswold noted, Joseph soon met and married Tah-cum-wah, “a daughter of Aque-noch-qua, the reigning Miami chief. Tah-cum-wah was a sister of Little Turtle, ‘the greatest Indian of all times.'”

To this couple was born Jean Baptiste de Richardville in 1761 near an old apple tree in the area of present-day Fort Wayne’s Lakeside neighborhood. The child was given the Miami name Pinsiwa (or Peshewa, as others have spelled it), meaning “wildcat,” according to Baldwin and Costa’s “Miami Peoria Dictionary.”

Richardville’s mother Tacumwah served as a fine model since she managed the business of moving people and cargo across the portage here, the land barrier that separates the Maumee and Wabash river systems and offering the most direct route between the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. She earned great wealth levying tolls on all who traveled across the portage as well as leasing porters, carts and supplies for hauling canoes, pirogues, pelts and other cargo.

When John Baptiste was managing the traffic crossing the Maumee-Wabash portage, it was capable of producing as much as $100 per day, depending on the season. A check on the Internet reveals that what cost $100 in 1800 costs $1,400 in 21st-century money.

Building upon this enterprise, Richardville was accumulating a personal fortune and gaining respect from all he encountered. With it came influence, and a benevolent Richardville helped the Miami people through their angst as other tribes throughout the region were being removed from their ancestral homes and sent to reservations west of the Mississippi River.

Richardville was wise in the ways and laws of the Americans. He knew it was to the advantage of his Miami people to hold land under privately held deeds as opposed to living on designated reservations. As such, he led a successful strategy of aiding many Miami to retain their lands. Instead of offering his people property to be whittled away by constant land sales, individual families were given legal land grants as private property. Further, they were encouraged to farm the land and acculturate into American society. With individual land transactions as the basis of ownership, almost half of his Miami charges following Richardville’s instructions were not subject to federal removal action when it finally came.

When Richardville died in 1841, he was considered one of the wealthiest Indians in the United States, with much of his wealth accumulated through treaty negotiations with the federal government. However, Stewart Rafert, the highly regarded historian and advocate for the Miami tribe wrote in “The Miami Indians of Indiana” that there is no evidence Richardville left great wealth since much of his land went to others closely associated with him.

Today, Richardville is remembered by many towns and cities with streets bearing his name. In 1844, Indiana designated a Richardville County which occupied a portion of the Great Miami Reserve established at the Treaty of St. Mary’s in 1818. In 1846, the name was changed to Howard County. In that same county where Kokomo is the seat of government, the town of Russiaville – derived from the name Richardville – is found in Liberty Township. An important watershed running through the county is called Wildcat Creek … the name that in Miami is Pinsiwa.

First appeared in the November 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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