Tales that bear fruit

Apple tree figures into local lore

Miami “Chief-ess” Tacumwah gave birth to Pechewa or Richardville in 1761 near an old apple tree somewhere west of the St. Joseph River, in the village of Kekionga. This fruit-bearing tree, with its trunk alleged to have measured 12 feet in circumference, became a part of local tradition. It was an early example of a European tree foreign to North America and played an interesting role during the siege of Fort Wayne in 1812.

The tree is suspected to have sprouted from an apple seed accidentally dropped or deliberately planted by an early French trader or priest visiting the Three Rivers region. It was destroyed during a heavy spring storm in 1866; however, its main trunk was left behind for some time. It produced fruit said to be small and usually ripened in October. Jesse Lynch Williams, of Indiana Internal Improvements renown, was quoted as saying, “We need not question its identity. There are specimens of the hardier varieties in this country now bearing fruit at the age of 150 to 200 years.”

According to a story recounted from the Siege of 1812, an Indian warrior climbed the ancient apple tree every day for several days to harass the soldiers in the fort. From high in the tree he would throw his arms about like a fowl flapping his wings and would crow out like a rooster. Finally, a marksman in the garrison knocked the taunting brave out of the tree with an amazingly well-aimed shot that may have been from 350 yards away.

So popular were the local legends about the tree that George Winter, an important itinerant painter of the 1830s and 1840s, was enticed to include a sketch of the tree in his collection. Author and historian Wallace Brice saw fit to include a drawing of an old apple tree as one of a very few illustrations in his 1868 “History of Fort Wayne” book. A reproduction of Winter’s drawing is found in the exhaustive work, “Indians and a Changing Frontier: The Art of George Winter,” with a caption reading, “Sketch of the Apple Tree noted for being over 100 years old and the reputed birth place of chief Richardville. St. Joseph River, June 19th 1848.”

In 1962, the Dow Jones & Company’s National Observer published a column about the old tree. The Observer reported, “The item cited the ‘famous apple tree’ of Fort Wayne, about which ‘Little Turtle, Indian leader, and his followers had their dwellings clustered’ in the late 1700s.” It continued noting that the tree was “more than three feet in diameter at the time the print was made and was said to have been bearing fruit for more than a hundred years.”

Wesley Bashore, writing for The Journal Gazette, mentioned the National Observer’s reference and attempted to locate the site of the legendary tree. At that time, he consulted with a number of local historians who suggested “a spot about four houses down from Columbia on Edgewater.” Bashore was not satisfied and ended his story by saying that there simply was not enough evidence to locate precisely the positioning of the tree and that he “was more than willing to hand this flaming torch over to others’ hands.” One day reliable evidence may surface. Meanwhile, an approximate location of the “Old Apple Tree” has been remembered along the 1994 Fort Wayne Bicentennial’s Heritage Trail at a marker found on Edgewater Avenue’s park strip.

During the years before Richardville died in 1841, he often pointed out the old apple tree to settlers. He recalled that it was there when he was a boy and that it was then a “bearing tree” and that the “hut” in which he was born stood very near.

First appeared in the June 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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