Fort Wayne in 1816
Nothing but potential
In 1816, when Indiana became a state, Fort Wayne was nothing but potential.
And it was a lot of nothing.
In the context of history before that year, 1816 was a bleak and empty time in Fort Wayne, the ragged husk of 187 years of war for control of the interior of this continent. The Americans had won, then nearly lost in the War of 1812 and then won at last again in 1815, but they were not yet able in Fort Wayne to make anything of their victory.
So Fort Wayne was making do as a military outpost in the wilderness. A garrison of 60 soldiers and a tiny community of about 30 mostly French-speaking Indian traders, including only a couple women, lived here along with the all-important Indian agent. They lived from day to day in the about 4-square-mile cleared area around the fort.
Or in the fort. The danger of attack by the natives was still believed to be real.
Twice a year they were joined by hundreds of natives who camped here for weeks to receive the annuities granted to them in various treaties. Those were lawless weeks when the village was overwhelmed by natives drunk on alcohol it was illegal to provide to them, but which no one had the ability to prevent unscrupulous traders from providing because it was then easier to overcharge them for trade goods or whatever.
Those weren’t the only problems: 1816 was the Year Without a Summer.
In some ways, there wasn’t much further downhill Fort Wayne could go.
But the potential of the place still shone through even the squalor of the annuities distribution weeks, and it was recognized by the new State of Indiana. It just took a while to get to the uphill part of the path.
THE DOWNHILL PRESSURES
What we know as Fort Wayne had become the heart of the Myaamionki homeland, known as Kiihkayonki, in pre-history that is known to us and the Myaamia people through their stories. Here the population grew until even the many acres of fine cornfields along the three rivers could not support all the people, so new villages were founded, mostly down the Wabash River as far away as Vincennes. We know of five such villages.
The arrival in the 1600s of Europeans on this continent, on the East Coast and coming down from the Great Lakes, disrupted everything, triggering the 187 years of war for control of the middle of North America. The Beaver Wars with the Iroquois, who were pushed west from their homeland, pushed the Myaamia west and north into Wisconsin in the late 1600s until the French helped negotiate a peace that brought them back home and re-established the fur trade and French access to the preferred portage route here from Montreal to New Orleans, the two commercial poles of New France. By 1790, Kekionga, as we have come to know it, was a cosmopolitan city of thousands, where Americans, French, a few British and natives of several nations lived together, surrounded by fields of that excellent Myaamia corn and dominated by the native leaders.
“When we look at Fort Wayne in 1790, Fort Wayne was a really unique city, more cosmopolitan than any of the other cities,” said Mike Galbraith, executive director of ARCH, in a talk about Fort Wayne in 1816 he gave at the library this spring. “It was an important unguarded city. The last troops had been there in 1763.”
It was a last hurrah for the natives. The collapse of the Miami-led confederacy after the American victory at the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers and Gen. Anthony Wayne’s triumphant arrival here and construction of the first Fort Wayne marked the beginning of a new, much less populous era dominated by the Americans. The Indian trade still attracted traders, of course, but the siege during the War of 1812 was a telling blow to the American cause. Everything outside the fort was burned to the ground then.
Most of the families who left before the siege never returned, and 1816 was probably the lowest-ever point of Fort Wayne’s population, Galbraith said.
Only the Indian trade or the desire to set up a business in the fur trade or supplying the fort would draw anyone here. The place was truly isolated, alone in Indian country.
As of 1816, historian Bert J. Griswold writes, “there was no settlement nearer than St. Mary’s, in Ohio, and between Fort Wayne and Fort Dearborn (in what is now Chicago, rebuilt that year after being abandoned and sacked in 1812) no white man had ventured to establish his abode.” Most of the families who left Fort Wayne in 1812 before the siege never returned.
All the settlements in Indiana were in the south. Indianapolis didn’t exist until 1821. The United States did not have control from the natives of the land south of the Wabash and Maumee rivers until 1817 and 1818 and north of them here until 1826 and 1828.
Living here was not easy.
Griswold cautions his readers in his book published in 1917 that “few could endure now in comfort the life measured by the service and convenience typified by the tallow dip and the open fire, the ox-cart and the pirogue.”
Sean O’Brien, re-enactor and vice president of the board of Historic Fort Wayne, Inc., agrees wholeheartedly. His personal experience has guided him to the conclusion that life then would have involved “bad food, no women, disease, hunger and short, brutish lives.
“Actually, if you survived your teenage years, you had a pretty good chance of living into your 60s,” he said, “but they had very high infant and youth mortality. That’s why they had such huge families.”
Norman Gable, a fellow re-enactor and Historic Fort Wayne, Inc., board president, shares his opinion of the past along with his love of history. Both men will be at the fort in June during the official 1816: Frontier Fort to Statehood program June 11-12.
“I can tell you I love having a hot shower, flush toilets, a stove and refrigerator and a microwave and to be able to turn on the coffeemaker and make coffee,” he said. “We can turn up a thermostat when we get cold, and they had no fans when it was hot, and in the wintertime it was strictly by the fire.
“And when it is is cold and howling, I can tell you those fires don’t produce as much heat as you would like,” he said.
A lot of the fort records are about the food, they said – the difficulty of getting it here, the hard work of raising whatever fresh vegetables you would eat and the harsh reality of being on half rations. The half rations might have been more frequent in 1815-1816 because of the weather. 1816 was the Year Without A Summer in the Northern Hemisphere, the last time of widespread crop failure and famine in Europe and North America. The garrison would not have known the cause, but we now know the atmosphere was polluted with ash from the Mount Tambora volcano in 1815 in the Dutch East Indies, dropping the world’s temperature enough “that we had frost and snow in July and massive crop failures,” O’Brien said.
“That was when Whistler started rebuilding the fort. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest things they did was build brick chimneys to heat the place better. They were probably heating them in July and August.
“They didn’t know what happened or why this was happening,” he said. “They replanted three times in the spring, and by July had another massive freeze.”
The civilians and soldiers suffered together through the crop failures, of course, but Gable suspects civilians might have fared better on food than the military overall, as long as they knew how to plan ahead and preserve and store food, something the military was less equipped to do.
Another aspect of Fort Wayne’s existence as a military outpost was dimming its future in 1816, too, and more than one visitor to the village commented on it. As residents of the more settled East, they were accustomed to cities where citizens owned and maintained private property and where local governments enforced laws. None of that was happening at Fort Wayne.
“There are now in its immediate vicinity, more than 40 families of ‘Squatters’ and traders, besides a great number of young men each with his bundle or shop, of goods and trinkets; all of whom are depredating on the public lands, for timber for their numbers buildings, for fire-wood, &c. &c.; and as they have not interest in the soil, and little hope of being able to purchase the land when sold, a system of waste and destruction is going on, and is apparently entered into by all,” wrote civil engineer James Riley in November 1819, who was sent here by the federal government to survey the area after the military garrison was removed from the fort.
He proposed a solution.
“The only means that occurs to my mind, of stopping this career of vice and immorality, is the speedy survey and sale of the lands from the mouth of the Maumee to this place; and from hence down and along the banks of the Wabash … Thus, a cordon of hardy and respectable settlers … would be formed along the Maumee and Wabash … At present, there is no security to him who locates himself on the public lands, nor do I wish there should be; because every citizen ought to enjoy equal advantages. This place, if laid out as a town and sold by the government, would bring a large sum of money. The St. Mary’s has been covered with boats, every freshet, for several years past. This is a central spot, combining more natural advantages to build up and support a town of importance, as a place of deposit and trade … than any point I have yet seen in the western country.”
THE UPHILL PATH
A bright future did beckon Fort Wayne forward, away from the lawless annuities distribution weeks, beyond the squatters’ cabins and to better conditions than a frontier outpost could provide.
The end of the nearly two centuries of war was the first key element.
Griswold calls it “a well-founded feeling of security and comfort” that gave the village its start toward a bright future.
“As the rising sun dispels the darkness and the gloom of the night, so the dawn of the year 1816 gave to the gladdened vision of the pioneers the banishment of the menacing cloud of savage warfare,” he writes. “The new year of peace brought to the troops and the families under their charge the true joy of living.”
The fertility of the land and the commercial importance of the portage had long been recognized and valued by the Myaamia, the French, the British and, finally, the Americans. In 1816, his control of the portage was making Miami civil chief Jean Baptiste de Richardville, whose Myaamia name is Pinsiwa, the richest native in the country.
The Fort Wayne portage is, of course, not the only portage that can be used to get from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River watershed, Galbraith explained in his library presentation. Others are in northern Wisconsin, Chicago, South Bend and Pennsylvania. But Fort Wayne’s is the shortest and easiest route from the Atlantic Ocean and St. Lawrence Seaway via the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico via the Wabash, Ohio and Mississippi rivers, he said.
Seeing the development from portage to canal was only natural, and both the federal officials in Washington, D.C., and Indiana’s new governor Jonathan Jennings agreed a canal through the Fort Wayne area was an important project.
STEPS OF CHANGE
The first milestone was the departure of the military garrison from Fort Wayne to Detroit in 1819, ending the military presence here. Treaties negotiated with Native Americans in 1817, 1818 and 1826 completed American control of the Fort Wayne area, preparing it for surveying and settlement.
The U.S. land office opened here in 1822, with the sale of tracts opening in the fall of 1823. The first plat of Fort Wayne was filed in 1824. In 1825, the new town had a population of 150. Construction for the canal, now the Wabash-Erie Canal, connecting Fort Wayne into the Erie Canal in the East, finally began in 1832, when the town’s population had doubled to 300. The first canal traffic began in 1834.
Fort Wayne was on its way to today.
Come amazingly close to what life was really like here in 1816 during a visit to Historic Fort Wayne June 11-12 for the 1816: Frontier Fort to Statehood official Indiana Bicentennial event. The fort itself is an accurate reproduction of the one Major John Whistler built in 1815 on the higher ground on the other side of the St. Marys River a little south and east of where Fort Wayne Fire Station No. 1 stands today. Look for the historical marker. During this weekend, skilled re-enactors from Fort Wayne and all over the Midwest will bring the place to life. Soldiers, both officers and enlisted men, and civilians will be glad to demonstrate their work and answer your questions in the fort and the village outside it. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. June 11 and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. June 12. Historic Fort Wayne is on Spy Run Avenue north of the bridge over the St. Marys River. Parking is available off North Clinton Street, and you can cross Spy Run Creek on a pedestrian bridge. Admission is free, and donations are gladly accepted to support the fort and its programs.
First appeared in the June 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.