THE LAND OF THE MIAMI INDIANS
THE WABASH AND THE MAUMEE RIVERS
—Chief line of communication with the tribes of the Early Northwest. The heart of the Miami Country.
To give a detailed description of the many beautiful rivers, valleys and forests of the northwest at the opening of the last century, would be difficult. It was, as before mentioned, a vast domain, well watered and fertile, and containing some of the best lands in the possession of the federal government. Two rivers, however, assume such historical importance, as to merit a more particular mention. Along their courses two Indian confederacies were organized under the spur of British influence, to oppose the advance of the infant republic of the United States. These two rivers were the Wabash and the Maumee, both leading to the principal center of the fur trade of the northwest, the town of Detroit.
The valley of the Wabash, famed in song and story, and rich in Indian legend, is now filled with fields of corn and prosperous cities. At the close of the Revolution, the great stream swept through an unbroken wilderness of oak, maple and sycamore from its source to the old French settlement of Vincennes. Its bluffs, now adorned with the habitations of a peaceful people, then presented [Pg 35]the wild and rugged beauty of pristine days; its terraces, stretching back to the prairies of the north and west, were crowned with forests primaeval; while naked Miamis, Weas and Potawatomi in canoes of bark, rounded its graceful courses to the waters of the Ohio.
Miami Indian Photo Gallery
Miami Indian Photo Gallery
For one who has ridden over the hills to the west and south of Purdue University, and viewed the gorgeous panorama of the Wea plain, or who has glimpsed in the perspective the wooded hills of Warren and Vermilion from the bluffs on the eastern side of the river, it is not hard to understand why the red man loved the Wabash. An observer who saw it in the early part of the last century pens this picture: "Its green banks were lined with the richest verdure. Wild flowers intermingled with the tall grass that nodded in the passing breeze. Nature seemed clothed in her bridal robe. Blossoms of the wild plum, hawthorn and red-bud, made the air redolent." Speaking of the summer, he says: "The wide, fertile bottom lands of the Wabash, in many places presented one continuous orchard of wild plum and crab-apple bushes, over-spread with arbors of the different varieties of the woods grape, wild hops and honeysuckle, fantastically wreathed together. One bush, or cluster of bushes, often presenting the crimson plum, the yellow crab-apple, the blue luscious grape, festoons of matured wild hops, mingled with the red berries of the clambering sweet-briar, that bound them all lovingly together."
Through all this wild and luxurious wilderness of vines, grasses and flowers flitted the honey bee, called by the Indians, "the white man's fly," storing his golden [Pg 36]burden in the hollow trunks of the trees. While on the march from Vincennes, in the last days of September, 1811, Captain Spier Spencer's Yellow Jackets found three bee trees in an hour and spent the evening in cutting them down. They were rewarded by a find of ten gallons of rich honey.
The great river itself now passed between high precipitous bluffs, crowned with oak, sugar, walnut and hickory, or swept out with long graceful curves into the lowlands and bottoms, receiving at frequent intervals the waters of clear, sparkling springs and brooks that leaped down from rocky gorges and hillsides, or being joined by the currents of some creek or inlet that in its turn swept back through forest, glade and glen to sun-lit groves and meadows of blue grass.
Everywhere the waters of the great stream were clear and pellucid. The plow-share of civilization had not as yet turned up the earth, nor the filth and sewerage of cities been discharged into the current. In places the gravelly bottom could be seen at a great depth and the forms of fishes of great size reposing at ease. "Schools of fishes—salmon, bass, red-horse and pike—swam close along the shore, catching at the bottoms of the red-bud and plum that floated on the surface of the water, which was so clear that myriads of the finny tribe could be seen darting hither and thither amidst the limpid element, turning up their silvery sides as they sped out into deeper water."
The whole valley of the Wabash abounded with deer, and their tiny hoofs wrought foot paths through every [Pg 37]hollow and glen. The small prairies bordered with shady groves, the patches of blue-grass, and the sweet waters of the springs, were great attractions. The banks of the Mississinewa, Wild Cat, Pine Creek, Vermilion, and other tributaries, were formerly noted hunting grounds. George Croghan, who described the Wabash as running through "one of the finest countries in the world," mentions the deer as existing in great numbers. On the march of General Harrison's men to Tippecanoe, the killing of deer was an every day occurrence, and at times the frightened animals passed directly in front of the line of march. Raccoons were also very plentiful. On a fur trading expedition conducted by a French trader named La Fountaine, from the old Miamitown (Fort Wayne), in the winter of 1789-90, he succeeded in picking up about eighty deer skins and about five hundred raccoon skins in less than thirty days. He descended the Wabash and "turned into the woods" toward the White River, there bartering with the Indians for their peltries.
As to wild game, the whole valley was abundantly supplied. In the spring time, great numbers of wild ducks, geese and brant were found in all the ponds and marshes; in the woody ground the wild turkey, the pheasant and the quail. At times, the sun was actually darkened by the flight of wild pigeons, while the prairie chicken was found in all the open tracts and grass lands.
The bottom lands of this river, were noted for their fertility. The annual inundations always left a rich deposit of silt. This silt produced excellent maize, potatoes, beans, pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers and melons. These, [Pg 38]according to Heckewelder, were important items of the Indian food supply.
To the Indian we are indebted for ash-cake, hoecake, succotash, samp, hominy and many other productions made from the Indian maize. The Miamis of the Wabash, with a favorable climate and a superior soil, produced a famous corn with a finer skin and "a meal much whiter" than that raised by other tribes. How far the cultivation of this cereal had progressed is not now fully appreciated. In the expedition of General James Wilkinson against the Wabash Indians in 1791, he is said to have destroyed over two hundred acres of corn in the milk at Kenapacomaqua, or the Eel river towns, alone, and to have cut down a total of four hundred and thirty acres of corn in the whole campaign. In General Harmar's campaign against Miamitown in the year 1790, nearly twenty thousand bushels of corn in the ear were destroyed. On the next day after the battle of Tippecanoe the dragoons of Harrison's army set fire to the Prophets Town, and burned it to the ground. Judge Isaac Naylor says that they found there large quantities of corn, beans and peas, and General John Tipton relates that the commissary loaded six wagons with corn and "Burnt what was estimated at two thousand bushel."
Of the many other natural advantages of this great valley, much might be written. Wheat and tobacco, the latter of a fine grade, were growing at Vincennes in 1765, when Croghan passed through there. Wild hemp was abundant in the lowlands. The delicious pecan flourished, and walnuts, hazelnuts and hickory nuts were [Pg 39]found in great plenty. The sugar maple existed everywhere, and the Indians, who were the original sugar makers of the world, made large quantities of this toothsome article. In addition to this the whole valley was filled with wild fruits and berries, such as blackberries, dewberries, raspberries, gooseberries, and the luscious wild strawberry, that grew everywhere in the open spaces and far out on the bordering prairies.
This sketch of the Wabash and its wonderful possibilities may not be more aptly closed, than by appending hereto the description of Thomas Hutchins, the first geographer of the United States. It appears in his "Topographical Description," and mention is made of the connection of the Wabash by a portage with the waters of Lake Erie; the value of the fur trade at Ouiatenon and Vincennes, and many other points of vital interest.
"The Wabash, is a beautiful river, with high and upright banks, less subject to overflow than any other river (the Ohio excepted) in this part of America. It discharges itself into the Ohio, one thousand twenty-two miles below Fort Pitt, in latitude thirty-seven degrees, forty-one minutes. At its mouth, it is two hundred and seventy yards wide; is navigable to Ouiatenon (four hundred twelve miles) in the spring, summer, and autumn with bateaux and barges, drawing about three feet of water. From thence, on account of a rocky bottom, and shoal water, large canoes are chiefly employed, except when the river is swelled with rains, at which time, it may be ascended with boats, such as I have just described (197 miles further) to the Miami carrying place, which [Pg 40]is nine miles from the Miami village (Author's note: Miamitown or Fort Wayne), and this is situated on a river of the same name (Author's note: The Maumee was formerly called "Miami of the Lake"), that runs into the southwest part of Lake Erie. The stream of the Wabash, is generally gentle to Fort Ouiatenon, and nowhere obstructed with falls, but is by several rapids, both above and below that post, some of which are pretty considerable. There is also a part of the river for about three miles, and thirty miles from the carrying place, where the channel is so narrow, that it is necessary to make use of setting poles instead of oars. The land on this river is remarkably fertile, and several parts of it are natural meadows, of great extent, covered with fine long grass. The timber is large, and in such variety, that almost all the different kinds growing upon the Ohio, and its branches (But with a greater proportion of black and white mulberry trees), may be found. A silver mine has been discovered about 28 miles above Ouiatenon, on the northern side of the Wabash, and probably others may be found hereafter. The Wabash abounds with salt springs, and any quantity of salt may be made from them, in the manner now done at the Saline in the Illinois country. The hills are replenished with the best coal, and there is plenty of lime and freestone, blue, yellow and white clay, for glass works and pottery."
The Wabash River at Merom Bluff, Sullivan County, Indiana, LaMotte Prairie beyondToList
"Two French settlements are established on the Wabash, called Post Vincent and Ouiatenon; the first is 150 miles, and the other 262 miles from its mouth. The former is on the eastern side of the river, and consists of [Pg 41]sixty settlers and their families. They raise corn, wheat and tobacco of an extraordinary good quality, superior, it is said, to that produced in Virginia. They have a fine breed of horses (Brought originally by the Indians from the Spanish settlements on the western side of the Mississippi), and large flocks of swine and black cattle. The settlers deal with the natives for furs and deer skins, to the amount of about 5,000 pounds annually. Hemp of good texture grows spontaneously in the lowlands of the Wabash, as do grapes in the greatest abundance, having a black, thin skin, and of which the inhabitants in the autumn, make a sufficient quantity (for their own consumption) of well-tasted red wine. Hops, large and good, are found in many places, and the lands are particularly adapted to the culture of rice. All European fruits, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, currants, gooseberries, melons, etc., thrive well both here and in the country bordering on the river Ohio."
"Ouiatenon (Author's note: Just below Lafayette), is a small stockaded fort on the western side of the Wabash, in which about a dozen families reside. The neighboring Indians are the Kickapoos, Musquitons, Pyankeshaws, and a principal part of the Ouiatenons. The whole of these tribes consists, it is supposed, of about one thousand warriors. The fertility of soil, and the diversity of timber in this country, are the same as in the vicinity of Post Vincent. The annual amount of skins and furs obtained at Ouiatenon is about 8,000 pounds. By the river Wabash, the inhabitants of Detroit move to the southern parts of Ohio, and the Illinois country. Their [Pg 42]route is by the Miami river (Maumee) to a carrying place (Author's note: Miamitown or Fort Wayne), which, as before stated, is nine miles to the Wabash, when this river is raised with freshies; but at other seasons, the distance is from eighteen to thirty miles, including the portage. The whole of the latter is through a level country. Carts are usually employed in transporting boats and merchandise, from the Miami to the Wabash river."
No less wonderful was the valley of the Maumee, directly on the great trade route between the Wabash and the post of Detroit. Croghan, who was a good judge of land, and made careful observations, found the Ottawas and Wyandots here in 1765, the land of great richness, and game very plentiful. It was a region greatly beloved by the Indian tribes, and the scene after the revolution, of many grand councils of the northwestern confederacy. In a letter of General Anthony Wayne, written in 1794, he asserts that: "The margins of these beautiful rivers, the Miamis of the Lake (Maumee), and the Au Glaize (A southern tributary), appear like one continued village for a number of miles, both above and below this place, Grand Glaize, nor have I ever before beheld such immense fields of corn in any part of America, from Canada to Florida."
After General Wayne's army had defeated the Indians at the battle of Fallen Timbers on this river in 1794, they spent many days after that conflict in destroying the fields of grain. One who marched with the army, in August of the above year, describes Indian corn fields extending for four or five miles along the Au Glaize, and [Pg 43]estimated that there were one thousand acres of growing corn. The whole valley of the Maumee from its mouth to Fort Wayne, is described as being full of immense corn fields, large vegetable patches, and old apple trees, and it is related that Wayne's army, while constructing Fort Defiance for a period of eight days, "obtained their bread and vegetables from the corn fields and potato patches surrounding the fort."
Is it any wonder that along these wonderful basins should be located the seats of power of the Miami Indians, the leaders of the western confederacy that opposed the claims of the United States to the lands north of the Ohio; that from the close of the Revolutionary war until Wayne's victory in 1794, the principal contest was over the possession of the Miami village, now Fort Wayne, which controlled the trade in both the Wabash and the Maumee Valleys, and that President George Washington, consummate strategist that he was, foresaw at once in 1789, the first year of his presidency, that the possession of the great carrying place at Miamitown would probably command the whole northwest and put an end to the Indian wars?