Preliminary -- The French Occupancy of the Wabash Valley

The French Period

French Beginnings

The exact dates of the first French explorations of the Mississippi Valley are so variable, as given by various historians, that it is hardly worth while to give any as really authentic. According to the researches of Mr. J. P. Dunn, who may be accepted as careful and thoroughgoing, La Salle, the first white man in tis region, probably "traced the entire lower boundary of Indiana in 1669-70," by way of the Ohio River, and passed through the northwest corner of the state in 1671 or 1672. From this time until 1679 (still drawing upon Mr. Dunn) there was no recorded exploration of Indiana though it is argued that in that interval more or less fur trading was carried on in this region. The portage between the St. Joseph and Kankakee rivers, where South Bend stands, was first used by him in 1679, while in 1682-83 "he was all through Indiana and Illinois." Who was the first to traverse the maumee-Wabash route by way of the site of Fort Wayne is not recorded, but it was probably used by the fur traders at a very early date, as the Wabash threaded a rich and extensive fur country, besides being one of the most direct highways to the Mississippi. the first post planted in this valley was Ouiatanon, which was a fort as well as a trading post. There has been controversy as to the exact location of Ouiatanon, but according to Professor Oscar J. Craig, formerly of Purdue University, who has written a monograph on the subject, it is now pretty well established that it stood on "the west side of the Wabash River and four miles below the present city of Lafayette." The date of its establishment is given as 1719 or 1720. Its purpose was to "counteract the influence of the English and to keep ascendancy over the Indians," The logic of the location was that at this point on the river "the lighter barks and canoes that were used in the carrying trade between Canada and the southwest ... were changed for larger ones, to be used on the deeper waters of the lower Wabash and the Ohio" -- the same cause, practically, that operated in the locating of Lafayette more than a century later. The post took its name from the Ouiatanon Indians, who were located in that vicinity. Ouiatanon was garrisoned by the French until 1760, when it passed into the hands of the English, but there is no mention of any military force there twenty-nine years later, when George Rogers Clark invaded the Northwest Territory. According to Craig, its later history was enveloped in mystery. In a way it had been a "settlement" as well as a post, and a few French families seem to have lingered there until Scott's campaign against the Wabash Indiana, in 1791, after which they betook themselves to other settlements.

The portage between the Maumee and Wabash rivers, where Fort Wayne stands, was an important point commercially and a strategic one form the military view. Before the advent of the whites it was the site of one of the principal Miami towns, called Kekionga, and, according to Dillon, the French established a trading post there probably as early as 1719, which would make it contemporary with Ouiatanon in its beginning. Subsequently they erected there Fort Miamis, which was surrendered to the English in 1760. This, in turn, was succeeded by Fort Wayne, built by General Anthony Wayne's troops in 1794, and the name of which was transmitted to the present city.

Vincennes, the largest and most permanent of the three French settlements on the Wabash, was also long involved in obscurity as to its origin, but it is now established by documents unearthed in Paris by Consul General Gowdy, that the date was 1731. It began as a military and trading post and went by various names before it evolved into "Vincennes," in honor of Sieur de Vincennes, its accredited founder. The life of this isolated Gallic community in the far western wilderness for three-quarters of a century, particularly after the severance, by the war of 1754-63, of all ties with the country whence it sprang, makes a picturesque and romantic chapter in our history which is not without pathos. For years it left its traces up and down the Wabash Valley, and these are inseparable from the memory of the vanished red race, with which it assimilated.

An old document published by the Indiana Historical Society as "The First Census of Indiana," gives the manes of the heads of families residing at the three French settlements in 1769. By this there were sixty-six families at Vincennes, twelve at Ouiatanon and nine at Fort Miami.