Chief Richardville’s house

I looked in puzzlement at a photo of a Native American chief’s house—a two-story brick Greek Revival house. Why would a Native American chief be living in a two-story brick Greek Revival house?

That’s how I found myself in front of Chief Richardville’s house in Fort Wayne. His house is set off a way from a busy street facing away from the road. The turn off is easy to miss; it’s a narrow gravel road immediately next to a bank. (I missed it twice.)

Chief Richardville was the Peace Chief for the Miami tribe during a crucial time in their history in Indiana (1812-1841). He signed several treaties that ceded Miami lands to the US government. One of these treaties, the 1826 Treaty of Mississinwas, resulted in compensation for each of the chief signatories: $600 for the chiefs to build what came to be known as treaty houses. Chief Richardville’s house is the only one that still exists.

Perhaps one reason why Chief Richardville’s house is the only existent treaty house is because of its construction. Richardville not only used the $600 from the US government, but also contributed his own money, another $1,600 to construct this brick building. Built in 1827, the house cost a total of $2,200.

Where did Richardville get such wealth? He was born into a fur trading family and along with his mother, built a successful trading empire in the Fort Wayne area. They controlled an important portage that carried boats between navigable rivers in the river-wealthy area. (Fort Wayne is located at three rivers, a perfect site during the fur trade.)

Basically, Richardville held a monopoly on trade in the area, which relied on the rivers for transportation. If you wanted to use the portage to get from river to river, then you had to pay him to do so.

I have mixed feelings about Chief Richardville. The various treaties that he signed gave away lands to the US and ultimately helped lead to the removal of Native Americans from Indiana. According to the docents, Richardville owned land along the Wabash River down to Logansport, land where the Miami could live. (Hmmm. Until, I thought, their forced removal in the 1830s and 1840s that was documented in paintings by George Winter.)

After Richardville’s death, the house stayed in the family until 1894. Then the house had a variety of owners: a quarry company, a construction company, and lawyers. Finally, in 1991, the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society acquired the house and remaining property.

From the outside, the house looks well maintained. The Historical Society spent $125,000 on exterior renovations in the early 2000s. (Marks on the bricks attest to the stucco that decorated the house in later years and was removed in the renovation.) The interior hasn’t fared so well.

The two front rooms have fared the best: the East parlor (a formal area for meetings and funerals) and the West parlor (a more functional room).

In the East parlor, the first docent (there were two: one for downstairs, one for upstairs) pointed out architectural oddities: special corners in the fireplace and mantel (“ears”) and around the windows (“shoulders”). The fireplace, he noted, is shallow, which would emit more heat into the room but also be more of a fire danger. A painting over the fireplace is of Richardville holding a treaty, one of the many that he signed. The floor is the original tulip popular, a plentiful wood in Indiana (and the state tree).

In contrast, as a functional room, the West parlor had changed a lot, especially in the years from 1915 to 1950. The floor in this room is maple. No ears or shoulders grace this room.

The dining room is in pretty bad shape. A fire ripped through this part of the house in 1881. Walls are torn open. The only item of note in this room is the large metal safe sitting in a glass case in the corner. The safe was Chief Richardville’s. (How did the safe not disappear over the years, especially after the house left the family?)

When Richardville died, the safe contained $200,000 worth of gold and silver in the form of Spanish pieces of eights. The docent passed around a replica of a Spanish piece of eight. (Memories stirred. I vaguely recalled learning in the last year that Spanish pieces of eight were used in the early US before US currency was established. Interesting.)

That $200,000 was the equivalent to $23 million today! Clearly, Chief Richardville did quite well with fur trading and portage tariffs. Kind of mind-blowingly well. So his descendents were well off for several generations, right? Nope. They ran through that money very quickly due to bad business deals. (More on this in a later post. Spoiler alert: Perhaps it’s not that they were so bad with business deals but that their financial advisor was better at fraud.)

A door in the dining room led to a kitchen (which we didn’t see…though most cooking was done outside) and stairs to the second floor where servants lived.

At this point, we were mysteriously handed off to a second docent who took us from the foyer to the second floor. The staircase is original and in beautiful condition (either black walnut or oak, depending on the docent describing it).

The upstairs houses two bedrooms as well as the back quarters for the servants. One bedroom contains an old-fashioned cord bed, accompanied by the compulsory story about the origin of “sleep tight…don’t let the bed bugs bite”. The room includes closets, in the early 1800s sense of the word. (I really do wonder what early American kept in these closets…they are too narrow to really hold anything.)

The servant quarters are one big room accessed through the second bedroom or from the stairs that lead to the kitchen and dining room. The only heat source would have been a chimney from one of the downstairs fireplaces. All in all these quarters would have been a pretty miserable place to inhabit.

The tour was interesting, but the information from the docents sometimes conflicted. The History Center renovated the exterior well, including the roof (replaced with oak shingles). I hope that they will be able to devote as much attention and money to the interior soon.

I feel ambivalent about Richardville. Was he a good chief who led his people as well as he could through their removal from their homeland? Or was he an opportunist who profited because of or in spite of their misfortune? I suspect the truth is somewhere in the between.

As for the modern-day Miami, as of the 2010 census, only 1,432 lived in Indiana.

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