The History Center in Fort Wayne

I visited the Jean Baptiste de Richardville house, which is overseen by the History Center. It seemed only fitting that I visit the actual History Center, which resides in a former City Hall that was built in 1893.

As I wandered through the History Center, I was struck by the fact that the revered early settlers were what I would think of as scoundrels. Of course, history is usually written by the victors. (An exception would be the history of the Mongols who established the Yuan Dynasty in northern China.) I have a decidedly different feeling about these revered early settlers. They are portrayed as the bedrock of early (white) civilization in the US, but when I read about their lives, I see mostly exploitation of other people and the environment.

With no sense of irony, early settlers who made names for themselves (= amassed wealth) are invariably called land speculators. In my eyes, land speculators = someone who benefited from the robbery of Native American lands and the misery inflicted on the Native Americans through their removal of their traditional lands.

I read about Chief Turtle, the War Chief of the Miami tribe who led the Miami to victory over the Americans in 1780, 1790, and 1791. But then he signed the Treaty of Greenville.

Chief Turtle was followed by Chief Richardville, the Peace Chief of the Miami from 1816 to 1841. He signed six treaties with the US government, which by 1840 gave more than 950,000 acres to the US. His wealth, the History Center explained, came from farms, control of a portage, and land sales (= selling out his brethren for profit, though I suppose what else could you do in the face of sure defeat by the US government?).

The Center next discusss Allen Hamilton. In my blog post about Chief Richardville’s house, I mentioned that Chief Richardville had the equivalent of $23 million when he died but that his descendants were quickly destitute. The reason given on the tour of his house was that they made bad business deals. You want to know why they made bad business deals? Thank Allen Hamilton.

Hamilton, who lived from 1798 to 1864, was a land speculator (of course!). He founded two banks (hmmm…early banks were shady and in Indiana went under due to corruption). He was also the personal legal and financial advisor to Chief Richardville—and the executor of Richardville’s estate. According to the History Center, Hamilton depleted the wealth that Richardville had amassed, leaving Richardville’s heirs destitute. So it was not so much that the heirs made bad business deals as they made a bad choice about whom to trust with the inheritance.

And then there is Sam Hanna, another one of those white men presented as the movers and shakers, a respected icon in the community who is anything but respectable. Hanna lived from 1767 to 1866 and was a land speculator. He was also involved in milling, the Wabash Erie Canal (which almost bankrupt the state), banking (corrupt in its early days), and railroads (which ironically were behind the demise of the canal).

The History Center also contains a lot of displays about German immigrants and the heritage that they brought. Interestingly, I learned that the powers that be in Allen County intentionally targeted certain immigrants. Not just any immigrant would do. They needed skilled German workers who had a strong work ethic.

Down in the basement, you can visit the old jail. This area includes an interesting exhibit about the history of the police force in Fort Wayne. Although originally only volunteers filled the ranks of the police, in 1863 an official force was established. As a transportation hub, Fort Wayne saw its share of crime. In 1875, the Chicago Tribune called Fort Wayne “the most lawless town in Indiana”. (Given Chicago’s reputation as a corrupt city, this is kind of the pot calling the kettle black.) In 1913, women joined the police force.

The History Center was a welcome taste of the culture and background of Fort Wayne and Allen County. I had the place nearly to myself on the sole Saturday that it was open for the month. (Normally, it is only open Monday through Friday.) If you find yourself in downtown Fort Wayne, check out the Center, the exhibits, and the drunk tank in the jail. And then cross the street for a visit to The Hoppy Gnome.

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