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.

Forrest Sherer Christmas cards

A quirky collection of Christmas cards from the 1960s through the 2000s lined one wall. This seemed odd. Then again I was in a quirky museum in Terre Haute.

The Christmas cards at the Clabber Girl Museum are reproductions of watercolor landscapes of Indiana commissioned by a local insurance company, Forrest Sherer. Starting in 1961, Forrest Sherer hired beloved local artist D. Omer “Salty” Seamon to create a watercolor painting of a Wabash Valley landscape or historic site for their annual Christmas card. (I wonder how many of these greeting cards are tucked away in attics or basements.)

Some subject matter I recognized, if not by sight than by the name: snow on the bridge at Turkey Run State Park, the Wabash and Erie Canal. Most I didn’t recognized: Wiley High School 1965, the historic Markle’s Mill.

Seamon was a prolific artist, creating over 5,000 watercolor paintings. In 1980, he was awarded the “Sagamore of the Wabash”, an award given to Hoosiers for distinguished service.

After Seamon passed away in 1997, his protégé C. Robert Follett continued the tradition of creating watercolor paintings of Indiana for use as Forrest Sherer Christmas cards.

The collection at the Clabber Girl Museum includes the Forrest Sherer Christmas cards with both of their artwork.

After Seamon’s death, his wife bequeathed all of his artwork to Rose-Hulman, which became the recipient of the largest collection of his works. His permanent collection is on display at Hadley Hall. (Disclaimer: I haven’t gone to see it yet. Presumably it is accessible to the public.) Prints of his work are for sale at the bookstore.

Or you could wander to the Clabber Girl Museum in Terre Haute to catch a glimpse of this quirky little collection of Christmas cards with his artwork commissioned by a local insurance company.

TV movie review: Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana–Birth of a State

Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana is a PBS documentary series based on the book of the same name by Indiana historian James H. Madison. The documentary series is split into four parts: Birth of a State, Split Rails to Steel Rails, The 20th Century, and The Next Indiana.

Birth of a State covers the period of time from when Indiana lobbied for statehood to just before the Civil War. The documentary is narrated by Madison and includes interviews with various people, like the President of the Levi Coffin House Association (Janice McGuire, who was my docent when I visited the historical site—by the way, she is outstanding!), the Director of Historic New Harmony (Connie Weinzapfel), and a retired Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court (Randall J. Shepherd).

Indiana was originally part of the Indiana Territory, which included Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and eastern Minnesota. The capital of the territory was Vincennes. (You can visit many historic sites there.) The Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison was pro-large landholdings and pro-slavery—positions that didn’t sit well with others in southern Indiana.

In 1813, a vote moved the capital east to Corydon on the Ohio River (and away from Harrison’s nexus of power, I’d argue). In 1816, 43 delegates met in the new courthouse in Corydon for a Congressional Convention. In December 1816, Congress recognized Indiana as a state. (Side note: You can visit the grave of Robert Hanna, one of the delegates and signers of the state constitution, in Crown Hill Cemetery.)

At the time, Indiana was home to numerous Indian tribes: Potawatomi, Wea, Miami, Delaware, Kaskaskia, Shawnee, Piankashaw, Huron, Wyandot, Ottawa, Seneca, Kickapoo. Eventually the Indians were either removed from the land or killed. Probably the most famous violent confrontation is the Battle of Tippecanoe of 1811, when Harrison decimated the Indians led by Tecumseh and the Prophet.

But also instructive is the 1824 Fall Creek Massacre of nine Indians that shockingly led to the trial of the white perpetrators and the execution of three of them. Unfortunately, this trial and conviction of white violence on non-whites didn’t set a legal precedent.

The documentary weaves a history through key places, people, and events throughout Indiana, mostly focused on southern Indiana as that was the first part of the state to be settled. Originally the inhabitants were Native Americans and French trappers and fur traders. Whites and blacks moved into Indiana from Kentucky and North Carolina—both slave states. However, the migrants from North Carolina were Quakers from Guilford County who left North Carolina due to slavery. The Underground Railroad thrived in Indiana.

The documentary discusses important early settlements like Vincennes (as the territorial capital) or Madison (as an international commerce hotspot on the Ohio River) or New Harmony (as the location of utopian societies: first German millennialism and then utopian socialism) or black settlements (Beech Settlement, Walnut Ridge, Corydon).

People, some well-known, some not, are discussed as being influential to Indiana history. William Conner, whose homestead exists as an historical park, went native, marrying a Native American woman. Later, he helped negotiate deals with the Native Americans that led to their removal (along with his wife and child) to Oklahoma. He then married a white woman and became a respectable businessman, clearly riding the wave of commerce moving from trapping and trade with the Native Americans to commerce with white settlers and landownership.

Lincoln, regularly touted as hailing from Illinois, lived his formative years (ages 6 to 21) in southern Indiana. Sophia Ramsdell Fuller left a detailed diary of her pioneer life in Vigo County. Mary Bateman Clark had a profound effect on the lives of slaves and former slaves in Indiana, setting a legal precedent about indentured servitude.

The Ohio River was key to the early settlement of southern Indiana—rivers being an important mode of transport for people and goods. The rivers allowed commerce and prosperity (for some). Canals, like the Wabash and Erie, were created for the same economic and commercial purpose. The financial woes brought on by the canal led to a revised constitution.

The original constitution borrowed language from the Ohio and Kentucky constitutions. The Indiana version became a model for later state constitutions. The 1816 constitution stressed the importance of education, legally proclaimed Indiana as a free state (though not always in practice), and gave all white men the vote regardless if they were landowners.

The constitution revised in 1851 prohibited debt (being debt-free even if that means not investing in the future seems to be a long-standing source of pride in Indiana), granted free education, and prohibited African-Americans from moving into the state (!). African-Americans already living in Indiana were required to register—a horrible idea but a fascinating source of historical information about African-Americans living in the state.

The documentary continues with a second part that looks at Indiana from the Civil War to World War I.

Wabash and Erie Canal

Canals in Indiana? Hmmm….Another one of those early over engineering mistakes made to the Indiana landscape (like straightening the Kankakee River, which destroyed the Grand Kankakee Marsh area)? Maybe.

When I hear Erie Canal, I think of New York and that song from my childhood (“I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal…”). So what’s a canal named Wabash and Erie Canal doing in Indiana?

Back in the early 1800s, it seemed like a good idea to have canals in Indiana linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. Construction started in Fort Wayne in 1832 and spread out in both directions: north to Toledo, OH and south to Evansville, IN. The portion of the canal to Toledo was finished in 1843 and to Evansville in 1854—creating a 468-mile canal.

In Indiana alone, the Wabash and Erie Canal had 73 locks and 18 aqueducts. However, the use of the canal was ultimately short-lived. Railroads came to Indiana in the late 1830s. Decades of work on the canal quickly came to naught.

Finished in 1843, determined to not be economically viable ten years later, canal traffic ceased operation in 1874. All that work and money produced canals that were mosquito-prone and in constant need of dredging due to collapsing banks. Maybe not the best engineering endeavor. (I’m sensing a pattern here, re: damage done to the Kankakee River).

Ultimately, the financing of the canal led to the state of Indiana declaring bankruptcy. In 1851, the Indiana state constitution was changed to restrict the accumulation of debt—and, I muse, contributed to the modern-day dislike of Hoosiers to invest in infrastructure and its citizens if it means not staying in the black.

I recently visited the bit of the canal constructed in Delphi, IN, which was completed in 1840. Historically an eyesore for this small Indiana town, the canal had been cleaned up in recent decades. In 1986, a park and interpretive center were opened to celebrate the canal. Historic buildings from the 1800s have been gathered into a pioneer village of sorts. Only one of the buildings is open for a tour—the Reed Case house.

Reed Case managed the creation of the canal in Delphi. He was a businessman who dabbled in many different areas. A quick tour of his house led by a docent left me with two takeaways.

The man was a cheapskate—or as the docent preferred to see it, sensible and frugal with his money. His house was constructed to look as though it used expensive materials but didn’t. The marble-look alike foyer was meant to impress but was, um, fake. The wood and materials used to build the house were cheap but finished to look as though they were more expensive materials.

I was also struck by paintings by George Winter hanging in the house. None of the paintings impressed me as being high quality and if I hadn’t been told that they were by George Winter, I would never have known. (George Winter was an important painter who made the Wabash area his home. He is included in a special exhibit of 19 influential Hoosier artists at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.)

The park also includes an interpretive center that is very informative and well done. The center walks you through the history of Indiana and the canal, explaining the whys and the hows and showing how life would have been in the camps of workers digging the canal.

The third draw to the park is a ride on a small replica of a canal boat. The boat is run by volunteers. The volunteers offer the riders tidbits of information as they float down one small section of the canal.

Trails also exist along the canal that go by markers of important sites such as where the worker’s camp was or where the lock keeper’s house stood. Most of the canal along this trail is more of a ditch than a canal, long filled in by sediment and downed trees and fallen branches.

The park is good to visit for learning about a slice of Indiana history. Despite what the signs say at the ticket booth, $10 (not $12) will get you a ticket to all three attractions: the Reed Case house, the interpretive center, a canal boat ride. Ultimately, I was left with the feeling that the canal was yet another Hoosier folly.