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.


Immediately next to the central campus of the Vincennes State Historic Sites lies the historic home of William Henry Harrison, the governor of the Indiana Territory from 1800 to 1812. The house is incredibly well-preserved, especially considering what it has been through.

The house was built between 1802 and 1804, just a few years into Harrison’s assignment as territorial governor and just a couple of decades after George Rogers Clark captured Vincennes (1779). In 1812 Harrison left Grouseland and Indiana to fight in the War of 1812.

The 4,000 square feet of Grouseland became a hotel during the days of railroad construction. Then it was used as a barn. (Yes, a barn.) In 1909 the Daughters of the Revolution saved Grouseland from being torn down and began renovations. In 1960 Grouseland was designated a National Historic Landmark.

These days Grouseland is a museum, open for tours. A backroom by the kitchen serves as the gift shop. Adjacent rooms serve as a museum of sorts with exhibits of artifacts and information about Harrison’s life. Docents start the tours in these adjacent rooms and take you through the entire house, upstairs and downstairs, pointing out important pieces of furniture, relating stories, and answering questions.

Grouseland is built of brick and was constructed as a fortress to withstand attacks by Native Americans. (A real issue…the last big skirmish was the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 near Lafayette where Harrison slaughtered Native Americans.)

The front door is separated into panels, which form a cross, with a half window above it, which symbolizes the rising sun and Christ’s resurrection. The door signals to passers-by that Christians dwell within. The staircase in the foyer mirrors one at Mt. Vernon. The foyer contains a painting of Mrs. Harrison—alas, a replica. The original lives in the White House. (When the painting came up in an auction, Barbara Bush outbid the foundation.)

The basement houses a wine cellar (though Harrison didn’t drink.) The warming kitchen is down in the basement. Other exhibits with artifacts—such as looms—fill the rest of the basement.

As territorial governor, Harrison’s main duty was acquiring land for Western expansion. Land acquisition consisted of making treaties with the Native Americans. He elicited the help of former fur traders (such as Michel Brouillet) to interpret during the negotiations and later spy during conflicts with the Native Americas. Harrison also administered the district of Louisiana from the Louisiana Purchase during 1804 and 1805. Unsurprisingly, land speculation was rampant. Harrison paid for Grouseland ($20,000) from land sales he made. (No corruption there!)

Harrison hosted visitors who stayed for extended periods in what is referred to as “the dependency” section of the house. This section was a back addition to the house, made of lathe and plaster, much different from the grander front of the house. (Interestingly, damage still exists in the dependency from the 1811 earthquake.)

Who did Harrison entertain? Aaron Burr, Zachary Taylor, Lewis and Clark. Zachary Taylor was stationed at Fort Knox in Vincennes in 1811 during his time as a captain in the army. Lewis and Clark stopped by in 1806 on their way back to Washington DC after their famous expedition. (They explored the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and the Northwest Territory from 1803 to 1806.)

The dependency was also where the servants worked (not lived). Forty to fifty servants worked at Grouseland. If you are thinking that “servants” is code for “slaves”, I suspect you are probably correct. I questioned this. The docent clearly wanted to portray Harrison in a good light. When Harrison was young, I was told, his sister tried to give him a slave, which he refused.

However, Harrison was actually a slave owner (and possibly fathered children with a slave). In 1803 he lobbied Congress to alter the Northwest Ordinance to allow slavery in the Northwest Territory. (Congress decided to change the Ordinance to allow the territories to decide for themselves whether to admit slaves or not.)

Harrison also succeeded in persuading the territorial legislature to allow indentured servitude and tried to make slavery legal in the Indiana Territory. (He ultimately failed in getting slavery legalized.) By then an abolitionist movement was coalescing, which came to power in the 1809 legislature. The legislature was able to thwart Harrison’s plans to make the Indiana Territory more attractive to settlers and more economically viable by allowing slavery. (It was all about money, not morals, for Harrison.)

After Harrison’s time as territorial governor and then as an officer in the War of 1812, he returned to Ohio. In 1836 he ran for President (against Van Buren) and lost. In 1840 he again ran for President (against Van Buren) and won.

His 1840 campaign is seen as the first modern campaign, when a candidate actually sought the vote and campaigned. He had buttons, coins, and of course a slogan touting his military past: Tippecanoe (as a reference to the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811) and Tyler too (his running mate).

He was depicted as a man of the frontier who had lived in a log cabin. (Grouseland was anything but a log cabin!) He was belittled and called an “imbecile and dotard”. However, he won. To prove his vigor (in his late 60s), he attended his inauguration without a hat or coat…and died 32 days later from pneumonia.

Regardless of Harrison’s politics, a tour of Grouseland is a great way to spend a couple of hours learning about Indiana history before Indiana became a state in 1816. The building is beautiful and the docents extremely knowledgeable. And it is literally a stone’s throw from other historical sites in Vincennes.

Vincennes State Historic Sites: Old French House and Indian Museum

Vincennes State Historic Sites include several buildings on a central campus just south of Vincennes University, as well as a few sites downtown and a few sites in outlying areas. The Old French House and Indian Museum are located downtown, just a few blocks walk from the visitor center on the central campus.

Vincennes State Historic Sites recently took possession of the Old French House and Indian Museum in Vincennes. (Both were previously administered by a non-profit.) During my recent visit, a docent chockfull of historical tidbits about the buildings and Vincennes gave me a private showing of the buildings.

The Old French House was the last of its kind in Vincennes. Over the decades (if not centuries), houses built in the French style had all been demolished, or so it was thought, until people rediscovered that Michel Brouillet’s house was built in the French style.

Brouillet was born in 1774, a few years before George Rogers Clark captured Fort Sackville in Vincennes. In fact, Michel’s father was an officer in the Vincennes militia and served under Clark.

Michel himself was a successful fur trader, trading with the Miami and Kickapoo on the Vermilion River. Typical of the time and custom of coureurs de bois, he married a Native American woman. (Their son became a Miami chief.) However, also typical of the changing times, as Indiana became more settled and the economy changed from fur trading to land speculation, Brouillet changed with it. And he changed wives.

He worked for Territorial Governor Harrison as an interpreter during the negotiations of several treaties with Native Americans. Out with the old (the Native Americans) and in with the new (white settlers)! Along with the old went his Native American wife. In 1806, he married Marie Louise Drouet de Richerville. In 1809 (or 1806…sources vary), they moved into what is now the Old French House. In total they had 10 (yes, 10…others say 8) children.

In 1807, Brouillet became a captain in the Indiana Territory militia. From 1809 to 1811 he worked as a spy for Harrison against the Native Americans. During the War of 1812, he was a scout and messenger between Vincennes and Fort Harrison in Terra Haute.

By 1819, Native Americans had been pushed west of the Mississippi River. Brouillet’s transformation from working with the Native Americans to working against them was at an end. He became a tavern owner. In 1838, he died and is buried in the cemetery by the Old Cathedral. (His headstone still exists in the cemetery.)

So what makes the Old French House an old French house besides the fact that it is old and was built by a Frenchman? The construction. A portion of one wall of the house is cut away to show the post-and-sill construction common in French houses of early Vincennes (and I’d guess early Indiana wherever there was a French settlement). In some ways, the construction reminded me of a modern frame construction: horizontal beam (sill) on which vertical beams are attached. In between the beams is filled with bousillage, a mixture of clay, earth, and straw.

The current furniture in the house is a collection of odds and ends. Some not of the time period. The museum plans to remedy this. Two period items stood out to me: the kitchen table and a hat.

The wooden top of the kitchen table lifts off to reveal an inner storage area. The storage area is a perfect place to store bread as it rises—out of the way but close to the warmth of the hearth. Totally cool!

The hat is made of beaver fur—the staple of the fur trade in the New World—and super soft, the kind of hat you see smartly dressed gentlemen in paintings from the late 1700s and early 1800s wearing. Super soft? No thanks to the beaver but rather the mercury used by hatters. (Think the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. There’s a reason for his madness. It’s called mercury poisoning.)

The second story of the house contains some artifacts and exhibits showing the dress of the time and an actual pirogue, or French-style of canoe.

The Indian Museum is in a separate building behind the Old French House. Exhibit cases house artifacts and displays about the Native Americans through the ages in the area.

Check out the Old French House and Indian Museum to learn more about early Indiana, the French fur traders, and French culture in the New World. The Vincennes State Historic Sites will likely be refreshing both with period appropriate interiors in ways that the non-profit that ran it for decades couldn’t.