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Fort was a tribute to area's history

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

The dream of "bringing the fort back to Fort Wayne" had been around for many years before the Old Fort opened in 1976. The Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society had been the hub of such discussions since before World War II. But in 1964, Pi Chapter of Psi Iota Xi Sorority started the process in earnest by awarding the Historical Society a grant to carry out the necessary research about the three forts that American forces built here between 1794 and 1816.

This research, done by Lynn Wallick and Mrs. Chris Crampton with the help of Historical Society figures like Doris Perry and David Drury, lay behind the practical business of securing the funding and the land for the project to take shape. To do this, Historic Fort Wayne Inc. was created in 1968, and under the guidance of community leaders like Lynn Koehlinger, Keith Barker and Charles Walker, a six-year fund-raising program was launched to raise the $750,000 it was believed would be necessary to build the fort.

Just west of the confluence of the Three Rivers and the ancient site of Indian villages, across the St. Marys River from the actual location of the American forts, the Old Fort reconstruction was begun in June 1975. Under the direction of Brian Dunnigan, a master historian and expert in outdoor museums, the fort began to take shape at almost the same pace as the original.

Rebuilding an early 19th Century fort, which originally was a simple, straightforward structure, proved to be a demanding modern task. Long- forgotten skills in timber shaping, log-fitting, pegged joining, and reaving shingles had to be learned. Even the logs had to be found elsewhere. The huge oak logs were brought in from upstate New York, authentically (if mechanically) shaped and fitted according to the painstakingly researched original specifications of the fort built in 1815 by Maj. John Whistler. Some logs, 16 inches square and 30 feet long, weighed as much as 800 pounds.

The difficulties experienced by the reconstruction crew using power machinery gave a new appreciation for the accomplishments of the soldiers who used little more than muscle and simple mechanical devices to raise such monstrous timbers two stories high, shaping and fitting them with nothing more than a felling axe and a broad-axe.

The reconstruction crew started with the fort hospital building, and there learned the techniques of fitting the logs. The only major difference from the original building is that the base logs are set in concrete footings and pilings. Other buildings, as in the original project, were taken in their turn - the blockhouses, the barracks, the minor buildings and the powder magazine (the separate sod-covered storehouse for the highly explosive gunpowder).

Finally, the palisade, or spiked fence, was erected around the outer perimeter. On June 5, 1976, a month before the nation's bicentennial birthday, the Old Fort opened amid speech-making, flag-raisings, and cannon firings. In keeping with the spirit, authentic drum and fife corps, artillery units and infantry parades from the era of the French and Indian War (1760s) through the War of 1812 heralded the rebirth of the wilderness garrison that gave the modern community its name. Forts have been a part of the Three Rivers area since the first Europeans began to use the portage between the St. Marys and the Wabash rivers. Early in the 18th century, in 1721, a fortified post, called Fort Miami, was built by the French along the St. Marys near today's Van Buren Street bridge. After this fort was destroyed by Indians in 1747, the French built a new fort on the St. Joseph River (near the present Tennessee Avenue bridge), just north of several Indian villages at the confluence of the rivers. But the British captured this fort in 1760 and failed to hold it effectively after Chief Pontiac's uprising in 1763. Although the portage and the Indian nations living here had great importance for the western campaigns of the American Revolution, the fort was not occupied, even by the victorious young nation of Americans.

British interest in the Three Rivers area centered on making trouble on the American frontier, taking advantage of the native populations' growing concern about pioneer incursions on their lands in the Ohio and Indiana territories. In an attempt to put an end to the violence on the frontier and overawe the Indians, President George Washington sent one army after another into the heartland of the Miamis. Led by Chief Little Turtle, the Miami and Shawnee nations destroyed first Gen. Josiah Harmar's unruly army and then Gen Arthur St. Clair's forces. The defeat of St. Clair near the headwaters of the Wabash River in 1791 was, in fact, the worst defeat suffered by an American force at the hands of North American Indians.

In retaliation, Washington sent the Revolutionary War hero Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne into the frontier. Bankrupt and slightly tainted by a scandalous separation from his wife, Polly, and his affair with Philadelphia socialite, Mary Vining, Wayne was nevertheless a solid and aggressive leader of his troups. A stern disciplinarian, he rigorously trained his troops at Fort Washington (Cincinnati), took his "legion" to Miami territory, and soundly beat the Indians, first at the site of St. Clair's defeat (Fort Recovery) and then at Fallen Timbers.

After Fallen Timbers, in September 1794, Wayne moved his army to the central Miami village of Kekionga at the Three Rivers (the present Lakeside district). Across the river, Wayne chose the site to build the first American fort in the area.

This fort was located at today's intersection of Clay and Berry streets, on the northwest corner. Building began in September 1794, while dragoons burned all the nearby Indian villages. The soldiers were kept for weeks at the hard work of felling and shaping the great oak trees. Despite the amount of work, discipline was often hard to manage. Some deserted, but these men were killed by Wayne's scouts or by the Indians. The partially finished fort was finished on Oct. 21, 1794, and Wayne handed command over to Col. John Hamtramck. On the next day, Oct. 22, in accordance with Wayne's plans, Hamtramck called together a parade of the garrison, fired 15 rounds of cannon, and formally announced that the new fort was to be called Fort Wayne.

It was four years to the day that Harmar's army had been destroyed by Little Turtle's warriors at a site within view of the new fort.

The command at Fort Wayne was given to Hamtramck in recognition of his bravery at the battle of Fallen Timbers, but it was a troubled command. The six companies left at Fort Wayne with Hamtramck in the winter of 1794-95 suffered greatly from the cold, hunger and desperate boredom of the place. Supplies dwindled; livestock was stolen and slaughtered. Cavalry horses died at the rate of three a day. Hamtramck complained: "I have flogged them (the soldiers) until I am tired. The economical allowance of 100 lashes, allowed by the government, does not appear a sufficient inducement for a rascal to act the part of an honest man."

By 1798, only four years after the opening of the first American fort, a new one was begun on a different site under the command of Col. Thomas Hunt. It was during his tour of duty at the fort that his wife bore the first non- Indian child born in Fort Wayne. Not completed until 1800, the fort was built at the present-day location of the No. 1 Fire Station on East Main Street. It was this structure that withstood the hardships of the Indian wars that erupted between 1800 and 1812 because of white encroachment on Indian lands, the disintegration of native culture and the goading of the British. It was during these years that the first Indian agency, under William Wells, was opened, and Quakers sought to bring farming to the tribes of the Three Rivers.

But this also was the time when William Henry Harrison successfully pressured the Indians into ceding more and more of their land to the U.S. government, and the illegal whiskey trade wrought even more damage among the tribes. In reaction, Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet, campaigned among the region's Indians to resist land cessations and scorn white cultural influence. Both Indian leaders visited Fort Wayne in 1807 and 1808 when Capt. Nathan Heald was commandant, but both Heald and Wells had done much to relieve the suffering of starving Indians who came to the Fort by the hundreds, and this helped to weaken the influence of Tecumseh and the Prophet.

When war did break out, with the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, and in the next year against the British and their Indian allies everywhere on the frontier, forts all over where attacked.

Fort Wayne, now held by only 100 men commanded by Capt. James Rhea, came under siege by 1,000 Indians. But the attacks were broken after a month by the arrival of a rescue force led by William Henry Harrison, and the war moved further north to the area around Detroit where finally Tecumseh and the British were defeated.

While the war raged around Lake Erie, command of Fort Wayne was given to Maj. John Whistler. When he came in 1813, he found the place "very sickly," with only one officer fit for duty and the fort in disrepair.

Determined to rebuild the fort with new designs, Whistler proceeded building by building, replacing the old with new structures. The overall plan for the new fort, completed in 1816, was the most sophisticated of any yet to appear on the frontier.

--Oct. 7, 1993