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Ewings played hardball in business, with Indians

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

Ewing Park, nestled between McClellan and Ewing streets along the southern edge of Lewis Street, is one of the smallest parks in Fort Wayne. Although less than half an acre in size, Ewing is one of those invaluable playground centers that make urban life healthy.

Ewing was the product of the "playground movement" that began early in this century in order to give children better places to play near their homes rather than alleys, dumps and vacant lots.

This little park is not a site of special historical note. But its name, and that of the street next to it, recall one of the most extraordinary families associated with early Fort Wayne. The Ewing family's impact was felt throughout the Midwest.

Even today there are streets in Chicago, South Bend, St. Louis and Logansport, or towns in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana named in their memory. Fort Wayne, however, came to be the Ewings' home base.

The "Ewing Homestead" was located several blocks north of Ewing Park, on the northwest corner of Berry Street. Built in 1838 by William G. Ewing, the first man to be admitted to the Allen County bar, this three-story brick mansion was one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in Fort Wayne until it was destroyed in 1970 to make way for a parking lot.

The patriarch of the clan was Alexander Ewing, whose family came from Ireland to Pennsylvania long before the Revolutionary War. Alexander, who was born in 1763, joined the Continental army in 1779, at age 16, and was in Washington's command until the British surrender at Yorktown in 1783. After the war, he joined a trading company and built the first settler's cabin on the site of what became Buffalo, N.Y. In 1802, Ewing, then married to Charlotte Griffith, settled in the trading community at the River Raisin near Detroit (where 12 years later, in 1814, John Allen, the namesake of Allen County, was killed).

Alexander first visited Fort Wayne in 1812 and later was with Gen. William Henry Harrison when the Indian siege of the fort was broken. He ended his colorful military career at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 when Chief Tecumseh was defeated and the British threat to the new American West was broken.

Having settled for a time in Troy, Ohio, Alexander and Charlotte Ewing at last came to Fort Wayne in 1822 to live with his four sons and three daughters. Described as proud and commanding, he was 6 feet tall, had auburn hair and blue eyes. He passed on to his children an extraordinary talent for business.

Alexander knew well the value of being a town founder and that this enterprise often went hand in hand with being a tavern owner. Ewing built Fort Wayne's first tavern, later known as Washington Hall, at the corner of Barr and Columbia streets, and it was here that Allen County was formed in 1824. The first acts of the newly elected county commissioners were carried out in this house, and it was here that Ewing was elected to the Board of Justices of the Peace and was appointed to serve on the first grand jury.

Alexander's oldest son, Charles Wayne Ewing, was the first lawyer to come to Allen County, and at father's tavern, he was named the county's first prosecutor. Noted for his looks and his exceptional abilities as an orator, Charles Ewing was the favorite speaker at the bonfire celebrations marking the beginning of the great canal project in 1832. The next year, Charles helped to establish Fort Wayne's first newspaper, the Sentinel, and by 1837, he was president of the circuit court.

The basis of the family fortune, however, was land. Alexander bought many of the first lots put up for sale in Fort Wayne, but his most important purchase was the 80- acre swamp and thicket west of the original town plot. Known then as Ewington, or Ewing's Addition, this area was bounded by Fulton and Webster streets north of Lewis Street, with Berry and Wayne streets cutting through the middle. Ewing Park marks the southernmost part of this first westward expansion of Fort Wayne.

When Alexander died in 1826, his sons sold most of the Ewington land to gain capital for their fur-trading ventures and their land speculations. In business areas, the two younger brothers, William G. Ewing and George Washington Ewing, had few equals. They formed the W.G. & G.W. Ewing Co., which dealt in furs and the Indian trade (blankets, cloth and tools). This company became so powerful that it was the equal of the great American Fur Co. of John Jacob Astor.

The brothers were aggressive and ruthless in business. Hugh McCulloch, their contemporary, once said that he had "rarely met their equals in business capacity or general intelligence," but, he continued, "very few have I known who had less real enjoyment of life. Enterprising, laborious, adventurous men they were, but so devoted to business, so persistent in the pursuit of gain, that they have had no time to enjoy the fruits of their labors."

Alexis Coquillard, a founder of South Bend and business partner of Fort Wayne trader Francis Comparet, once complained that the Ewings were "intriguing men bent on obtaining a fortune by any means fair or foul." But then, Coquillard was not especially sharp and usually got the worst of his dealings with the Ewings.

Yet, even under the best circumstances, business ethics on the frontier were not a great concern. In 1836, for instance, the Ewings and scores of other Indian traders in the Wabash Valley came to Logansport for the Indian annuity payments (the yearly government payment for treaty lands) to the Potawatomis of the Wabash. At this meeting, the traders were supposed to present their account books to the U.S. Indian agent, John Tipton, for payment on the debts made by the Indians.

Tipton, a neighbor of the Ewings back in Fort Wayne, appointed George and William Ewing to be his commissioners for making payment to the traders, and he gave them several sacks of gold amounting to more than $60,000 to do the work. The Ewings promptly locked themselves in a cabin and proceeded to pay themselves, using almost the entire amount of gold.

Alexis Coquillard, rightly suspecting that he was not going to have his accounts paid, climbed onto the cabin with his musket and began tearing off the wooden shingles so that he could take good aim at the Ewings. Across the clearing on another cabin roof, the Potawatomi warrior named Chandonais urged the Indians present to attack and scalp all the traders and take the gold for themselves. Ewings' men, meanwhile, took aim with their muskets at Coquillard on the roof. Bloodshed was only avoided when Indian agent Tipton finally stepped forward to start the whole process over again.

Pandemonium broke out when one of the traders snatched several bags of gold and ran into the woods. Followed by the howling fur-traders, the enraged Potawatomis and a startled Indian agent, the man took refuge in a local cabin and only gave up the money when threatened by dozens of muskets.

So powerful had the Ewings become in the fur trade, which in the 1830s was largely stirred by the great popularity of raccoon pelts, that they engaged in a trade war with the powerful Astor company. The Ewings vowed in 1838 to carry on the conflict as a "war of extermination" of their competitors.

Even as late as 1840, just a few months' catch of furs in the Ewings' Fort Wayne store alone was worth $40,000. The "war" went on until 1843, and in the end, the Astor company lost in the struggle.

As fur trading declined, the Ewings turned to land and to the business of Indian removal. Their land speculations in Chicago and in St. Louis earned them millions.

The Ewing name is least revered among the Potawatomi Indians.

In the 1840s, the U.S. government started a policy of "removing" the Indians from the Old Northwest Territory (Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio) to wild land in Kansas and Oklahoma.

--April 4, 1994