Ewings played hardball in business, with Indians
By MICHAEL HAWFIELD
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
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
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
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