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The early history of Fort Wayne

(Originally published as a special Mini-Page edition for young people)


The official dedication of Fort Wayne on Oct. 22, 1794, closed one chapter of the region's history. But it was hardly the end of the story.

Less than a quarter of a century would pass before Fort Wayne was abandoned as a military outpost.

On April 19, 1819, Major J.N. Vose, commander of the fort, loaded his 95 men into pirogues on the Maumee River and headed for Detroit.

Still wilderness
There were fewer than 200 settlers living in the area at that time. They were mostly fur trappers and others who traded with the American Indians. The lands around Fort Wayne were still a wilderness. But it was a wilderness of promise to many who saw it.

Captain James Riley, a surveyor who was in the region months after the soldiers left, said, "The country around Fort Wayne is very fertile. The situation is commanding and healthy, and here will rise a town of great importance."

Riley said there were fewer than 30 houses in the area, occupied by French and American families.

''But soon the land shall be surveyed and offered for sale, inhabitants will pour in from all quarters to this future thoroughfare between the East and the Mississippi River."

Captain Riley returned to the area a year later, in November of 1819, and was still impressed with the area. But he wasn't as impressed with the people he found.

There were settlers, he said, "trading with the Indians," and "horse racing, drinking, gambling, debauchery, extravagance and waste were the order of the day and night." The Indians, he said, "were the least savage and more Christianized."

Captain Riley recommended that the area be surveyed and platted quickly so that it could be settled by a more industrious group of people.

In 1820, mail came to the area once every two weeks from Cincinnati. In 1822, the government established regular mail routes between Fort Wayne and Chicago, as well as some Ohio villages.

Colonel William Suttenfield, an early settler, carried the mail to Chicago and once made the entire journey on foot. (Imagine walking to Chicago, a trip that takes about three hours now by car.)

Chief industry in the area was trading with the Indians. Fur trading in the area was big business.

In May of 1822, President James Monroe signed an act passed by Congress authorizing the sale of lands around Fort Wayne.

Town organized
land office was established in Fort Wayne. The sale began on Oct. 23, 1823, 170 years ago this month. The minimum price was $1.25 an acre.

Two men - John Barr from Baltimore and John McCorkle from Piqua, Ohio - bought 118 lots, the area that is now downtown Fort Wayne. They paid $26 an acre. It was a very high price for undeveloped western land.

The two men paid so much because they expected the area to continue to be of great value to them as a place of Indian trade.

And for a few years, they were right.

The capitalization of fur traders operating from Fort Wayne in 1827 was more than the combined capitalization of those operating from Detroit and Chicago.

There were already buildings and streets in the area, so the men didn't have to clear the land. That made it more valuable. Barr and McCorkle expected the settlers would purchase the lots on which their buildings stood.

Historian B.J. Griswold described what the town looked like in his book "The Pictorial History of Fort Wayne, Indiana":

''A few unpretentious log buildings collected about the region of the present Clinton, Barr, Columbia, Lafayette and Superior streets . . . Away to the southwest . . . was a broad swamp, fed by springs . . . Scattered trees, grown since the siege of 1812, dotted the landscape, while here and there were the sites of Indian camps chosen by the red men for their long sojourn while awaiting the distribution of their annual payment from the government."

Streets were not laid out straight according to compass points because there already were buildings along two common roads, now Columbia and Barr streets. New streets were laid out in line with these two to save on the removal of houses already built.

Barr and McCorkle set aside lots to use for schools, churches and government offices.

Early settlers
The area was still very much a wilderness.

''Traveled roads were few," Griswold wrote, "and usually deep with mud, winding through the wilderness of prairie and forest." Many roads were not much more than Indian paths widened to accommodate wagons.

Government subsidies paid to the Miamis were of interest to many settlers. They sold the Indians whiskey at inflated prices and cajoled them out of their lands.

In the two years following the Treaty of 1826, goods valued at $72,300 were traded to the Miamis for 926,000 acres. That's less than 8 cents an acre - quite a deal when you compare it to the $26-an-acre price Barr and McCorkle had paid three years earlier.

Most of the land bought from the Miamis was along the Wabash and Maumee rivers. Speculators were counting on the coming Wabash and Erie Canal to make them rich.

Allen County was formed in 1823, and the first officers were elected in May of 1824.

Famous early settlers such as William Rockhill, Sam Hanna and Allen Hamilton made up the first county officers. One of their jobs was collecting taxes, which some county residents paid in wolf scalps.

The county was named after John Allen, a hero in the War of 1812.

''Prosperity for Fort Wayne merchants and speculators in the 1820s was severely hampered" by transportation difficulties, explains historian Michael Hawfield.

''The canoe and pirogue traffic on the rivers and pack trains on the cross-country trails were entirely insufficient for economic growth."

Sam Hanna promoted the contruction of plank roads. These were made of huge, rough planks laid crossways on a log and dirt base. Massive forests around the settlement provided the raw material. But the transportation they provided still wasn't enough.

Canal begun
By 1826, interest in building a canal was running very high.

A canal commission was appointed late that year to begin organizing the project.

Only $500 was appropriated to start the project, however. Sam Hanna rode on horseback to Detroit and then took a boat to New York to buy the necessary surveying equipment.

As plans for the canal grew, so did the city.

Hanna and James Barnett erected the city's first gristmill in 1827.

Absalom Holcomb and Isaac Marquis opened a tannery a year later at the west end of Columbia Street.

Madore Truckery opened his cooper shop that year. Holloway Cushman started a blacksmith shop on the south side of Berry Street east of Calhoun Street.

Zenas Henderson opened a general store at the northeast corner of Calhoun and Columbia streets.

George and William Ewing ran their fur trading business at the corner of Calhoun and Columbia streets. Alexander Ewing ran his Washington Hall tavern at the southwest corner of Barr and Columbia. It was the first tavern in town.

In September of 1829, the town voted to incorporate as a village.

The founding settlers wanted to incorporate to stabilize the area and attract more settlers.

Making their living trading with the Indians, the first settlers had neglected agriculture, which would become so important to the area years later. But they had to look for other ventures. Fur trading declined because fewer Indians were trapping, depending on their government subsidies instead.

And in 1828, the Indian agency was moved from Fort Wayne to the Logansport area.

Indian Agent John Tipton estimated that in 1828, seven out of 10 families in Allen County depended on the Indian trade for their livelihood.

Move to commerce
Charles Poinsatte explains in his "Fort Wayne During the Canal Era": "The years between 1829 and 1832 mark the beginning of Fort Wayne's transition from a small village situated about the fort and depending entirely on the fur and Indian trade to a town which was to become an important center of commerce and transportation." The old fort, meanwhile, continued to deteriorate. The property was platted and sold in the spring of 1830. The final blockhouse of the fort wasn't demolished until 1852.

The winter of 1830-31 was one of the coldest in the settlement's history. A heavy snowfall in November remained on the ground until spring. Travel was all but abandoned for five months.

William Brice's "1868 of Fort Wayne" explains:

''The animals of the forest were brought to the greatest hunger, and the wolves, of which there were still vast numbers throughout the northwest . . . were brought to such a state of hunger that their fierce howlings were nightly heard by the citizens of the place."

Brice said it wasn't safe for settlers to venture beyond the limits of town. ''The Indians also suffered greatly this winter for food," Brice wrote, "and several of them were killed and eaten by the wolves."

In 1831, the town board passed an ordinance requiring all persons afflicted by smallpox to remain at least one-quarter mile outside the town limits.

On Feb. 22, 1832, construction began in Fort Wayne on the Wabash and Erie Canal. The population of the town at that time was estimated at 300.

Construction of the canal brought hundreds of men to the bustling town. Many were Irish immigrants. Disputes between rival factions of Irish laborers were common.

''Murders were not uncommon, and arson was a nightly occurrence," wrote Brice.

As work on the canal continued, the town kept growing. Its first newspaper, the Sentinel, began on July 6, 1833. It was a predecessor of The News-Sentinel. The paper was four small pages filled mostly with news from Washington, D.C., and foreign cities.

In 1835, the city's first bank, a branch of the State Bank of Indiana, opened on the southwest corner of Main and Clinton streets.

A section of the canal from Fort Wayne to Huntington, then called Flint Springs, was opened in 1835.

On the Fourth of July that year there was a huge celebration over the canal section opening. It included a parade with 33 young women, one representing each of the states of the union. (There were only 33 states in 1835.)

When other sections of the canal were opened for navigation in 1837, thousands of settlers poured into the Wabash valley. Many were attracted to the town of Fort Wayne. The booming canal business sparked the construction of nine hotels downtown.

In 1838, newspaper editor John W. Dawson described the downtown area as "buildings of an inferior sort, unpainted, generally one-story high." The streets were bad, he said, with many "destroyed by standing water."

City chartered
The town needed more structure to continue growing. In February of 1840, the state legislature approved Fort Wayne's city charter. George W. Wood, a newspaperman, was elected the city's first mayor, and the first city council meeting was held on March 7, 1840.

The population of the town had grown from 300 in 1830 to nearly seven times that number. The official census placed the town's 1840 population at 2,080.

The city's first police force was formed in 1841. It was created because there was a growing "prevalence of criminals, especially horse thieves, incendiaries and counterfeiters," Griswold's history reports.

In the summer of 1843, newspapers throughout the country announced the completion of "one of the great commercial and engineering feats of the age."

The Wabash and Erie Canal was opened from Toledo, Ohio, to Lafayette, with Fort Wayne the central port. Fort Wayne was called the Summit City because it was the highest point on the canal route.

The canal improved the city's connection with the outside world. It was improved further in 1848 with the completion of a telegraph line between Fort Wayne and Toledo.

In 1849, the cholera epidemic that hit the East moved into Fort Wayne. Some 600 people died of the disease before the end of 1854.

Fort Wayne was well on its way to becoming a major manufacturing center. And its prosperity survived the decline of the canal.

By 1874, the canal was practically abandoned. Trains were the new thing. In 1881, the canal right-of-way was sold to the railroad, and the last boat was seen on the waterway a year later.

But with or without the canal, the city of Fort Wayne was on its way.

A former resident, viewing the city in 1868 after being away for three decades, said Fort Wayne was "destined to become one of the most extensive and important manufacturing cities of the country."

Capitalization - The total invested in a business.
Cholera - Intestinal disease.
Cooper shop - A place where barrels are made and repaired.
Counterfeit - An imitation of something real. Counterfeit money isn't real. Making it and using it is against the law.
Gristmill - A place where grain is ground.
Headwaters - The beginning of a large stream of water; the place where a river begins.
Incendiary - Having to do with the willful destruction of property by fire.
Ordinance - A governmental law or regulation.
Pirogue - A canoe-shaped boat.
Platted land - Land that has been divided into building lots.
Right of way - The right to pass over a piece of land, or a piece of land acquired for a transportation route, such as a canal or railroad track.
Smallpox - A highly contagious disease caused by a virus.
Tannery - A place where animal hides are made into leather.
Telegraph - A device that converts a coded message of dots and dashes into electric impulses and sends them to a distant receiver. Morse code signals were sent by telegraph.
Thoroughfare - A public street, usually a main road.

--Oct. 19, 1993