Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Little Indiana History

AndiF asked if there was anything about her home state of Indiana in my books on the French Colonial history of the Ohio Valley.  Most Ohio Valley history is told from the British/American point of view and so mostly it focuses on Eastern Ohio and the forks of the Ohio River (Pittsburgh).   To the extent that the French and Indians further west are discussed, the focus is on the Southern lllinois towns of Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, Nouvelle Chartres and St. Phillipe which were located along the Mississippi River just above the confluence with the Ohio River.  Of those, only the tiny village of  Prairie du Rocher can still be considered a community. The mighty Mississippi wiped out the rest.  The Mississippi even changed its course, wiping out most of Kaskaskia and stranding the rest (which is still part of Illinois) on the Missouri side of the river.  

But there were some important French trading towns in Indiana.  And they didn’t just spring up naturally, they were chosen to be towns by a joint decision of the Indian Nations and the French who supplied them.  In most histories of the American West the settlers are trying to avoid the Indians.  In the American Midwest of the 1700’s the French were trying to attract Indians.  This is the difference between a people who want to develop farming and ranching communities where control of specific parcels of land is important (the Americans) and a people who want a commercial trading relationship (the French).   Unlike the Southern Illinois communities, the Indiana communities are still around. 

So here’s an excerpt from one of the books in my pile that talks about Indiana.  And for my Michigan readers, there’s a little touch of Michigan too.

In 1701 France’s minister of the marine approved a proposal for yet another large central post in the region.  The new post was to be constructed at a place known as Detroit:  located on the straits between Lakes Huron and Erie, Detroit stood on the threshold separating the settled parts of New France from the vast western territories claimed by the colony. The plan was conceived by Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, a director and prime mover of the newly reorganized company that enjoyed Canada’s fur trade monopoly. Cadillac was ignorant of the ecological and political constraints that made large, multiethnic settlement sites problematic, but he hoped that good terms of trade could attract a very large Indian population around Detroit to become home to the Ottawas, Hurons, Potawatomis, Mascoutens, and Kickapoos. All of them might live in contiguous villages, he thought, and conduct all of their trade at Detroit …

… Within a few years of its founding Detroit had drawn nearly 6000 Indians to the area and Cadillac, in his enthusiasm, referred to his new settlement as the “Paris of America".” But the Miamis [Indians] were reluctant transplants and they did not stay long … Once they had taken up residence, it was not long until the Miami band was embroiled in a series of conflicts with the Ottawas there.  They finally abandoned the post altogether in 1712 and requested that individual trading posts be established at their village sites on the Maumee and Wabash Rivers. 

Canadian officials were reluctant to build additional, decentralized outposts for the Miami tribes – Detroit was conceived partly in an effort to consolidate French activity in the west – but they recognized the very real possibility that the Miamis might otherwise opt for even stronger ties with the English colonies.  They chose to comply with the request, and around the end of the second decade of the 18th Century two new posts were built:  Fort Miamis, near the Miami towns on the Maumee River [present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana]: and Fort Ouiatanon, near the town of Ouiatanon on the upper Wabash [present day West Lafayette, Indiana].  A little more than a decade later, in 1731, a third French post, called Vincennes, was established farther down the Wabash alongside the Piankashaw town of Chippekoke. These posts did not make the Miami tribes absolutely loyal to the French alliance – they continued to maintain connections with British traders, often through Iroquois intermediaries, throughout the colonial period – but they did help to confirm and solidify the new spatial arrangement of Miami territories, while they strengthened the force of the alliance between the Miamis and New France.

excerpt from “Elusive Empires:  Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673-1800” by Eric Hinderaker, pp. 49-50.

One of my ancestors was one of the first French women to move from the St. Lawrence River Valley to the new post at Detroit.  Her second husband was the surgeon at the post.   Many of her sons became voyageurs.  One of them eventually married a French girl in Detroit and that family ended up in Vincennes. Their daughter and her husband, a French soldier who came over for the French and Indian War, eventually moved to the newly founded town of St. Louis after France ceded all of the land east of the Mississippi River to Britain at the end of war.  A brother of one of my ancestors was the chief French trader at the Ouiatenon post for a time.  A cousin of one of my ancestors was the French military commander at Ouiatenon for a time.