News From Terre Haute, Indiana


January 4, 2014

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Native American settlers in the Wabash River Valley

TERRE HAUTE — Before French fur traders began to invade the Wabash River Valley late in the 17th Century, tradition holds that the Quapaw nation occupied parts of the Ohio River Valley.

When Europeans first encroached on their homeland, the Quapaws moved south and then west of the Mississippi River.

While Spain was settling North America in the South and England was populating the eastern seaboard, France gained access to the interior through the Great Lakes.

Voyages by Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673 and 1674 reached the Mississippi. By 1679, expeditions headed by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and Henri de Tonty penetrated the Illinois Country – the expanse bounded by the Mississippi, Ohio and Wabash rivers – by way of the St. Joseph, Kankakee and Illinois rivers.

The French built forts at strategic locations but were confronted with frequent raids of the Illinois Country by the mighty Iroquois of upstate New York, armed with weapons furnished by the British.

To defend Native American villages in the Illinois Country from attack, La Salle recruited a confederation of Great Lakes Indians, designed to help repel the Iroquois.

The end of the 60-year Iroquois Wars in 1701 enabled additional Great Lakes Algonquin tribes to locate in more moderate climates. This included the Miami, Mascouten, Kickapoo, Wea, Piankeshaw, Potawatomi, Fox, Sauk and Winnebago, some of which had been associated with La Salle.

Meanwhile, in 1699, King Louis XIV established a royal colony, predictably named “Louisiana,” at Biloxi Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.

Tragedy first brought the Mascoutens, an Algonquin tribe known as “The Nation of Fire,” to the Wabash Valley. At the time of first European contact, the Mascouten was known to have inhabited Wisconsin, Michigan, northern Indiana and northern Illinois.

In November of 1702, Mascoutens occupied 80 lodges on the Ohio River near present-day Cairo, Ill., to assist Frenchman Charles Juchereau de Saint-Denis establish a tannery. Months later small pox ravaged the settlement, and many Mascoutens perished. The remainder deserted the area. Juchereau died in 1704, and the tannery was closed.

Mascoutens residing in the Great Lakes supported a siege by the Fox of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, a fur trading depot founded by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701. Serious losses were inflicted. The Mascoutens sought amnesty from commanders at Fort Miamis at present-day Fort Wayne and maintained autonomy, with a French prejudice, until after the French & Indian War.

Much of the Illinois Country became a part of the Louisiana province of New France on Sept. 27, 1718, and the northern boundary of the province was “des terre haute” (the highlands) of the Wabash. This boundary became significant in many ways.

Jean Baptiste Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes flourished as New France’s representative to the Miami nation. Beloved by those he served, he lived in Miami villages on the St. Joseph and Maumee rivers. There was great apprehension when he died on Oct. 28, 1719.

The only suitable replacement was 19-year old François-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes, who possessed his father’s special aptitude, particularly with the Wea branch of the Miami. Young Vincennes located at Fort Ouiatanon on the Wabash near present day Lafayette, which became operational in 1721.

Vincennes’ decision to locate on the Wabash encouraged the Louisiana province, virtually defenseless to a British invasion from the East, to seek his services. Beginning in 1722, Louisiana began paying Vincennes half of his salary. That was eight years before there was a new fort on the southern Wabash River.

If you have been reading this column since it made its debut in January 1995, you know that I feel there is strong evidence to support the existence of the southern Wabash fort at Terre Haute from about 1730 to about 1747.

A diary entry by American soldier John Wade during a survey of the Wabash River for Gen. Anthony Wayne in 1795 is supportive:

“The Situations which strike the eye most forcibly are first the Terrote calculated to be half way from Fort Vincennes and Quiattanon — Here are the remains of an old French fort, which has been destroyed many years past.”

Some sources assert that a main group of Mascouten survivors located with the Kickapoo south of Fort Ouiatanon in what became known as the “Prairie of the Mascouten.” The Vigo County Public Library maintains an antique 18th Century French map that fixes the “Ancient Village des Musquitons” and a “Fort des Musquitons” at separate locations within present day Vigo County.

In the “Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History,” by Helen Hornbeck Tanner and cartographer Miklos Pinther, the Mascouten-Kickapoo village at the present site of Terre Haute was headed by Mainomba from 1744 to 1752.

In 1746, French traders identified Le Brave and Le Temps Clair as Mascouten chiefs at Terre Haute. The next year, LaNoix and Mirraquoist were other Mascouten chiefs on the Wabash. Intertribal marriages begot an aristocracy among the tribes of the Wabash and Vermillion rivers. The goal was to survive.

Le Loup, a renowned chief, is a good illustration. During the 1740s, Le Loup professed to be a Kickapoo, though his mother was a prominent Mascouten. In the 1750s, he was referred to as a Piankeshaw chief.

When British-inspired Miami La Demoiselle mounted a revolt against French posts in present day Ohio, Mainomba, Le Maringouin and Le Gros Bled, Kickapoo-Mascouten chiefs in the Wabash Valley, strived to preserve French allegiance while other tribes – Miamis, Weas and Shawnees – shifted their bonds.

Though Weauteno, the Native American village at Terre Haute where Christmas Dagenet was born Dec. 25, 1799, was primarily a Wea settlement, most Indian villages existing at that time were named by location or chief name rather than ethnicity.

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