News From Terre Haute, Indiana

History

April 12, 2014

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: The exploits of Hyacinth Lasselle, Terre Haute founder

TERRE HAUTE — Hyacinth Lasselle earned a significant niche in Vigo County history books as one of the five proprietors of the land company which platted the village of Terre Haute in 1816.

Had he not been aligned with Cuthbert and Thomas Bullitt, Abraham Markle and Jonathan Lindley to organize the Terre Haute Company, Lasselle’s local importance might have been compromised.

However, even before he played a role in establishing this community, he was a prominent area fur trader, temporary commandant at Fort Harrison and a catalyst who caused premier abolitionist attorney Amory Kinney to relocate here.

Hyacinth began life on Feb. 25, 1777, believed to be “the first white child” born in the Native American village of Kekionga on the Maumee River near the present city of Fort Wayne. James Lasselle, his father, was an agent for Native American tribes residing in the area.

As a three-year old, Hyacinth was nearly killed during a military assault on Kekionga during which his sister drowned. He was taken to Montreal for his safety and education. In 1794, at age 17, he returned to Kekionga to work as a clerk for his older brothers, James and Francis of Detroit, in the fur trade business. Miami tribes in the area embraced the young man. Though barely 5-feet-6, Hyacinth was muscular and fast. When a Winnebago village challenged the Fort Wayne Miamis to an athletic context, “Ke-ki-ah,” or “Little Miami,” as Hyacinth was called, vanquished all rivals in the sprints.

The arrow of an exasperated Winnebago pierced Lasselle’s thigh as he crossed finish line for first place in the final race, nearly triggering a major incident.

Hyacinth’s fur trading exploits were complex. Fortunately, he wrote about them in the Logansport Telegraph in 1837. After working two years for his brothers, Lasselle “purchased goods … on my own account and removed to the Wabash where I put up an establishment at the mouth of the Little Vermillion.

“I stayed there during the winter and traded with the Pottawattamies (sic), Kickapoos & Miamis. The next spring I removed about 30 miles up the Wabash and put up a trading establishment at the place now known as the residence of Mr. Zachariah Cicott. At this place I remained 4 years, trading with the Pottawattamies, Miamis & Kickapoo.” The post was named “La Chappelle.”

He also established other trading posts. Francis Melhicure manned La Chappelle and he placed Joseph Barron, a relative and an interpreter, in charge of another post on the Kankakee River. Barron stayed one year and Francis LaRiviere succeeded him there for three more.

“During the same period,” Lasselle continued, “I put up a trading post at old Terre Haute, three miles from the present town of Terre Haute, under the charge of Charles LaPalme. … who remained there nine years . …

“In 1801 I removed to Mississineway (sic), the place where Chief Godfroy now resides. At this place I also remained four years, trading with the Miamis. When I left my trading house at Cicott’s, I left F. Lafantisie in charge of it, where he remained seven years, part of the time as … my partner.

“I put another trading house that season on Sugar Creek at the place known as Longlois’ Village. I employed Father Boulanger to take charge of it. He remained at this place seven years, trading with the Miamis. Mr. Longlois, favorably known by the citizens, traded there at the same time.”

On Feb. 5, 1805, Hyacinth wed Julie Bosseron, daughter of Francois Bosseron for whom Busseron Creek is named, and moved to Vincennes. He employed traders, including Michel Brouillette, to ply the Wabash on his behalf. In Vincennes, he bought William Prince’s Tavern, renaming it Lasselle’s Tavern. It became the center of social activities and the best known inn in the Indiana Territory. Lasselle installed a large bell in the tavern’s elegant cupola to announce dinner, prompting some to call it “The Bell Tavern.” Traveling circuses camped in its stable yard and Indiana Territorial Gov. Thomas Posey resided there.

As tensions with Native Americans accelerated in 1811, Hyacinth joined the Indiana militia as a lieutenant. Eventually he was elevated major general in the Mounted Riflemen. During the War of 1812, he was stationed at Fort Harrison, serving as commandant from time to time. His extensive experience at Fort Harrison and in the Wabash “highlands” made him a valuable component of the Terre Haute Company.

In 1819, he became involved in a significant legal battle. Hyacinth claimed 24-year-old Polly Strong as his slave because the Lasselle family had acquired Polly’s mother before the Northwest Ordinance of July 13, 1787, abolished slavery. To hold otherwise, Lasselle asserted, would nullify an existing legal relationship and confiscate his property without just compensation. When Polly sought freedom in the Knox County Circuit Court in Vincennes, Lasselle’s argument prevailed. Kinney, on behalf of Polly, appealed. On July 22, 1820, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the ruling in Polly’s favor. Lasselle tried to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court but the nation’s highest tribunal refused to accept it. Slavery was accepted in Vincennes and antagonism against Kinney forced him to relocate, first to Daviess County and then to Vigo County, where he became an outstanding lawyer and judge.

Meanwhile, Julie and Hyacinth raised 10 children and, in 1833, relocated to Logansport. Four of their girls – Caroline, Julia, Louise and Melanie – attended the Female Institute at St. Mary-of-the-Woods.

Attorney Charles B. Lasselle, the oldest son, became prosecuting attorney, mayor of Logansport and served in the Indiana House and Senate. Son Stanislaus was co-publisher of the Logansport Canal Telegraph newspaper, dry goods store owner and captain in the First Indiana Infantry during the Mexican War.

Hyacinth Lasselle Jr., also a lawyer, became co-publisher of the Logansport Telegraph with noted Indiana historian John B. Dillon. Jacques Magliore Lasselle, another son, became judge of the Cass County Probate Court.

Julie Lasselle died in Logansport during October 1842. Hyacinth passed away there, at age 65, on Jan. 23, 1843. The massive Lasselle Family Collection at the Indiana State Library, much of it collected by Charles B. Lasselle, consists of 24 manuscript boxes and 97 volumes of materials covering Hyacinth’s family and related families dating from 1713 to 1904. A more modest collection of about 800 translated French documents is maintained in the Lasselle Collection at the Indiana Historical Society.

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    March 12, 2010

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