News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 17, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: French and natives occupy Wabash

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — On the eve of the French and Indian War, France asserted fragile ownership of the greatest part of the North American continent from the St. Lawrence River to the valleys of the Mississippi River.

The French claim was based almost entirely upon exploration and discovery, not occupation. Fewer than 100,000 Europeans were permanently settled in that expanse.

The province of Canada in the north and New Orleans of the Louisiana province in the south contained the great bulk of the population.

The colonies settled by Great Britain boasted more than a million people confined to a narrow strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Allegheny mountains.

As early as 1750 some colonists began moving west, threatening France and its fur trade monopoly. To discourage encroachment, France had established a line of forts from the St. Lawrence through the Ohio Valley to the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisbourg, Niagara and Frontenac provided protection to Canada while New Orleans and Mobile gave the French command of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi. The Ohio River valley was its major weakness.

In 1749, Pierre-Joseph Celoron de Blainville headed what became known as “The Lead Plate Expedition” down the Ohio River, to bury inscribed leaden plates affirming France’s claim to ownership of the Illinois Country — the expanse bounded by the Mississippi, Ohio and Wabash rivers — which had been annexed to Louisiana in 1717.

Previously, the area was governed by Quebec.

The unofficial boundary between the Canada and Louisiana provinces during the French regime was “the highlands (terre haute) of the Wabash River.”

The French settlement at Ouiatenon on the Wabash near the Tippecanoe River, established in 1719, was governed from Quebec while Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Fort de Chartres, Prairie du Rocher and St. Phillippe, early settlements on the Mississippi, were administered from New Orleans.

To serve the lower Great Lakes, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded Fort Ponchartrain in 1701 on the Detroit River between Lake Huron and Lake Erie as a fur trading depot.

In 1702, Charles Juchererau de St. Denis built a tannery on the Ohio River near present Cairo, Ill, and convinced 80 lodges of Mascouten to locate there to support him. A smallpox epidemic killed Juchererau and dozens of Mascouten. However, some survived and fled to the Wabash River valley near the present city of Terre Haute.

Lightly-manned forts in the wilderness could not survive without Native American allies. The French understood the indigenous tribes better than other ethnic groups. Gender imbalance also played a significant role. Spanish, Dutch and English women were common in the east but Caucasian females were novelties west of the Alleghenies.

French soldiers sought Indian women as consorts. Priests expressed opposition but French military leaders encouraged marriage between French men and Indian women. Children of those marriages usually became French in culture, attitude and loyalty. An illegitimate child normally stayed with its mother and was a potential enemy.

Though the French developed strong relations with many Native American nations, the Fox was not among them. The Fox made travel to the Mississippi on the Kankakee and Illinois rivers extremely hazardous. Even before the Fox Wars in 1712, the Maumee-Wabash river corridor offered a safer route between Canada and Louisiana.

France enjoyed an excellent relationship with the Miami nation, thanks to diplomatic efforts by Jean Baptiste Bissot de Vincennes, who lived at Miami villages on the St. Joseph and Maumee rivers in what is now northern Indiana. His death on Oct. 28, 1719 caused much concern. The only person who seemed qualified to replace him was his 19-year old son, Francois-Marie Bissot de Vincennes.

Young Vincennes eventually moved to Ouiatenon to nurture a relationship with the Wea branch of the Miami. While there, he attracted the attention of Gov. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, in New Orleans, which was nearly defenseless to  a British invasion from the East.

Bienville coveted a French post on the Wabash near its confluence with the Ohio River with Vincennes in command. Phillippe de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, governor-general of Canada, strongly opposed the move. Surprisingly, Vincennes began receiving half-pay from Louisiana as early as 1722.

On Sept. 30, 1726, the Company of the Indies offered Vincennes a supplemental annual stipend of 300 livres. Charles de Beauharnois, Vaudreuil’s successor, reluctantly relented. However, the Wea opposed relocation, which delayed the migration.

Jesuit priest Etienne D'Outreleau was named a missionary to the Quabache in 1728 in anticipation that a fort would be built on the southern Wabash. But the ship supplied to deliver him sank and there is no evidence that he ever served there.

By October 1730, Vincennes had persuaded some Wea to relocate on the southern Wabash. Thirty months later he described a small fort he had built “eighty lieues up the Wabash, above the rivers by which the English will be able to descend,” named Post d’Ouabache. A common French lieue is 2.76 miles while a post lieue is 2.42 miles.

Post d’Quabache was frequently attacked by Chickasaw and other southern tribes. A French army under Pierre D’Artaguiette, commandant of Fort Chartres, responded. On Palm Sunday 1736, Vincennes and 19 other French soldiers were ambushed, captured and burned at the stake on the banks of the Tennessee River.

Louis Groston St. Ange succeeded Vincennes as commandant of Post d’Ouabache, which was referred to thereafter as Post St. Ange.

Embroiled in other wars, France was unwilling to devote the resources necessary to counter Britain’s resolve during the French and Indian War. Post Ouiatenon was secured for the British by Lt. Edward Jenkins.

Under the Treaty of Paris of Feb. 10, 1763, France ceded to Great Britain all of Canada, the territory east of the Mississippi and all settlements in the Illinois Country.