News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 12, 2013

Vigo County Historian Mike McCormick takes audience on a cruise down the Wabash

Arthur Foulkes
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Vigo County Historian Mike McCormick piloted a figurative historical excursion down the Wabash River on Monday night at the Vigo County Public Library.

McCormick, who has been studying and writing about local history since the 1970s, told members of the Wabash Valley Genealogy Society about the importance of the river and how river-related historical documents can be useful in genealogical research.

“The Wabash River was used for exploration and discovery,” McCormick told dozens of members of the genealogy society gathered Monday night. “The river was a source of food. A source of commerce.”

McCormick was invited to speak about the Wabash as part of the 2013 Year of the River celebrations in Terre Haute, said Mike Lewman of the genealogy society.

Some of the earliest records from the Wabash River date back to between 1600 and 1750 when Jesuits were in the area attempting to convert American Indians to Christianity, McCormick said. The French were better at dealing with the American Indians than were the British or later Americans, he noted.

McCormick also speculated, based on his research, that French Canadian explorer Francois-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes, after whom Vincennes is named, may have built a fort in the “high lands” of the Wabash around Terre Haute. Vincennes was killed in 1736 after being captured in war with the Chickasaw nation.

At one time, because of the danger of American Indian attacks on the Illinois River, the Wabash River became a main route for French Canadians moving south to New Orleans, McCormick noted. At other early times, maps sometimes showed the Wabash extending all the way to the Mississippi River, basically replacing the Ohio River, he said.

In the early 1800s, David Thomas, an early white settler, wrote extensively about the Wabash, including a description of its abundant fish, McCormick said. Reading from Thomas’ diary, McCormick listed a wide variety of very large fish then in relatively large numbers in the river, including sturgeon, gar, pike, perch, bass, three kinds of catfish, eel, red horse and buffalo.

“I don’t think there were any Asian carp then,” McCormick joked in reference to invasive fish now populating the river.

In the 19th century, the Wabash was a source of recreation for residents of Terre Haute. There were boat races, and a traveling circus performed from a floating stage on the river in 1853, McCormick said. Also in 1853, nine different steamboats wrecked in the river, some of which are believed to still be below its surface, he said.

The 2013 Year of the River project was launched by Mary Kramer of Art Spaces Inc., Jon Robeson of Arts Illiana and Steve Letsinger of Rose-Hulman. For more information on other 2013 Year of the River events, see www.2013Yearof

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@