News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 1, 2013

River lore: Historians recite our centuries-old connection to the Wabash

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A flood of old river lore washed around a crowd of river lovers Thursday night in a flow of history on everything from canoes to steamers.

The crowd gathered inside Logan’s Rib-Eye for an installment of the “2013 Art and River Chatter Series,” with Vigo County Historian Mike McCormick joining Susan Petosky of the Sullivan County American Indian Council to discuss the Wabash River.

McCormick said that at various points throughout history, the Wabash River was considered a more significant body of water than even the Ohio River.

“It is my hope that this discussion will bring about more such talks about the Wabash River,” he said during his presentation.

The program is part of the third annual Art Chatter series hosted by Art Spaces Inc. through a partnership with Our Green Valley Alliance.

Lorrie Heber, president of Our Green Valley Alliance for Sustainability, said the two groups share many common interests.

“Art and ecology are inextricably intertwined,” she said.

Petosky opened her presentation using one of the many ancient Native American languages commonly spoken throughout the Great Lakes area, one she said was used by the Miami Indians. Of Iroquois lineage herself, she explained that her group formed five years ago as part of an effort to protect mounds in Sullivan County. Since that time the group has grown and has interest in preserving such landmarks from northern Terre Haute to Vincennes, she said.

“The native people and indigenous people before this were wanderers,” she said, explaining the numerous groups referred to as “mound builders” lived in this area between 500 B.C. and 1500 A.D. Woodland tribes, she said, built villages near rivers for a multitude of reasons, some practical and others religious. “One of our most important ceremonies is the water ceremony.”

The group has partnered with the archaeology department of Indiana University-Bloomington to investigate the local mounds. Recent digs in Sullivan County have produced 420 artifacts, about 10 of which were classified as “pre-historic,” meaning they pre-date 500 B.C., she said.

Artifacts found are in the possession of the IU museum departments, she said, but care must be taken with regard to potential graves. The Native American Graves Protection Act dictates with great specificity the care to be taken if bones are found, she said.

“That’s federal law,” she pointed out, while a member of the audience remarked 500 years from now, modern cemeteries could be studied in such a manner.

According to McCormick, archaeologists estimate humans have populated the Wabash River’s valley back about 10,000 years. A myriad of tribes and ethnic groups have come and gone since then, he said, explaining the river served purposes ranging from transportation to agricultural.

And along the way, much surrounding the river has changed considerably. Historical evidence suggests that Spaniards first battled native tribes as early as 1541 near the Wabash River, and up through the War of 1812, the river played a significant role in military operations, he said.

But it probably appeared much differently than today, he noted, pointing out that in 1828, a 200-acre island existed in the middle of what is now Hulman Street, and what is now Thompson Ditch was once a creek. Efforts to dredge and clean the river date back to the 1820s, and as many as nine steamboats have sunk in its waters, he said.



Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.