The Importance of This Location
The small area which is now the city of Fort Wayne has been fought over by Native American, European, and eventually American forces. Two crucial factors explain Fort Wayne’s strategic existence. The first is the joining of three rivers. The St. Joseph and St. Mary’s met at the edge of modern-day, downtown Fort Wayne, forming the Maumee River. Secondly, with a very short portage, travelers could easily carry goods and canoes a short distance of approx. 2-20 miles (depending on how high the rivers were running) from the St. Mary’s to the Little River (formerly known as the Little Wabash River).
This meant a traveler could cross Lake Erie from Canada and transfer onto the Maumee River at modern-day Toledo, OH. Then, one could travel to present-day Fort Wayne, connect to the St. Mary’s, follow it to the portage and connect to the Little River. It flows to the Wabash, on to the Ohio River, and finally to the Mississippi River. Once on the Mississippi, it was an easy journey to the Gulf of Mexico at modern-day New Orleans, LA. The combination of the juncture of the three rivers and portage provided the ability to easily travel and transport good from Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico almost entirely by water.
Early European Settlers
The first Europeans to arrive in this area were the French in the late 1600’s. At this time, the Iroquois, with support from the British and Dutch, had driven out most of woodland tribes who had originally settled the area. Around 1701, the French created peaceful relations with the Iroquois and began enticing French-friendly tribes back into the area. One of those tribes was the Miami, returning from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin to their original homelands at the headwaters of the Wabash and Maumee Rivers. Various treaties in the early 1700’s aided peace with the Iroquois and encouraged the Miami, Potawatomi and others to continue to migrate back into the region. The Miami formed a village at the confluence of the three rivers called Kekionga (also referred to as Kiskakon in some records).
To help facilitate the lucrative fur trade between the French and the Native American tribes in the vicinity, the French built a trading post. Approximately 80,000 – 100,000 beaver pelts were harvested per year and shipped back to Europe, via Detroit to Montreal.
Due to this noticeable financial success, the British sought to gain control of the area. Therefore, in May of 1722, the French completed construction of Fort Miami, protecting their new venture from the British. This was the first of five forts built in present-day Fort Wayne. Located on the St. Mary’s River near present-day, downtown Fort Wayne, it had a garrison of 20-30 men.
The British made every attempt to steal the loyalty of the Miami from the French, enticing them with rum and lower cost trade goods. These actions led to skirmishes between the French and British as well as Native American tribes loyal to the British. Eventually, the British succeeded in creating a rift between the French and the Miami. In 1747, Huron chief Sanosket tricked the Miami into believing the French stronghold of Detroit had fallen and convinced War Chief LaDamoiselle of the Piankeshaw to capture Fort Miami. He took the entire garrison as prisoners and burned the fort to the ground.
France would not be deterred and so by 1750, a second fort was built, also named Fort Miami. This fort was located on the St. Joseph River in modern-day, downtown Fort Wayne and remained French until Canada capitulated in November of 1760 during the French and Indian War. Fort Miami was surrendered to the British who took over the fort and occupied it until 1763, when the fort was taken by the Miami as part of “Pontiac’s Conspiracy”. The commander in charge, Ensign Robert Holmes, was lured out of the fort by his Native American mistress, by saying that a Miami woman was sick and needed help. Once outside, he was killed by Miami tribesmen, lying in wait. The garrison then surrendered to the Miami. There would not be another garrison or military company at present-day Fort Wayne until the arrival of Anthony Wayne.
In 1793, the United States government sent in General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to subdue the local Native Americans and build a lasting US presence. Wayne knew that he would need to establish a protected supply line from Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati, OH) up to the new fort he was assigned to build at Kekionga (present-day Ft. Wayne). He constructed or rebuilt existing forts along the Indiana-Ohio border leading up to Kekionga. The Native Americans and Wayne collided at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in the present-day city of Maumee, OH, a suburb of Toledo. In August of 1794. Wayne defeated the Native American army consisting of various tribes, thus effectively ending the Native American resistance on the Northwest frontier.
After his victory, Wayne returned to the three rivers area and began building a permanent fort which was completed on October 20th, 1794. Wayne’s fort was located at the present-day corner of Clay and Berry Streets and named in honor of Anthony Wayne. This fort would be the first of the three US forts built in present-day downtown Fort Wayne, which grew up around the fort.
In 1798, Colonel Thomas Hunt became commander of Fort Wayne. Due to the poor condition of Wayne’s original fort, Hunt erected a new fort in 1800. It was positioned about 300 feet from the old fort, and sat closer to the rivers. It stood on the site where the Fort Wayne Fire Department Station #1 sits today. During the War of 1812, this fort survived a sustained siege, and was able to hold the frontier from falling to the British.
The third and final American fort was established in the fall of 1815, on the same site of Colonel Hunt’s structure. It was built by Major John Whistler, who had served under Anthony Wayne. He had assisted Wayne with construction of the original Fort Wayne, as well as working on Fort Dearborn located in present-day Chicago, IL.
FUN TRIVIA…Major Whistler’s grandson, James Whistler is best known for the famous painting of his mother, titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, better known as “Whistler’s Mother”.
The Native American resistance had ended with the War of 1812, so a military post was no longer necessary. On April 19, 1819, the last soldiers departed and the fort was decommissioned. It found new use as a church and school for the Miami, and functioned as a social gathering place for city dwellers. Later, fort timbers were re-purposed as beams and foundations for construction of homes built in the surrounding area. The Officer’s Quarters was the final building still standing. It was finally torn down in 1852.
The Reconstructed Fort
This project began in 1964 when Historic Fort Wayne Inc. was established and started planning a reconstruction of the Fort, using Major Whistler’s 1814 drawings. After much fundraising, they purchased property in the late 1960’s and sought a fort builder. Lok-N-Logs Inc., a log home company in Sherburne, New York, took on the unusual project, constructing the Fort first in New York, then transporting it to Indiana, where it was reassembled. It officially opened shortly before July 4, 1976, to celebrate the nation’s Bicentennial, and remained open daily until the early 1990’s. Historic Fort Wayne Inc. disbanded in 1989, and the current Historic Fort Wayne, Inc. was formed in 2004 as a volunteer effort to preserve the Fort. Though they share a name, the two groups are not connected.