Along the Heritage Trail


When the British came

By Tom Castaldi
Fort Wayne was once described as that “Glorious Gate” by the Miami War Chief Little Turtle, who noted that here was the place where his people’s words moved in all directions of the compass. Those words did not fall on deaf ears when the French and British came to our Three Rivers region.

To the west was a route known as the “Carrying Place” or “Portage.” It was described as a nine-mile land barrier over the continental divide separating the Maumee and Wabash river systems and the most direct all-water way from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the hostilities of the French and Indian War ceding all of Canada and French holdings in the Ohio Valley to the British. The English did not pay much attention to the new territory, which we know today makes up much of the Midwest. However, it did not take the British long to engage in a war of revolution against the American colonies.

In August 1778, it came as a surprise to the British Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton at Detroit that the Americans had attacked British-held Kaskaskia on the Mississippi, with the French inhabitants offering no resistance. Hamilton sent an officer to Vincennes with instructions to disable its fort’s cannon. Meanwhile, in September Hamilton began preparations to lead a flotilla from Detroit to the fort at Vincennes made up of British Red Coat Regulars, with some French militia, and civilians as well as several Indians from various tribes.

During the autumn of 1778, Hamilton led his troops down the Detroit River to Lake Erie. He then steered up the Maumee River over the site of present-day Fort Wayne heading for the Wabash River, directing his boats downstream to take possession of Post Vincennes.

When the English army came to what is now southwestern Allen County on Oct. 29, they faced a serious obstacle. Hamilton wrote, “We arrived at one of the sources of the Oubache (Wabash) … the waters were so uncommonly low that we should not have been able to have passed but that at the distance of four miles from the landing place the beavers had made a dam which kept up the water.”  There was enough space for only one boat at a time and the way was encumbered with logs and stumps that his men were obliged to remove.

When water levels were low between the rivers, boat passengers broke open the beaver dams to raise the water level that made it possible for boats to pass. Hamilton said it would have been impossible were it not for several beaver dams which created deep slack-water reservoirs. He ordered the boats to be gathered above the dams before breaking them open. By breaching a dam, the impounded water was released with boatmen acting quickly to maneuver their crafts through on the crest of the small floods caused by breaking the dams.

It sounds as if those early travelers were being unusually rough on the industrious beaver community. However, there was a payback. A tradition emerged that, to show their gratitude to the beavers for aiding in the flotation over the summit, neither the Indian people nor the white traders would molest or hunt them.

Hamilton’s expedition reached Vincennes on Dec. 17, 1778, finding Captain Leonard Helm in command of a handful of Americans. No shots were fired and Captain Helm secured favorable terms before surrendering the fort to the overwhelming force. Taking possession of the fort and town, Hamilton sat back waiting for milder weather before moving his army to Kaskaskia, where Col. George Rogers Clark was preparing his rag-tag army. Two months later Clark, who had received authority from the state of Virginia to lead a counter-offensive, moved to take back Vincennes. The surprise action halted the British aggression and a captured Hamilton was sent back to Virginia as a prisoner.

Tom Castaldi

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi, a retired Essex vice president, hosts "On the Heritage Trail," which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m. and 8:35 a.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM, and "Historia Nostra" heard on WLYV-1450 AM.

Posted: Thu, 11/03/2011 - 2:25 pm
Last updated: Wed, 05/23/2012 - 3:13 pm