Indiana at 200 (5): Land of Three Rivers
by Andrea Neal
It’s no coincidence that Indiana’s second largest city occupies land that once served as a capital of the Miami Indian nation. Native Americans chose Fort Wayne for its strategic location. The confluence of three rivers — St. Joseph, St. Marys and Maumee — would prove equally appealing to French fur traders, English military men and American pioneers.
“This area was important for one main reason,” explains Kathleen O’Connell, a volunteer for Historic Fort Wayne. “Three rivers converged at a point where there was a short portage of six to nine miles to another series of rivers that would ultimately take you all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Historic Fort Wayne is a not-for-profit group that manages the Old Fort, a replica of the last active fort in the three rivers area. It is located near the original Miami village of Kekionga. James Madison, in his book “The Indiana Way,” describes Kekionga as “the meeting ground of the Miami tribal council” and “one of the most significant strategic locations in the trans-Appalachian West.”
The French arrived at Kekionga in the late 17th century and built a fortified trading post as a way to lay claim to the region. A series of forts followed.
The first was built between 1712 and 1722 adjacent to the St. Marys River near where the portage trail began. It was known by different names: St. Phillipe, Post Miami or Fort Miami. It was primarily a trading post for the fur traders but also a base for French soldiers.
During the 1730s and 1740s, the British sought to gain profits in the fur trade by eliminating French competition. They gained the support of the local Indians, who burned Fort Miami in 1747.
In 1750, the French rebuilt the fort at a new location on the east side of the St. Joseph River. In 1760, at the end of the French and Indian War, this fort was surrendered to the British. Native forces destroyed it in 1763 during Pontiac’s Rebellion, an uprising against the British.
In 1794, after the final battle of the Northwest Indian War, Gen. Anthony Wayne established the first American fort on the site. A new structure was built in 1798, and it proved pivotal during the War of 1812, turning back repeated assaults by heavily armed Indians.
In 1816, Major John Whistler oversaw construction of the last active military fort. His drawings were the basis for the replica that opened in 1976 to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial.
The fort is open to the public for field trips and special occasions such as the upcoming “Fort Miamies Aug. 24-25,” which commemorates the time of French occupation. By interacting with re-enactors dressed in historic garb, visitors may better appreciate Indiana history prior to statehood.
“I think it’s often hard to get people excited about history,” O’Connell said. “When history jumps off the page of a book and comes alive, it makes a huge difference — both in learning and caring about our past, and our commitment to preserve it.”
Directions to Old Fort Wayne: (Address is 1201 Spy Run Ave.) From I-69 take the Jefferson Boulevard exit toward downtown Fort Wayne, merging onto West Jefferson Boulevard. Continue for about 7 miles, and then turn left on Lafayette Street/US 27 North. Parking is available on Fourth Street between Spy Run Avenue and Clinton Street or at Headwaters Park.