Coveted portage anchored early Fort Wayne
By MICHAEL HAWFIELD
from the archives of The News-Sentinel
Portage Boulevard is a small street running between the southern side of Rockhill Park and Taylor Street on Fort Wayne's west side. Apart from one historical marker in Rockhill Park, it is all that remains physically to remind us of one of the principal reasons there is a community here.
The portage, a place where early travelers carried their canoes from one river to another, connected the St. Marys River - and thus the St. Joseph and Maumee Rivers - to the Little River, then the Wabash River, and finally the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
It is one of the shortest such routes between rivers in the heart of the continent. Fort Wayne was the only place in the most direct passage from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico that a trader bearing his wares two centuries ago had to leave the water and haul his cargo overland.
This was a great advantage to the traders. The wealth and prestige of the Miami Indians who lived at the eastern end of the portage also were greatly enhanced by their control of the portage. It is also among the chief reasons that Anthony Wayne chose to build a fort here.
There were other portages between the great bodies of water that helped to open the center of the continent. The Fox-Wisconsin River portage and the "carrying place" between the Chicago and Illinois Rivers are among the best known. The first used in Indiana (1679), and the shortest overland route anywhere, was the 4 -mile track at today's South Bend, between the "Big St. Joseph" and the Kankakee Rivers.
Although this portage was vital to the creation of Fort Wayne, it is a route almost impossible to trace today. The best guess is that its eastern end was at the great western bend in the St. Marys River near Swinney Park, or, in the wet season, near the present-day intersection of Portage Boulevard and Taylor Street. The western end was in Aboite Township near the crossing of Hamilton Road and U.S. 24, at the headwaters of the Little River and near Aboite Creek. Usually the route was about 9 miles long. In times of drought or when beavers dammed the streams, however, one source notes that a canoe might have to be carried 40 miles to the area of modern Huntington. But in times of great flood, a canoe might be paddled the entire distance from the St. Marys to the Little River without any carrying.
The actual track of the portage, however, is lost. The great 1880s drainage project that emptied the 18,000-acre swamp in Aboite Township has all but destroyed the frontier appearance of the land. But there probably were several paths following high ground, depending on the season and whether it was wet or dry.
This was an ancient portage. Used by the American Indians for thousands of years, it was a major highway for Indian tribal movement out of the Wabash valley and areas to the south and into northeastern Indiana and beyond. It was first noted by Europeans in 1698, although it may have been known to exist as early as 1632.
Because of the intense hostility of the Iroquois nation who regularly raided the area and expelled the friendly tribes, the Maumee-Wabash portage was the last of the great Midwestern portages to be exploited.
After the Iroquois were chased out in the 1690s, the Miamis were persuaded to return to the Three Rivers and rebuild their village of Kekionga. They also resumed control of the portage. Friendly to the French, the Miami allowed the "voyageurs" and ragamuffin fur traders to travel to the interior, for a price. Even as late as the 1870s, the portage area was commonly called the "Marais de Peage," or Toll Road Swamp.
One of the oldest documents concerning the Fort Wayne area is the trade agreement between the Miamis and brothers Pierre and Francois Roye, signed in May 1719. By this agreement, the two Frenchmen were given trading privileges at the Indian village of Lalabiche on the St. Marys River, near the area of today's Van Buren Street bridge at Guildin Park.
In 1721, not far from this site, the first fort, known as Fort Miami, was built. To this place were brought the staples of trade, such as capotes (wool- blanket coats), yard goods, steel knives, guns and black powder, and vermilion by the pound. In exchange, the precious hides of fur-bearing animals, especially beaver, were taken out, carried down the Maumee River to Lake Erie and eventually to Quebec or other eastern markets.
The portage made the Miamis wealthy, and they came to enjoy power and prestige in the region. Control of the crucial crossroads was the object of British occupation of the Three Rivers area during the French and Indian War that ended in 1763. Control of the portage was also a goal of the western commanders of both the American and the British armies during the Revolutionary War.
In the Indian wars that followed the Revolution in the 1790s, the disastrous campaigns of the American generals Harmar and St. Clair were aimed at the portage area. Anthony Wayne's successful campaign against the Indians also was ultimately aimed at the conquest of Miamitown and control of the portage.
By the time Chief Little Turtle, defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, came to the treaty grounds at Greenville, Ohio, the next year, a fort had already been built by the Americans on the high ground overlooking the confluence of the three rivers and the eastern end of the portage (the first Fort Wayne).
Little Turtle pleaded for two main concessions from the Americans: Miami possession of the confluence of the three rivers, and joint ownership of the portage itself. "It was always ours," he told General Wayne. "This carrying place has heretofore proved, in a great degree, the subsistence of your younger brothers (predecessors). Let us both own this place, and enjoy the common advantage it affords."
Wayne denied the chief's pleas, noting that by military right the United States must control the ground around its fort "as far as their cannon can command," and that such a profitable place was a public domain and should not be the preserve of one party. Little Turtle finally had to agree to Wayne's terms and signed the treaty.
Although the Miami nation's domination ended, control of many of the profits of the "Swamp Toll Road" remained in the hands of Little Turtle's sister, Tacumwa. For years before the War of 1812, when her son took over her interests, Tacumwa had built a prosperous trade along the portage.
The importance of the portage began to decline sharply with the coming of the Wabash and Erie Canal in the 1830s. By the Civil War, it was little more than a track through the eastern marshes of the county. With the great drainage project of the 1880s it virtually disappeared, leaving behind the community to which it gave birth.
--Oct. 19. 2, 1993