PATH TO THE PAST
Why is the Maumee-Wabash portage important to Fort Wayne?
The portage is one of the principal reasons that Fort Wayne got its start. The relatively short 6-mile overland trail connected the Lake Erie-St. Lawrence River-Atlantic Ocean passage with the Wabash-Ohio rivers route to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
What that means is Fort Wayne was the only place between Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico where a traveler would have to pull a canoe from the water and haul it over dry land.
The British and French both wanted control of this crucial crossroads during the French and Indian War that ended in 1763, as did the American and British commanders during the Revolutionary War. The portage is why Gen. Anthony Wayne chose to build a fort here, so he could control the routes of travel.
Miami Indian war chief Little Turtle understood its importance, and he described it as the "Glorious Gateway to the West" in 1795 during treaty negotiations with Gen. Wayne that marked the end of Native American control of this area.
How important was the river portage before the Fort Wayne community existed?
The wealth and prestige of the Miami Indians who lived at the eastern end of the portage were greatly enhanced by their control of the land route. Used by Native Americans for thousands of years, it was a major highway for 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.
The Miamis allowed European voyageurs and fur traders to travel to the interior of the country over the land portage but only if they paid a toll.
What was it like using the portage 200 or 300 years ago?
Usually the route of the Maumee-Wabash portage was 6 to 9 miles long. In times of drought or when beavers dammed the streams one source notes that a canoe might have to be carried 40 miles from Fort Wayne 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 Wabash River in far western Allen County without leaving the water. There probably were several paths following high ground, depending on the season and whether it was wet or dry.
How long did the portage make a difference here?
For years before the War of 1812, Little Turtle's sister, Tacumwa, built a prosperous trade along what was called the Swamp Toll Road. When her son, Jean Baptiste Richardville, took over control of the portage after the war, he became the richest Native American in the young United States.
But the importance of the Maumee-Wabash portage declined sharply with the coming of the Wabash-Erie Canal in the 1830s. The canal with its system of reservoirs and locks to manipulate water levels made any portage unnecessary.
By the time of the Civil War, the Maumee-Wabash river portage was little more than a track through the eastern marshes of the county. In the 1880s, a drainage project emptied an 18,000-acre swamp in Aboite Township and all but destroyed the frontier appearance of the land.
Source: News-Sentinel archives