Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Researching Folks in Our Five Forts

As a librarian I am sometimes asked how to research people who lived in the various old forts that were located at Fort Wayne.

For decades, beginning in the early 18th century, our county was home to French voyageurs and fur traders, as well as French, British, and later American soldiers, traders, sutlers, and their families. The genealogist and historian researching specific people during these time periods face many challenges. Land records are not generally available until the opening of the federal land office in 1824. However, several volumes offer important glimpses of people and activities surrounding these old forts.

The French, who arrived early in the 18th century, built two forts: Fort St. Philippe des Miamis, located on the St. Mary's River, and Fort St. Joseph, on the St. Joseph River. During the French period, one should consult the reports of Charles de Raymond, who served as commandant to Fort St. Joseph in the 1750s. An interesting book, edited by Joseph L. Peyser, is On the Eve of the Conquest: The Chevalier de Raymond's Critique of New France in 1754 (Michigan State University Press, 1997). Raymond offers an important first-hand account of the fort here, though it is less useful for the names of specific inhabitants.

In 1790, Henry Hay, a young British officer, spent time at the French settlement here and recorded his vivid observations in a journal, later published as "Fort Wayne in 1790" under the editorship of M. M. Quaife in the Indiana Historical Society Collections, volume 7 (1923). The names of many local French and Miami residents are listed.

An early source for the first American fort built in 1794 is Ebenezer Massey's journal, edited by Walter Font and published in 1993 as a special issue of the Old Fort News. It covers the period 1794-1795. For a slightly later period the essential source remains Bert Griswold's Fort Wayne, Gateway of the West, 1802-1813: Garrison Orderly Books, Indian Agency Accout Book. Published in 1927, the volume contains a transcription of commandant orders and courts martial conducted by the garrison, as well as ledgers of supplies stocked at the agency. Occasionally, lists of debtors will appear, and the book is enhanced by a full name index.

Two other important works are Gayle Thornbrough's Letter Book of the Indian Agency at Fort Wayne 1809-1815, and Nellie Robertson and Dorothy Riker's three-volume John Tipton Papers. Both works were published in 1961 by the Indiana Historical Society. Thornbrough provides and transcription of letters written and received by agents John Johnston and Benjamin Stickney. A few local names appear in these records, though much of the information focuses on Indian policy for the years preceding the War of 1812.

The correspondence of Tipton, who succeeded Stickney as agent, dates from 1809 to 1939 and includes the period when the Indian Agency was located in Fort Wayne and after its move to Logansport in 1828. Numerous references to local residents are included and of special note is an 1831 pay roll of the Potawatomi that serves as a census.

Because many of the early traders and residents of Fort Wayne were French Catholics, the parish registers of St. Anne's Church in Detroit (under whose jurisdiction Fort Wayne was located in the late 18th and early 19th centuries), are a useful source for vital records. Christian Denissen's Genealogy of the French Families of the Detroit River Region, 1701-1936 contains many references, though they are not always distinguished by their location. Also useful is Marthe Faribault-Beauregard's La Population des forts francais d'Amerique (XVIIIe siecle), which also contains numerous references to French inhabitants.

Finally, researchers should consult Brian Leigh Dunnigan and Chris Cramton's Biographies of People Who Lived at or near Fort Wayne in 1816. Compiled for use by reenactors at the reconstructed fort, the source remains useful for genealogists and historians, and Dunnigan is well-respected as a historian.

It may take some digging, but it is surprising how much information is available for the pre-census, pre U.S. Land Office era.


  1. Is the exact location of the second French fort known?

  2. Per John Beatty: Archaeologists from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne have discovered artifacts from the vicinity, and so we have a pretty good idea of where it was. It is close to the historical marker on the St. Joseph River marking the spot.