Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Ewings and the Indian Trade on the Midwestern Frontier

by Tom Castaldi 

  Once the Indian Wars were over and the U.S. Army had moved on from Fort Wayne, the American traders come into the Indian territories to carry out a lively and profitable business with the native populations. They also sought to create their fortunes in the lucrative business of land speculation as former Indian lands became available for sale. In Fort Wayne, especially, where an Indian Agency had been one of the most active in the Midwest after the turn of the nineteenth century, government business with the area tribes also created opportunities for gain.

The Ewing family was among the first to settle in primitive Fort Wayne to take advantage of the Indian trade and the demise of Indian culture. Alexander Ewing, the patriarch of the clan, had emigrated with his family from Ireland to Pennsylvania long before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Born in 1763, Alexander joined the Continental Army in 1779 at age sixteen and was in Washington’s command until the British surrender at Yorktown in 1783.

 After the war, he joined a trading company and built the first settler’s cabin on the site of what became Buffalo, New York. In 1802, Ewing, then married to Charlotte Griffith, settled in the trading community at the River Raisin near Detroit where twelve years later, in 1814, John Allen, the namesake of Allen County, Indiana, was killed.

Alexander first visited Fort Wayne in 1812 when he was in the command of General William Henry Harrison that broke the Indian siege of the fort.  Having settled for a time in Troy, Ohio, Alexander and Charlotte Ewing came to Fort Wayne to raise their family of four sons and three daughters in 1822. Described as proud and commanding, he was six feet tall, had auburn hair and blue eyes. Most importantly, however, he passed on to his children an extraordinary talent for business.

Well aware of the value of being a town founder, Alexander knew that position often went hand-in-hand with being a tavern owner. As such, Ewing built Fort Wayne’s first tavern, known as Washington House, at the corner of Barr and Columbia streets. It was here that Allen County was organized. The first acts of the newly elected county commissioners were carried out in this house, and it was here that Ewing himself was elected to the Board of Justices of the Peace and was appointed to serve on the first grand jury. 

Alexander's oldest son, Charles, was the first lawyer to come to Allen County and he was named the first county prosecutor. He also helped to establish the town’s first newspaper, the Sentinel, and by 1837 was chosen to be president of the circuit court.

It was land, however, that was at the root of the family fortune.  Alexander bought many of the first lots put up for sale in Fort Wayne by the U.S. Land Office in 1823. His most important purchase was the eighty acres of swamp and thicket west of the original town plot. Known then as Ewington, or Ewing’s Addition, this area was bounded by Fulton and Webster streets, north of Lewis Street, with Berry and Wayne streets cutting through the middle.  Ewing Park marks the southernmost part of this first westward expansion of Fort Wayne.

When Alexander died in 1826, his sons decided to sell most of the land of Ewington to gain capital for their fur-trading ventures and their other land speculations.  In these endeavors the two younger brothers, George Washington and William G. Ewing, had few equals. They formed the W.G & G.W. Ewing Company, which dealt in furs and the tools, blankets, cloths that were a part of the Indian trading business. So powerful did the company become in the region east of the Mississippi, that it was the equal of John Jacob Astor’s great American Fur Company.

Successful at every turn, the brothers were aggressive businessmen. Hugh McCulloch, their contemporary once said that he had “rarely met their equals in business capacity or general intelligence,” but, he continued, “very few have I known who had less real enjoyment of life.  Enterprising, laborious, adventurous men they were, but so devoted to business, so persistent in the pursuit of gain, that they have had no time to enjoy the fruits of their labors.”

So powerful had the Ewings become in the fur trade, which in the 1830s was largely stirred by the great popularity of raccoon pelts in the fashion world, that they engaged in a veritable trade war with the powerful American Fur Company. In 1838, the Ewing brothers, in fact, vowed to carry on the conflict as a “war of extermination” of their competitors. The stakes were high. Even as late as 1840 just a few months’ catch of furs in the Ewings’ Fort Wayne store alone was worth $40,000, a princely sum at that time. By 1843 the war persisted and in the end the Astor company lost the struggle in the Midwest.

As fur-trading declined, the Ewings turned to land and to the unpleasant business of Indian removal.  Their land speculations in Chicago and in Saint Louis earned them millions. In the 1840s the U.S. government put into effect a policy of “removing” the Indians from the five states of the Old Northwest Territory – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin – to lands in the underdeveloped west, to Kansas and Oklahoma.  Because the government had no agency to carry out this removal on its own, it contracted with private interests to do the work.  A rate of $55.00 was paid per Indian delivered to western reservations.  All expenses for travel, food, clothing, and care had to be paid out of this allowance.  Contractor profits came from the savings on these costs.  The Ewings played a large role, especially in the deportation of the Potawatomi in what came to be called the “Trail of Death.”

Nevertheless, the Ewings did much to make possible the successful growth of Fort Wayne.  In the years after the closing of the fort in 1819, the sole attraction at the Three Rivers was the government annuity payments to the Indians of the region.  There was little agriculture and no industry.  Fur traders like Samuel Hanna, Francis Comparet, and the Ewing brothers made it possible for the community to survive through the difficult years of the 1820s, 30s and 40s to become a city. 

Originally published in Fort Wayne Magazine “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” 
Sept 2006 No. 26

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on WLYV-1450 AM and WRRO 89.9 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history

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