Thursday, March 6, 2014

In Celebration of Women's History Month: Tacumwah and the Old Apple Tree

by Tom Castaldi

Kekionga in today’s Lakeside neighborhood where the Three Rivers meet was once the site of an American Indian settlement established long before Europeans wandered through the area.  Kekionga was actually a collection of villages that now make up present-day Lakeside neighborhood and was a center of the Miami nation in historic times.  Miami people were first discovered in 1654 living in the Green Bay, Wisconsin area by the Europeans exploring North America, far from their native lands of the lower Great Lakes.  The Miami and many other tribes of the region had been pushed out of their homelands by their enemies from the east. These were the Iroquois who had been heavily armed by the Dutch and English and were encouraged to attack the western Indians likely to be friendly with their French rivals.

You can learn more about the Miami at the Chief Richardville House, a national historic landmark. Check our website for information on programs coming up May-November at "the house".

It was a natural place for people to come together.  To the west is the short land bridge, or portage, between the Three Rivers system that eventually flows to the Atlantic.  In the opposite direction the Wabash system flows into the Ohio, the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico as well as to points west that were explored by Lewis and Clark.  Serving as the portage, also known as the carrying place, travelers could transport their cargos from one river passage to the next.

Stories about activities at Kekionga have been preserved such as the especially interesting one about a remarkable woman.  Her Miami name Tacumwah, meaning “the water-bird”, was sometimes substituted with her baptismal name which was Marie Louise.    Tacumwah was perhaps the most important woman among the Miami people, during the time of the wars between the American Indians and the United States.  The conflict fought was for control of the Three Rivers region during the years 1778 to 1813.  One source refers to Tacumwah as a “Chiefess.”  By her lineage were descended the future chiefs of the Miami nation.  Her husband was Antoine Joseph Drouet de Richardville, a French officer and fur trader from the Troi Riveres settlement in Canada.

A very successful businesswoman, Tacumwah owned a trading post west of Kekionga near the beginning of the portage where she conducted a lucrative business providing porters, carts, packhorses, and supplies to those crossing between the Saint Mary’s and the Wabash rivers.  She passed her prestige, wealth and business on to her son, Pechewa – the man we have come to know as Jean Baptiste de Richardville – chief of the Miami from 1813 until his death in 1841.

Tacumwah gave birth to Pechewa near an old apple tree somewhere west of the Saint Joseph River, in the village of Kekionga.  This tree, with its trunk alleged to have measured twelve feet in circumference, became a lively part of local tradition.  It was an early example in the area of a European tree foreign to North America and it played an interesting role during the siege of 1812.

According to a story recounted in the mid-nineteenth century, an Indian warrior climbed the ancient apple tree every day for several days to harass the soldiers in the fort, but, finally, a marksman in the garrison felled the taunting brave with an amazing musket shot measuring many hundreds of yards.  So popular were the local legends about the tree that George Winter, an important itinerant painter of the 1830s and 1840s, was enticed to made a sketch of it that survives to this day.  Author and historian Wallace Brice saw fit to include a drawing of the old apple tree, as one of a very few illustrations, in his 1868 History of Fort Wayne book.  It’s a pretty good drawing too and worth a visit to the library to check it out.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Magazine “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” 
 March 2008 No. 41

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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