Thursday, August 7, 2014

Richardville House of Celebration

by Tom Castaldi

United States Senator, Battle of Tippecanoe hero and Indian Agent, General John Tipton once described Miami Indian Civil Chief Jean Baptiste Richardville as, “the ablest diplomat of whom I have any knowledge.  If he had been born in France he would have been the equal of Tallyrand.”  However, Richardville was born at Kekionga, site of present-day Fort Wayne, in 1761 to Antoine Joseph Drouet de Richardville, a fur trader who was descended from French nobility.  Richardville’s mother, Tacumwah, was the sister of Miami Civil Chief Pecanne.  

The Chief Richardville House became a National Historic Landmark in 2012.

Descendants of the Chief gathered for the ceremonies for the National Historic Landmark designation.
At an early age Richardville gained the respect of the Miami and Euro Americans for his courage, integrity and business acumen. Raised in the Miami culture of Kekionga, he was educated in the white world learning to read and write under Jesuit instruction in Detroit.  Here he learned something of the ways of politicians and business speculators. Richardville was not groomed for warfare as was the Miami custom, but rather his commerce-headed mother set him among businessmen and traders, while he spent his leisure time travelling the three rivers impressing the young women with his violin and flute.

Richardville’s mother Tacumwah served as a fine model since she managed the business of moving people and cargo across the land barrier portage that separates the Maumee and Wabash river systems offering the most direct route between the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico.  She earned a fortune levying tolls on all the travel across the portage as well as leasing porters, carts and supplies to haul canoes, pirogues, pelts and cargo.  Richardville built upon this enterprise while accumulating a personal fortune and gaining the respect of all he encountered. With this influence, a benevolent Richardville helped the Miami people through their angst as other tribes throughout the region were removed from their ancestral homes to reservations prepared for them west of the Mississippi River.  He led a successful strategy of aiding many Miami to retain their lands.  Instead of offering his people property to be whittled away by constant land sales, individual families were given legal land grants as private property and were encouraged to farm the land and acculturate into American society.

In recognition of his role as principal chief of the Miami people, the U.S. government awarded Richardville $600 to build a house on his traditional home site along the St. Mary’s River. Today the house still stands at 5705 Bluffton Road. To reach the house, follow the drive leading from First Source Bank on the east side of Bluffton Road, slightly north of the stoplight at Old Trail Road.  Back in 1827, Richardville added to the $600 and built the house for $2,200.  Constructed of brick, it was a grand and spacious home with crystal chandeliers in two first-floor parlors. Each parlor and the two upstairs bedrooms featured fireplaces.  It may have had an inside kitchen in the basement, and outside a barn, a corral and pens for livestock. In later years additions were made to the house, but the central core has remained for generations that followed to enjoy.  It was probably the finest place in all of Northern Indiana, and anyone who was invited there for dinner by the Chief was the envy of all.
A portrait of the Chief later in life.

In 1828, the house was the site of Richardville’s daughter Catherine’s marriage to Francis LaFontaine. “The actual wedding ceremony was quiet enough,” one guest remembered, but “following the ceremony the wedding dance began. All the guests fell back to the corners of the room and a bunch of squaws came out into the center of the room to perform a dance…in cadence while an old Indian hammered on a big drum to furnish the dance time.” 
Today the History Center serves as the steward for the Richardville House. Celebrations at the old place continue and Richardville’s benevolent legacy continues.  One event is the annual Buffalo Tro fest that centers around a stack of hard wood that for five or six hours has been burning until nothing remains but white hot embers.   

This year's Buffalo Tro is September 26 at "The House".

Thick Buffalo steaks are tossed directly onto the embers, searing in delicious flavors. It’s very early American cooking at its very best.  The Buffalo Tro name comes from the idea of “throwing” the meat on the fire and has become an annual fund raising event for all to enjoy with revenue dedicated to making possible student visits to the History Center Museum and its facilities that interpret our heritage.  Support of the Buffalo Tro enables students to experience our region’s heritage that in turn creates a sense of place, something in which to take pride and that is what builds community.   

For you, a visit to the old Chief’s house is an opportunity to visit a unique landmark while celebrating our region's rich history.
Miami Indian Heritage Days features a variety of programs on Miami culture. Medicine Woman drum kicked off the summer season this year.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” 
Sept. 2008 No. 46
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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