Thursday, October 9, 2014

First Fort of the Fort

by Tom Castaldi

Fort Wayne’s first fort was built as a dream of the French, and especially the renowned 17th century explorer Robert Sieur de La Salle, to create a wilderness empire that arced through the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River valley from Quebec to New Orleans. This empire would be firmly anchored on military and trading strongholds and Indian alliances. Because the Maumee-Wabash portage was the most direct link between New France in the upper Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, the Three Rivers region was particularly important. An outpost at the confluence of the rivers would become a key stronghold in a string of forts cutting through the heart of the wilderness from the area of Detroit to St. Louis. In what is now called Indiana, other key French strongholds were located in present day Lafayette and Vincennes.

The French lived among the Miami at the Three Rivers as early as 1697 when Jean Baptiste Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes (who died in 1719), and Francois Marie Bissot de Vincennes, the son of Jean Baptiste (who died in 1736), served as royal agents to the Miamis. The elder Vincennes may have built a trading post at the Three Rivers as early as 1706, but the first fort was built in 1722 on this site by Captain Dubuisson upon the orders of the French governor in Quebec. The fortification was called Fort St. Philippe or Fort Miamis, was garrisoned by as many as thirty men, and commanded the portage between the St. Mary's and Wabash rivers.

In the 1740s, tensions between France and England increased greatly over competing trading rights in the Midwestern frontier. In response to English expansion into the wilderness north of the Ohio River, the French sent several military expeditions to push out the English. Although some English traders were expelled, superior trade goods and other promises offered by the British merchant adventures lured the region's Indian peoples to new English trading centers. In 1747, the Wyandot chief Sanosket, known also as Old Britain or La Damoiselle, encouraged by the British, attacked and burned Fort St. Philippe, partially destroying it. He and his people, along with many of the area Miamis, moved to the new British trading post at Picawillany, near modern Piqua, Ohio. Chief Cold Foot, a firm supporter of the French, remained at the Three Rivers, and the area around the first French fort came to be known as "Cold Foot's Village." A smallpox epidemic struck in 1751 and killed many of the Miamis, including Cold Foot and his son.

A new French commandant, Captain Charles DeRaimond, repaired the fort in 1747 and used it for three years. When a senior French officer, Pierre Joseph Celoron, Sieur de Bienville, led his strong expedition through the region in 1749 to counter British influence, he stopped at the dilapidated old Fort St. Philippe. Accompanying him was the priest and scientist, Reverend Pierre Joseph de Bonnecamps, who described the place at the time as being "in very bad condition" with "eight miserable huts, which only the desire of making money could render endurable." There were 22 French present and everyone "had the fever," including the commandant. The palisades were in ruins. A new fort was built the next year two and a half miles by way of the Saint Mary’s and on up the St. Joseph River.

A century and a half later on May 20, 1911, the same ground that served a fortress was dedicated as Fort Wayne’s first public playground and designed as a safe place for children to enjoy its swings, see-says, wading pools and sand boxes. You can still visit the place where the first French fort stood on the south side of the Saint Mary’s River in the vicinity of a pleasant grassy open space near Van Buren Street Bridge. What began as a stronghold to secure a route for a wilderness empire became a playground park.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – May 2009 No. 54
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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