Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Early Presbyterians

(Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – May 2011, No 78)

The Early Presbyterians

When the Reverend Matthew Wallace arrived at what is now Fort Wayne, he was serving as an army chaplain under General William Henry Harrison.  It was in the years when Fort Wayne guarded United States interests in the midst of Indian territory.  At the outbreak of the War of 1812 late in the summer, about five hundred Potawatomi and Ottawa warriors began to gather in the forests around the garrison.  A friendly Potawatomi chief warned the fort of the impending danger. The message wasn’t taken seriously at first, but Indian Agent Benjamin Stickney took the precaution of alerting General William Henry Harrison in Cincinnati.  The commandant, Captain Rhea, worried about the large number of Indians gathering too near the stronghold and began to drink to excess becoming incapable of handling his duties.

Matthew Wallace, chaplain to the army under William Henry Harrison, greet soldiers of the Fort Wayne garrison during the War of 1812. (Original illustration by Kenneth B. Dutton)

The Indians burned the surrounding cabins, outbuildings, and crops. Lieutenants Curtis and Ostrander attempted to attack their opponents but were rebuked by their inebriated superior who clearly was afraid to fight.  On one occasion the Indians used the flag of truce to get inside the fort, to meet alone with Captain Rhea.  Five Indians who had come in the fort and had hidden behind one of the buildings shot two soldiers dead.  After this Captain Rhea lost control of the garrison, and Lieutenant Ostrander and Lieutenant Curtis took command.  A constant exchange of gunfire continued everyday until General Harrison arrived along with twenty five hundred men.

Although the Indians tried to attack Harrison’s troops in the swamps to the east along the Wayne Trace, all of their attempts failed.  On September 12, 1812, the siege was lifted. Captain Rhea was relieved of his command and Lieutenant Ostrander was placed in charge.

That was the situation at Fort Wayne when the Reverend Wallace first arrived.  A Presbyterian, minister, he witnessed the violence in Fort Wayne in its earliest days.  It was, however, ten years later before the Reverend John Ross came from Ohio to preach in the then-decommissioned fort.  His experiences were less than positive when he was quoted as saying, “There was no place that appeared to me so unpromising as Fort Wayne…There was no Sabbath kept there but on the part of a few.”

When no other clergyman visited “unpromising” Fort Wayne during the next three years, the Sunday School class that met in Samuel Hanna’s store asked Allen Hamilton to petition the American Home Missionary Society for a minister, preferably a “Presbyterian” they said “…in as much as they are generally better educated, and others here…being members of that church in other parts.”

A newly graduated seminarian came to town in November 1829. He was Charles E. Furman and became the first resident pastor in Fort Wayne.  The First Presbyterian Church was formally organized by the Reverend James Chute in July 1831, and was the first congregation organized in Fort Wayne for the settlers.  A church was built on the south side of Berry Street between Lafayette and Barr streets during the years 1836 and 1837.

Rev. Alexander T. Rankin arrived in 1837 and served as its pastor until 1843.  An ardent abolitionist, Rev. Rankin built a house on Lafayette Street where today evidence suggest that he served as an Underground Station agent for fugitives escaping slavery headed for Canada.  Currently, the home is occupied by ARCH, the historic preservation organization, which serves as their offices. 

First Presbyterian Church, Corner of Clinton and Washington

The congregation successively erected churches on the southeast corner of Clinton and Berry streets in 1848; and on the northeast corner of Clinton and Washington streets in 1886, before erecting the present facilities on the northwest corner of Wayne and Webster streets built during the years 1952-1967. How would Reverend Ross describe the way folks in Fort Wayne keep their Sabbath today?  We’d hope “promising” might be a good description.


Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi© is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 fm.  Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at historycenterfw.blogspot.com.

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