Friday, September 24, 2010

Fort Wayne and Lincoln's Assassination

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865 plunged the nation into a period of unprecedented public mourning. Throughout America, clergy gave funeral orations in memory of the fallen president. Charities raised money in tribute, and a variety of clubs and government entitites passed resolutions of praise and eulogy. Thousands of people draped their doorways in black and turned out to see his funeral train as it wended its way from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois.

The outpouring of grief in Fort Wayne over Lincoln's death is difficult to document. Except for a copy of a local newspaper announcing the assassination in the Lincoln Collection (now at the Allen County Public Library), the newspapers for the first half of 1865 are lost. We don't really know what sermons were preached in our local churches, nor do we have a clear idea of the reaction of local citizens to the news.

Recently, an artifact has come to light from that time - a silk ribbon, now a part of the History Center's collection. Preserved for generations by descendants of Fort Wayne mayor Franklin Randall, it contains the text of a resolution passed at a special bipartisan public meeting, expressing the "profound sorrow of the untimely decease" of Lincoln. Further, it praised "his untiring devotion to the arduous and responsible duties" of the presidency, his sincerity of purpose and virtues that "endeared himself to the national heart."

Randall, a Democrat, was joined by a bipartisan group of local leaders, including Jesse Williams, James Borden, Christian Tresselt, Charles Case., and Byron Oakley, in drafting a resolution of sympathy to the president's family. It also instructed the local churches to toll their bells and the local railroad artillery to fire guns in salute as part of a public memorial service. Perhaps the ribbon was distributed to mourners to be worn on that occasion.

Whatever its purpose, the ribbon sheds a small ray of light on the largely unknown events surrounding the period of public mourning in our city in April 1865 and represents an important addition to the Museum's collection.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Tip of the Hat to the Tincaps

In this era of fanciful and disposable pieces of popular culture, thoroughly void of substance or relevance, the Fort Wayne TinCaps should be given the proverbial ‘tip of the hat’ for a name and mascot so uniquely rooted in Fort Wayne’s past. And yes, one that has some historical accuracy.

Of the legions of historical figures who called Fort Wayne and the Three Rivers region their home, perhaps none has been more distorted by lore than John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. The popular image of a thickly bearded, shoddily dressed shoeless fellow crowned with a cast iron cooking pot, whimsically skipping through meadows and aimlessly flinging about apple seeds, belittles and misrepresents this incredibly complex and dynamic individual. In reality he was a shrewd frontier entrepreneur and ultra monastic Swedenborgian missionary who skillfully preceded waves of westerly shifting settlers with his enormous (and enormously profitable) apple tree nurseries. For decades John Chapman purposefully ventured just beyond the flow of westward streaming settlements in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, so that as American settlers filled the frontier they would be met with his finely established apple orchards, supplying the fruit for both consumption as a foodstuff, but more importantly for processing into hard cider. John Chapman owned and cultivated numerous land tracts and thousands of acres across these three states, worth a veritable fortune in the early 19th century. Arriving in Fort Wayne around 1830 via a pirogue laden with sacks full of apple seeds, he cared for at least four known apple orchards in Allen County, carefully positioned along the fertile and accessible Maumee River. The largest of John Chapman’s nurseries in Allen County contained over 15,000 apple trees, a gigantic enterprise even by the standards of today’s mechanized agriculture.

But for all the varying images of Johnny Appleseed as rugged businessman, unkempt beggar, itinerant mystic, or roving planter, one feature of the man transcends all of these descriptions and captivates our community and the world just as it did nearly two centuries ago: his hat. Let this historian go on record as stating that it is a historical fact that occasionally Johnny Appleseed did indeed place a cooking container made of tin on his head. With more than 750 linear feet of archival materials in the historical collection of the History Center (to put that in perspective, if one stacked the Lincoln Tower on top of One Summit Square the total height would be just about as tall as the stack of papers from our archives) there are two-only two-eyewitness accounts of Johnny Appleseed wearing a tin cap.

The first account is from John Dawson, a local newspaper editor and contemporary of Johnny Appleseed, observing that “his headgear was rarely ever alike for a long time.” More than once, Dawson saw Johnny Appleseed with “a tin vessel worn on his head, which he used to cook his frugal meals in.” Dawson goes on to note that sometimes Johnny Appleseed would wear multiple layers of hats where “he carried his Testament and Swedenborgian books,” placing his cooking pot atop the amalgamation.

The second account comes to us from the Johnny Appleseed Educational Center and Museum at Urbana University, Ohio. John Henry Cook of Ohio similarly observed Johnny Appleseed’s “pyramid of three hats, [which] enabled him to carry not only his kettle but his treasurers of sacred literature.” Known to be a devout adherer to the Church of New Jerusalem (Swedenborgianism), Johnny Appleseed’s only true worldly possessions were his Bible and Swedenborgian tracts, which he kept dry and safe on his head beneath his waterproof tin cap. Without a printing press for hundreds of miles, preserving his religious papers and books for distribution to settlers was essential in allowing him to deliver “news right fresh from Heaven,” as he fondly described his preaching.

The memory and contemporary interpretations of John Chapman provide both a fascinating case study in the analysis and assessment of historical sources, and a good lesson in the role that the past plays in our everyday, (and I hate to say it) popular history. As our community wished the TinCaps another fruitful season with the new name, mascot, and home, many children and adults alike undoubtedly asked “did he really wear a tin cap.” Did Johnny Appleseed wear a tin cap…certainly. Did he wear a tin cap all the time…absolutely not. But what matters is that in a time when spin is the norm and context goes out the window, fans of the newly rechristened TinCaps are exposed to a small glimmer of truthful history. Good history is hard to find nowadays; folks should take it any way they can.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Once Upon a Time"

“Once upon a time” isn’t just for fairy tales. It’s also for history.

History is not facts and dates. It’s stories—stories of people and places and events that have shaped who and what we are today. It lives…it breathes…it presents us with the opportunity to explore the many facets of our culture, our ancestors, our lives.

History helps us understand who we are as a nation and how each of us is a part of this ongoing story. A sound knowledge of both American and world history is a step toward shaping a student’s world view and eventually becoming the type of adult citizen our country needs.

Do you know the Greek origin of the word “history”? It means “to know”.

Educators are encouraging parents to supplement their child’s education in history with a few simple steps and access to entities such as The History Center in Fort Wayne. A trip to The History Center can help lay the foundation for a life-long interest in history as you and your child explore the past, relate it to the present, and look to the future.

Prior to your visit, take a look at the virtual tour on our web site at This will give you a basic idea of what you can see and help you plan your trip. Then visit the other pages of the web site to gain some background knowledge about Allen County and Fort Wayne history.

Next, relate this to your own family. If you grew up in Fort Wayne or have family members who did, sit down and talk about your childhood with your sons and daughters. Real life stories about people your child knows—and places they see as they’re out and about in our city—can give them some background and create a context of awareness about the history of our community.

Listen with them as their grandparents and older relatives talk about how technology has changed in the course of their lifetimes and in yours! If you have friends and neighbors in their 80s and beyond, they too can tell your child about the marvelous inventions they have seen and how their lives have been impacted by them. The internet has always been a part of your child’s life. Talk about what you did before it was invented.

Dig out old family photos and documents of significance—like your child’s birth certificate. Use the internet to explore the current events for the day or year your child was born. These are a part of your son’s or daughter’s history.

Perhaps your child has a special interest such as music, baseball or art. Most of us think of history as the political—wars, treaties, and government. But it’s also about culture, ideas and people. If this is what sparks your child’s imagination—run with it!

Take some notes in a history notebook as your conversations occur. Write down questions for further study. Keep this journal so you and your child can add to it as you explore.

The History Center is home to an exhibit that will be expanded over the next year. “Made in Allen County” displays some of the inventions that were created here that we now take for granted. For example, how about the “electric pig” aka the garbage disposal. Or the television. Or the washing machine. Or the gasoline pump.

Transportation shaped our community. Do you know how? Does your child? A look at transportation and how it’s evolved can lend itself to an interesting afternoon as you look at exhibits featuring the Wabash & Erie Canal and the railroads of bygone years. Transportation led to the establishment of several major industries in Fort Wayne. Do you know what they are?

As you explore exhibits ask your child some questions:

“What does this mean?”

“Why is this important?”

“What does this tell you about our world today?”

The History Center has created a number of “hands on” exhibits to help your child experience the past.

Ever worn a hoop skirt? We’ve got one you can try on.

Or an aviator’s helmet circa World War I and the leather gloves to go with it?

You can see what it feels like to be in jail.

Or what a Victorian Doll House really looked like.

Plus find out about some little-known facets of baseball history that originated in Fort Wayne.

Never seen a wringer washer? You will at the History Center.

You can supplement your trips to the History Center and other historically based entities with activities at home.

Create a time line of the history of our community, noting historical events you’ve studied in relationship to family events such as births, marriages, the start of kindergarten, etc. You can then teach some of the concepts of time such as decade, century, generation or simply a year.

Collect brochures and pamphlets and make collages of photos about our city and county. Or create your own original poster.

Take a trip to the library and check out additional books and other works about the exhibits you have seen. Reading the biographies of notable persons in history is an interesting way to further learn about events and people.

Watch television shows about history.

Have your child make up a quiz about what you both experienced and see how much knowledge you retained. It’s fun for a child to be the teacher once in a while!

Create a scrapbook of photos of historical sites with old photos from brochures and photos taken of the sites today. Disposable cameras can add to the fun of touring historical sites for your child.

Point out stories in the local newspapers about historical happenings both past and present and discuss these events. As your child grows, the depth of these conversations will change and their level of critical thinking mature. This is a time to instill the value of checking alternate sources for the accuracy of the information, learning about opposing viewpoints and developing opinions based upon a variety of sources.

It’s important to let your child know you’ll be learning along with them. Not even the most fanatical of “history geeks” knows it all—and as time and research expand our knowledge, we all have the opportunity to learn more. But no one will ever know all there is to know about the world’s history.

Pick the facets of history that you and your child find most intriguing.

Call upon the multitude of resources available to expand your knowledge and that of your child. The History Center’s gift shop offers a variety of books about local history and our blog will continue to explore the past while relating it to the present. The George R. Mather Lecture series also offers programs that may be of interest to high school students.

There are other historical sites in Fort Wayne and the surrounding area that make great day trips for the family. Contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau for more information.

Being involved in your child’s education is important to their success. A home environment that encourages learning sends a message to a child that school is important.

As a parent, if you never stop learning, neither will your child.

“A well-formed mind is better than a well-stuffed mind” is an old proverb that certainly applies.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Writings of William Wells

Most people interested in Fort Wayne's history are familiar with Captain William Wells (1770-1812), who played a large role in the history of the fort and establishing fair relations with local Indian tribes. Born in Pennsylvania, he was brought by his parents to Kentucky at a young age and orphaned. In 1784 while on a hunting expedition, he was captured by Indians and taken to Snake-fish Town on the Eel River, near Logansport. Given the name "Wild Carrot," he was adopted into the Miami tribe by a village chief. He assimilated quickly, learning all of the tribal rituals, and participated with the Indians in their attacks on Josiah Harmar's army of U.S. Regulars in October 1790 and again in 1792 against the army of Gen. Arthur St. Clair. He was eventually persuaded to switch sides and become a scout for Gen. Anthony Wayne in 1794. He was married several times, and among his wives was Sweet Breeze, the daughter of Chief Little Turtle.

Because Wells was able to straddle both the Indian and white worlds, he enjoyed a unique position that gave him access to leaders on both sides during the Indian wars that culminated in the War of 1812. He served as a translator during the Treaty of Greenville negotiations in 1795 and later headed the Indian Agency at Fort Wayne. He made a number of enemies, however, and was eventually relieved of his position, even though he had warned William Henry Harrison and other army officials about the threat of renewed Indian attacks prior to Tecumseh's revolt. Wells was killed during the famous Fort Dearborn massacre at what is now Chicago in 1812, and Wells Street in Fort Wayne bears his name.

A recent article in the June 2010 issue of the Indiana Magazine of History, published by the Indiana Historical Society, discusses the strong possibility that Wells had intended to write an autobiography prior to his untimely death. Some manuscript pages were located in the nineteenth century and published at that time, which describe in detail the speeches of various chiefs at the Greenville treaty conference, the various battles fought between the Indians and whites from the time of Pontiac's uprising in 1763 to the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Even more significant is a detailed description of Miami rituals, including hunting, vision quests, adoption, coming-of-age, and marriage customs that seem to have been written by a white man with first-hand knowledge of their intricacies. Portions of the manuscript appear to be written by Wells, and portions updated by his son-in-law, Dr. William Turner.

The article is well worth reading and sheds new light on Wells, who has taken on an almost mythic persona in Fort Wayne history. He seems to have been a person of unusual insight and clarity, and had he lived, might have had an even greater impact on the history of Indian-white relations in our area.