Historic Hoosier National: The French and Indian years – 1669-1818

Explorer René-Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle was the first European to reach the Southern Indiana hill country, though his time here was limited to the eastern cusp of the deep V-shaped hills and valleys that today include the Hoosier National Forest.

LaSalle, a Frenchman seeking a water route from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean, is credited as the first European to reach the Ohio River and Indiana soil in 1669. He led an expedition from Quebec to the river’s headwaters in Western Pennsylvania and then downriver to the Falls of the Ohio at present-day Clarksville. His crew abandoned him at the impassable shallows, leaving LaSalle to briefly explore the alien territory alone.

This deepest-at-the-time penetration into the North American midsection culminated about seventy river miles--thirty overland--east of the Hoosier’s Buzzard Roost Recreation Area.

In his quest for a water route to the Pacific, LaSalle next traversed the Great Lakes and in 1682 became the first European to sail the length of the Mississippi River. In 1689, he became the first white man to explore Northern Indiana via Lake Michigan and the St. Joseph River.

The explorers, traders, conquerors, and settlers who followed LaSalle on the Ohio over the next century and a half encountered Native Americans who were not native to Southern Indiana, though some were likely linked to Middle and Upper Mississippian cultures that occupied the region in late prehistoric times. Before and after LaSalle’s premier Ohio voyage, expanding colonization along the Atlantic Coast disrupted traditional native boundaries, driving tribes ever-westward, displacing each other as white encroachment spread.

Archaeologists have found seventeenth century European trade goods at Mississippian Caborn-Welborn culture sites in Southwest Indiana and adjacent Illinois and Kentucky. But they have no indication what tribes were in the area during these tumultuous times.

The French named the Ohio after its Iroquois name “Oyo,” which the white men interpreted as “beautiful river.” LaSalle’s first float to Southern Indiana coincided with the Beaver Wars, 1642-1698. During this half-century conflict, the British-allied, Upstate New York Iroquois Confederacy expanded into the French-allied Ohio Country, in pursuit of fur-bearing animals like deer and beaver to trade with the Europeans.

The Beaver Wars and other conflicts drove the Shawnee Indians from their traditional homelands in Southern Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania as far west as Illinois by LaSalle’s time. Archaeologists suspect that social conflict during the Beaver Wars was the reason the Caborn-Welborn people abandoned their fortified villages near the mouth of the Wabash but don’t know where they moved.

Also displaced by the Beaver Wars, the Miami Indians had been driven from their traditional homelands in Northern Indiana to the Green Bay area of Wisconsin in the late 1600s. When the trade wars ended at the turn of the century, the Miami migrated back east, establishing their capital village Kekionga on the Upper Wabash River in Northeast Indiana near Fort Wayne, where the Lake Erie and Mississippi River Watersheds are separated by a mere six overland miles.

While King Louis XIV declared all of Indiana part of Colonial French Louisiana in the early eighteenth century, the Miami, along with the related Wea and Piankeshaw, claimed the entire state from the Wabash south to the Ohio. As with their prehistoric predecessors, the Indians used the Hoosier hills for hunting grounds.

The territorial upheavals among the eastern tribes continued for more than a century between LaSalle and the flood of pioneers who crossed the Ohio from Kentucky into Southern Indiana in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Around 1770, the Delaware transplanted from Ohio to Southern Indiana between the White and Ohio Rivers, with the Miami’s blessing. Also called the Lenape, they occupied Southern New York, New Jersey, and Eastern Pennsylvania when the first European explorers contacted them in the mid 1500s.

In Indiana, the Delaware settled mostly on the White River West Fork around Muncie and Anderson. Their closest village to the Hoosier was some thirty miles east near the confluence of the White’s East and West Forks. The East Fork passes within two miles of the Hoosier National Forest in Martin County, in multiple places.

Many tribes traveled through Indiana for trade and, later, their western retreats. Some almost certainly passed through the national forest. The Buffalo Trace, the primary route Native Americans followed from the Falls of the Ohio to the Wabash River south of Vincennes, passes through the Hoosier’s Springs Valley Recreation Area in Orange County. The Shawnee, whose homelands were east and south of Indiana, set up a temporary village near Vincennes in 1788.

Tribes mentioned in nondefinitive Hoosier National county histories from the early 1800s include Miami—whose name for the Buffalo Trace translates as cattle road—along with Piankeshaw, Delaware, Shawnee, Wyandotte, and Potawatomi. The Buffalo Trace was formed by bison herds that migrated between salt licks in Northern Kentucky and the prairies that stretched from Western Indiana to the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

By 1790, more than seventy thousand pioneer settlers lived in Kentucky, a few of them “squatters” with cabins on the Indiana side. Countless others harbored dreams of likewise settling on the river’s northern bank in Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois.

The Indiana Territory was carved from the Northwest Territory in 1800, and conflicts between the settlers and Indians raged during the years between 1790 and 1814, with particular intensity between 1790-1795 and 1808-1814.

In 1802 the first settlers in today’s Dubois County established a homestead six miles from the Hoosier. The county history says they lived near and coexisted peacefully with some Native Americans, but the Indians, for unexplained reasons, soon became hostile. The settlers retreated and returned to build a blockhouse fort to protect themselves from attack.

A two-story log blockhouse was likewise built near the Hoosier in Crawford County. Two were built in Jackson County, where intermarriage was reported and violent conflicts included the lengthy kidnapping of a white boy.

Through a number of treaties between 1803 and 1809, all but the northeasternmost Hoosier National sections in Brown County were under American control by Statehood in 1816. The rest were ceded in 1818.

Thirty years later, via forced exits that included the Potawatomi Trail of Death in 1838, nearly all Native Americans had been expelled from Indiana, mostly to Kansas and Oklahoma.

About half the Miami, the last tribe to leave in 1846, were allowed under treaty to remain in Indiana. They settled on the Upper Wabash River in Northern Indiana, more than a hundred miles from the Hoosier National Forest.

Hoosier National Forest Photographs: Top, Lost River; Second, Hemlock Cliffs; Third, Charles C. Deam Wilderness; Bottom, Buzzard Roost.


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