Indiana, rightly named was at one time truly the “land of Indians”. The South Bend area was full of Miami and Potawatomi. Rich in Indian heritage, Indiana provided every need for furs and meat, wood and good soil for crops.
Native American Beginnings in Indiana
In the year 1600 there were only roughly 20,000 natives living in Indiana. The Potawatomi “people of the place of the fire” came to Indiana from Southwest Michigan in the 1700’s. They belonged to an alliance with the Ojibwe and the Ottawa in the Couuncil of Three Fires. French records suggest that the Potawatomi were forced during the “Beaver Wars” from the Southwest Michigan locations to the Green Bay, Wisconsin area to escape attacks by the Iroquois and the Neutral Nation.
Returning to Southwest Michigan and Northwest Indiana, the Potawatomi as well as the Miami fought along side Tecumseh during Tecumseh’s War (this included the Battle of Tippecanoe and the War of 1812) as Tecumseh was set on driving back European settlement in the Ohio Valley where he was born.
Though Tecumseh was a powerful and persuasive leader, the Potawatomi , the Miami, and other tribes in Indiana aided both the British and the American forces alternatively during the War of 1812 and the Peoria War.
A band of about 500 warriors followed Chiefs Blackbird and Nuscotomeg ( Mad Sturgeon) in the Battle of Fort Dearborn (present day Chicago) in Sept. 1812 against the Americans who were retreating from British invasion from the north at that time. Mucktypoke (Chief Black Partridge), a Potawatomi Chief was against this attack and later saved some civilians who were ransomed by the attackers.
The Potawatomi and Miami had their warriors, but most were farmers who grew corn and beans or were hunters of beaver, raccoon, deer, and buffalo. In the Great Lakes region, they were expert fishermen who took full advantage of the lakes and waterways. The women and children were gatherers of wild fruits and berries, nuts and seeds. Tree bark was an important element. Bark provided protective covering for wigwams and canoes. It also was used for making strong baskets and utensils.
Life for the Native Americans in Indiana before European settlement was plentiful and , for the most part, peaceful. With no horses or wagons, the Indians in Indiana traveled by foot or by canoe through the land creating paths or portages between lakes, streams, and rivers. Their lightweight canoes could be carried from waterway to waterway. Villiages were built near the rivers and creeks easing the way for trade of goods.
The main trade item for the Potawatomi and Miami was fur. They followed animal trails in persuit of pelts. The pelts were then traded amoungst the tribes and later were heavily traded with white settlers.
One famous animal trail, the Buffalo Trace, is located a bit south of South Bend near Vincennes extending to Clarksville. This trail was dangerous to navigate. Many travelers had been attacked by Indians, thieves, or even cougars. It had become so dangerous that the U.S. Government in the early 1800’s had sent U.S. soldiers to patrol it.
On Sept. 3, 1812, a settlement of several families who called themselves Pigeon Roost was attacked by a band of Shawnee in what is now Scott County. A few settlers survived the attack but the very next day 200 armed soldiers arrived to discover in horror the gruesome site. All but one cabin remained standing, the others burned to the ground with the mutilated and charred bodies of 21 women and children that lay in the rubble. This was the most horrific memorable event of Indian-caused tragedy ever known on Indiana soil.
After the “Pigeon Roost Massacre” , Major George Beck in a letter to William Henry Harrison (who would later become the only U.S. President from Indiana) requested more patrol of the Buffalo Trace.
The Shawnee and the Delaware sects , not indigenous to Indiana, had been pushed from their Ohio tribal grounds by settlers continously moving westward. At that time, the Miami were occupying a large portion of Indiana, especially the central and more southern regions. It was Miami Chief Little Turtle who allowed the peaceful settlement of the new brothers into Indiana territory. The tribes were not at war and they made trade with each other with villiages placed intermittently amongst each other.
Indian traders were not farmers nor hunters, they were businessmen. These traders played an important role in Indiana history especially after the Europeans came to this continent. Indian traders were the first to learn the english language and to teach the native languages to the Europeans. It was the beginning of commerce in the “New America”–a beginning that would not end well for the natives.