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Title: State's river of dreams still capturing the imagination
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Mist-shrouded in the morning light, the Wabash River appears today much as it did when European explorers first reached its banks-shallow, languidly-flowing and dotted by occasional islands of water-smoothed pebbles and shells.

This storied river, snaking 475 miles across the state, flows powerfully through Indiana's history, literature and psyche.

"It's kind of a link that pulls Indiana together, historically and physically," said Peter T. Harstad, executive director of the Indiana Historical Society.

The river's course also played a key role in shaping early America from wilderness.

So much so that writer William E. Wilsom didn't exaggerate when he wrote: "To know America, you have to take a good, long look at the Wabash River."

From the outset, the Wabash attracted adventurers and visionaries. Eventually, it helped make war heroes and presidents and secure America's liberties.

Earlier this century, the river's banks were a favorite picnic spot, where people gathered to reflect on the Wabash's romantic history and their place in it.

As the century ends, however, many know the state's official river only from fleeting glimpses as they cross highway bridges spanning its banks.

But there was a time when rivers ruled.

Long before roads and railroads, rivers were the lifeblood for explorers and settlers venturing into the vast expanse of wilderness covering North America's midsection.

Rivers offered a fast passage, allowing explorers and settlers to drift in comparative safety between widely-scattered settlements. Even so, they still faced panthers, deadly snakes and a host of other dangers in the deep woods, prairies and vast swamps.

Though dwarfed by the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the Wabash's meandering course was-and remains-a crucial link in the watery highway of rivers and streams that links the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico.

This fact was not lost on France and Britain as they waged a long-running battle for control of the New World. Much of that struggle was played out on or near the Wabash between British and French soldiers allied with various Indian nations.

Later, another nation-the fledgling United States-joined in the tug of war for the Wabash, which for a time marked the nation's westernmost boundaries. And during the Revolutionary War, young America's ragtag army used the Wabash to access the Great Lakes, thereby setting the nation's northern borders on those lakes' northern shores.

Much earlier, American Indians-the Miami, Wea, Shawnee, Kickapoo and Pinkashaw among them-had called the Wabash Valley home.

They caught plentiful fish in its crystal-clear waters, hunted for game along its banks and farmed its rich bottomlands.

To the Miami, the river was "Wah-Bah Shik-Ki" - or "white stone river," a reference to the river's upper course over exposed white limestone. The French corrupted this word to "Oubache;" later, it was Anglicized to its current Wabash.

Eventually, the same river that sustained those thriving Indian cultures served as a prime invasion route for white settlers eager to stake a claim on their tribal lands.

Travelers from the East Coast could cross or skirt the shoreline of Lake Erie to its westernmost point, then travel up the Maumee River to present-day Fort Wayne. From that point, there was a short portage overland to the Wabash, the waters of which flowed uninterrupted all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

This route, well-known to the Indians, was first exploited by French traders, who established a series of fur trading posts linking their empire in Quebec with New Orleans, and Europe.

"The Wabash is not just the Wabash, it's all the rivers that are connected to it. It's an integral part of the greatest highway in North America," says James H. Madison, an Indiana University professor of history and author of The Indiana Way.

"You can literally sail down the Wabash all the way to Europe, or anywhere on Earth."

Roughly halfway between French Quebec and New Orleans lay Vincennes, which the French founded at the crossing point of a primitive but well-worn road-the migration "trace" of the now extinct wooland buffalo.

Vincennes, which passed from French, to British, to American hands in the late 18th century, would later become Indiana's territorial capital. It served as a staging point for numerous battles that helped determine early America's size and shape.

Even before the tug of war between the Americans and their European adversaries was settled, the Wabash was fueling present-day Indiana's growth by allowing settlers to float their products to downstream markets. A short-lived canal system, the Wabash and Erie Canal, later permitted those goods to be shipped east, too.

Once the Americans evicted the British and Indians in a series of battles in the late 18th and early 19th century, the land rush was on.

An influx of settlers spurred the growth of agriculture, industry and cities in the Wabash Valley. With them, however, the river's original charge slowly faded.

Forests were felled, increasing the river's flow and washing away most of its idyllic islands, and causing extensive erosion. And this century, agriculture and industry have taken their heaviest toll on the Wabash, spurring the growth of algae that have turned its waters brownish-green.

Over the past 30 years, the Clean Water Act and other changes have improved the Wabash's aquatic health, but challenges remain.

As the Wabash flows into the 21st century, its course, despite all its attendant problems, still captures the imagination.

"I can't cross the Wabash River anyplace without looking at it and seeing something of its meaning for the state," said the historical society's Harstad.

"It's special because of its ability to knit together the people of this area, the prehistoric, the hitoric - and us."

[Side quote: "Oh the moonlight's fair tonight along the Wabash. From the fields there comes the breath of newmown hay. Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming. On the banks of the Wabash, far away." -Paul Dresser -On the BAnks of the Wabash, Far Away]

[Picture caption: ARTIST'S VIEW OF THE WABASH: George Winter's painting, Scene on the Wabash, painted in 1848, and seen in this image made at the Gerald Peters Gallery, captures life along the Wabash River in 19th century Indiana. The Wabash is still an important link in the highway of rivers and streams that links the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico.]

Date: 12/21/1999
Origin: Journal And Courier
Author: Rick Callahan, The Associated Press
Record ID: 00002398
Type: Periodical
Source Archive: Warren County Historical Society
Date Entered: 8/10/2001
Collection: Court House
Entered By: Leslie J. Rice

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