Saturday, November 16, 2019

Indian Trails - The Vincennes Trace.


In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM is the introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. I believe presentism is a form of cultural bias, and it creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. I'm well aware that historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present articles that are fact based and well researched, without interjecting any of my personal opinions.


The Vincennes Trace was originally formed by millions of migrating bison. Other names for the Trace through its history have been Lan-an-zo-ki-mi-wi (or lenaswihkanawea, an Indian name meaning "bison trail" or "buffalo road"), the "Old Indian Road," the "Clarksville Trace," "Harrison's Road," the "Kentucky Road," the "Vincennes Trace," and the "Louisville Trace.
Emigrant en route on the Vincennes Trace to the land of promise.
The birth of modern Chicagoua in 1833 was directly affected by the tide of settlement which poured westward by way of the Great Lakes in the years immediately after the opening of the Erie Canal. But the earliest advance of white settlement into the Chicago area was made by men of southern birth and lineage, who about the close of the War of 1812 began pouring into the upper valley of the Wabash River. To them, we are indebted for the most picturesque and colorful chapter in the life of early Chicago, and from the traffic which they carried have come the names of two of the city's most famous streets; Vincennes Avenue, and after state-funded improvements and straightening, parts became State Street.
Chicago in 1833
When, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, the French took possession of the interior of the continent, one of their main routes of communication between Canada and Louisiana ran from Detroit by way of the Maumee River, the Wabash River, and the Ohio River to the Lower Mississippi River. To hold this against the encroaching English traders, and to maintain their influence over the native tribes, a line of posts situated at strategic points along the route was early established. On a beautiful site, 160 miles above the mouth of the Wabash River was located the post of Vincennes, and this became, in the course of half a century, a considerable town, ranking with Detroit and Kaskaskia as one of the chief centers of French influence in the interior of the continent.

When New France fell, in 1763, there began for Vincennes a period of decline, but the glory of the place had not yet departed. When, in the Revolutionary War, George Rogers Clark laid his plans for the conquest of the Northwest, it was his first desire to march directly against Vincennes, but conscious of his inability to take the place by direct attack, he turned his course against the Illinois towns. These having been taken, and the French inhabitants won over to the American cause, Vincennes yielded itself voluntarily to the invaders. A few months later Governor Hamilton of Detroit descended the Wabash River with 500 British and Indian allies, and the Union Jack flag floated once more over Vincennes. Upon learning the news of this disaster, Clark led his tiny army, consisting largely of French settlers, across Illinois in midwinter and suddenly appearing at Fort Vincennes, captured the British fort, to the great delight of the townsmen. Governor Hamilton was consigned to a Virginia dungeon as a reward for his inhuman treatment of the Americans, and Vincennes passed permanently under American control. Thus in the distant Wabash River Valley, at a point remote from the English settlements, was performed a feat which completely broke up the British plans for the campaign of 1779, saving the sorely-pressed American cause and gaining the Old Northwest for the United States in the Treaty of Paris of 1783.

Under American domination, Vincennes attained new importance. In June of 1790, following the organization of the Northwest Territory, the county of Knox was created with Vincennes as the county seat. Knox County ran from the Ohio River on the south to Canada on the north, embracing, in addition to all of modern Indiana, large portions of Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Most of this region was a wilderness, of course, inhabited only by the Indians.
Map of the Northwest Territory. 
On July 4, 1800, Indiana Territory came into existence with Vincennes as its capital. It included, besides the modern state, all of Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Under the vigorous rule of Governor William Henry Harrison, Vincennes was for years the chief center of governmental activity in the Northwest.

Here was waged the long contest with the great Tecumseh, who had established his Indian Utopia at the mouth of Tippecanoe Creek, 150 miles up the Wabash River from Vincennes. During the years of controversy, Tecumseh led his followers down the Wabash River to repeatedly let the Governor know his scorn and defiance of the white man. Yet the Governor held steadily to his course, which was to eventuate not only in war with the Indians but with Great Britain as well. 

In the autumn of 1811, Governor Harrison took the field against the tribesmen. Advancing up the Wabash River, he built Fort Harrison on the site of Terre Haute, after which the natives were overthrown in the bloody battle of Tippecanoe. It was the opening stroke in a war which was to involve the Indians in permanent ruin and give to the United States undisputed control over the Northwest. To Tecumseh, the conflict brought a fallen people and a nameless grave; to Harrison, the presidency of the United States. Of more immediate interest to the story, the crushing of the Indian tribes opened the Wabash River Valley to the settlers, and with the close of the War of 1812, they began to take possession of it. 

''Over the trail of the savage passes the foot of the white man and civilization dawns." So it was with the settlers who passed into the Wabash River Valley and then onward to the Kankakee River and the Des Plaines River. From the falls of the Ohio River, across southern Indiana to Vincennes ran the famous Buffalo Trace, which had been marked out and trodden broad and hard by the countless herds of buffalo which made their seasonal migrations from the Grand Prairie of Illinois to the salt-licks and bluegrass meadows of Kentucky.
Another Indian path ran due south from Vincennes, reaching the Ohio River where now is the foot of Main Street in the city of Evansville. From Shawneetown, farther down the Ohio River, a trail led northward up the Wabash River Valley. There were, of course, still other routes by which the Indians passed from the Ohio River to the Wabash River, which was itself a natural highway, traversed by Indian traders in canoes and by the white man in flatboats (or broad horns), and steamboats.

The Vincennes Trace was, in reality, a thoroughfare from the Wabash River to Chicago. From Vincennes, its southern terminus, an ancient trail led northward through eastern Illinois to the salt springs of the Vermilion, where the city of Danville has grown up. From here it continued northward, keeping in general to the higher ground which separated the streams flowing into the Wabash from the tributaries of the Illinois River. Other trails led up the Wabash River from Vincennes to the old Wea (a Miami-Illinois-speaking Indian tribe originally located in western Indiana, closely related to the Miami Tribe) towns near the site of modern Lafayette, and on to the Miami Tribes' stronghold of Kekionga, the site of modern Fort Wayne.

From the Kickapoo Falls of the Wabash River, near Williamsport, Indiana, an important Potawatomi trail ran northward through Benton and Warren Counties, entering Illinois near the town of Sheldon in Iroquois County. Here it united with the trail from Vincennes to Chicago by way of Danville, which in the pioneer period came to be known as the Hubbard Trace. 
At Parish's Grove, in Benton County, Indiana, the main Potawatomi trail was joined by a feeder that came from the Wea towns. In the years when the arrogant Potawatomi held sway over the region around the south end of Lake Michigan, this trail was a thoroughfare of much importance to the Indian nation. Running the whole length of the Potawatomi domain, from Lake Michigan to the Wabash River, it served to unite all the villages in this region, led directly to the great fishing and hunting grounds of the Iroquois and the Kankakee tribes, and connected the different bands with the trading-post at Chicago on the north and with the ancient Wabash River Valley trade centers of Fort Ouiatenon [1] and Fort Vincennes on the south. 

The Indians left no record of his travels, other than the marks made by his feet in the soil in passing, and for a picture of the life of the old trail, we must depend largely upon our imagination. Over it, undoubtedly, passed the Wea warbands to Chicago in 1715, stirred up by the French to aid in the proposed extermination of the Meskwaki (Fox) Tribe of Wisconsin. The hopeful enterprise totally miscarried, but a few years later, in 1730, warriors from the Wabash participated in the great siege and destruction of the Fox Tribe by the French and their Indian allies in the vicinity of Starved Rock in Illinois. An expedition of different characters over the ancient trace was that of Captain Heald of Fort Dearborn, who in the spring of 1811 brought his charming bride on horseback through the wilderness from Kentucky to Chicago. With the bride came Black Cicely, her slave girl, only to die beneath the tomahawk in the Fort Dearborn Massacre of 1812. For that occasion the Potawatomi, knowing the hated foe was at last in their power, gathered from all over their widespread territory. Most implacable of all were the Wabash bands, who hastened northward with utmost speed along the ancient trail to the anticipated 'carnival of blood', only to learn on approaching their destination that the work of destruction was over and they had arrived too late.

In 1816, a new Fort Dearborn rose from the ashes of the old; the might of the Potawatomi and the Kickapoo had vanished, and although they lingered on for a time in their ancient haunts the work of dispossessing them was about to begin. The period from 1816 to 1825 was one of unprecedented immigration to Indiana, the settlers crowding up the southward-flowing streams well beyond the center of the state. Near the spot where in 1811 Fort Harrison had been established as a wilderness outpost, six years later the town of Terre Haute was founded and lots to the value of $17,000 ($253,700 today) were sold in a single day. The Indian cession which was known as the "New Purchase," opened all the lands south of the Wabash to settlement, and led to the founding of Indianapolis to serve as the permanent capital of the state. By a cession secured from the Kickapoo in 1820, the Wabash River Valley was opened to settlement as far north as Lafayette. In 1824 land sales were begun at Crawfordsville, and this point became the focus for all settlers northwest of Indianapolis. Lafayette was laid out in 1825, and a year later became a county seat; while two years later Logansport was founded at the mouth of Eel River.

Over the several highways leading to the Wabash River Valley poured a steady stream of settlers. "Nothing is more common," reported the Indianapolis observer in 1826, "than to see fifteen or twenty wagons passing in a single day, each carrying the little belongings of the family that trudges along by its side. Indiana was teeming with the hordes of immigration. Their destination is the Wabash country above Terre Haute." In the seven years ending with 1827 twentyone new counties were organized in the New Purchase, and already their population amounted to over 80,000. Indianapolis had become what it has ever since remained, the great focal center of the state, and through it, the immigrant stream moved westward through Terre Haute, Logansport, and Crawfordsville trails. "Our streets are one moving mass of living men, women, and children, carriages, wagons, horses, hogs, and sheep," reported an Indianapolis editor, "all joyously wending their way to their habitations. The old, middle-aged, and young go together."

Before long, this tide of travel began to press on beyond the Wabash River Valley, although settlement in Illinois west of the state line naturally followed after that in Indiana. The salt springs on the Vermilion River were a lodestone that early drew settlers into this portion of the Wabash River Valley. Here from ancient times had been an important Piankeshaw (members of the Miami Indians) village, and here for unknown generations, the Indians had made salt and wild beasts had come from all directions to lick up the salty earth at the spots where the mineral water surfaced. Attracted by these deposits, several families began in 1819 the settlement which developed into the town of Danville. It was an important point on the Chicago-Vincennes Trace, being itself the focus of several trails. By 1830 settlers had located in Iroquois County, at Milford and Old Bunkum, and others were pushing on by way of the Iroquois River and the Kankakee River to the vicinity of Joliet and the lower Des Plaines Valley. On Hickory Creek, a tributary of the Des Plaines in northwestern Will County, Aaron Friend, and Joseph Brown had settled as early as 1829. Comparatively little is known of these men, although the settlement they began is of much interest to the story of Chicago's historic highways. Mr. Friend is described by the historian of Will County as a "kind of Indian trader." He always had a rather rough set of French half-breeds and Indians around him, and when the Indians removed to the West, Friend followed them. It was at the house of Friend that the ball occurred in the winter of 1831, the story of which Mrs. Juliette Augusta Magill [John H.] Kinzie has preserved in her book, Wau-Bun, the Early Day in the Northwest.

On this occasion fared three of the five bachelors who then resided at Chicago traveled to Hickory Creek. With their "city" airs and finery, they had little trouble in winning the favor of the girls of Hickory Creek, to the evident chagrin of the uncouth males who lived in that vicinity. But the satisfaction of the Chicago youths over their triumph was somewhat lessened when after a night of merriment, they were ready to begin their return journey to Chicago, they discovered that their horses had been sheared of their manes and tails.

We know little about Joseph Brown, saving the information that he died in the autumn of 1830. His claim to fame is a posthumous one. At the first session of the board of commissioners of the newly-organized Cook County, held in March of 1831, three voting precincts were created, designated respectively as the Chicago precinct, the Hickory Creek precinct, and the Du Page precinct. A month later the Board made provision for marking out the first two county highways of Cook County, designed to connect the three precincts which had thus been created. One of these roads ran on the line of Madison Street and Ogden Avenue to the house of Barney Lawton at Riverside, and from there "to the house of James Walker, on the Du Page River, and so on to the west line of the county." The other road was to run "from the town of Chicago, the nearest and best way, to the house of Widow Brown on Hickory Creek." It was laid out along the line of State Street and Archer Avenue.

The history of State Street will be forever associated with that of the Vincennes Trace. For the modern beginnings of this thoroughfare, we must go back to the closing days of the fur-trade era, and the doings of Gurdon S. Hubbard, one of Chicago's greatest pioneers. Hubbard was a native of Vermont, whose parents had moved to Montreal. Here, while still but a boy, he fell under the romantic spell of the fur-trade, with its aroma of adventure in distant wilds. Engaging as an apprentice with the American Fur Company, he was sent out to Mackinac in the summer of 1818. Here he was assigned to the Illinois River superintendency, and joined the trading "brigade" which each autumn made the long journey in open boats down the eastern shore of Lake Michigan to Chicago, and then by way of the portage down the Illinois River. At various points along the river trading stations were established, from which during the winter the men carried the goods on their backs to the Indian hunting grounds. With the opening of spring, all assembled on the river and the return journey to Mackinac with the season's accumulation of furs was begun.

The chief obstacle to this traffic was the difficulty of passing the Chicago Portage. It was bad enough in springtime when the boats must make their toilsome way against the vernal flood on the Des Plaines River at the rate of seven or eight miles a day, the men wading frequently to their armpits in the icy water. But in autumn, when the Des Plaines had shrunk to a series of pools scattered at intervals along the channel, and Mud Lake, between the Chicago and the Des Plaines River, had become a stinking morass of ooze and filth, through which the men must wade pushing the boats along by main force, and frequently clinging to them to escape being engulfed in the swamp, the passage was infinitely worse.

In 1825 Hubbard was made superintendent of the Illinois river trade and he immediately decided to put in force a project he had long urged upon his predecessor. This was to leave the boats at Chicago on reaching there in the autumn and transport the goods through the Indian country on pack ponies. By this plan not only would the difficult and wearisome passage through Mud Lake and down the Des Plaines River be avoided, but the goods would be taken directly to the Indians at their hunting grounds, instead of being carried to them by the men in packs on their backs.

Hubbard had already spent one winter on the Iroquois River, his trading station being at the mouth of Sugar Creek, a little below the site of modern Watseka. On becoming superintendent of the Illinois trade in the autumn of 1823, he again located on the Iroquois River, fixing his station this time at Old Bunkum, on the site of the modern Village of Iroquois in Illinois. Leaving Chicago with a pack-train of fifty ponies, which had been purchased from Chief Big Foot's village at the head of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, he marked out the trail to his Iroquois River post.

From his station at Old Bunkum, Hubbard continued for several years to carry on his trading activities. A farm of eighty acres was put under cultivation, the first in Iroquois County, a log house, together with the necessary outbuildings was erected, and the establishment became the headquarters for the trade of a wide region. Being a man of enterprise and ability, Hubbard opened a line of trading stations southward along the Indian trail almost to the mouth of the Wabash River, the post at Danville being the most important inland station. From his headquarters at Bunkum he visited the several posts as occasion might require, and in the spring the furs acquired during the winter's trade were conveyed on pack-ponies to Chicago, and from there sent on to Mackinac in the customary bateaus (a shallow-draft, flat-bottomed boat which was used extensively across North America in the fur trade) of the trader.

As the settlements increased along the line of trading posts the Indian trade fell off, and Hubbard gradually gave up his southern posts. Those on the Embarras River (a tributary of the Wabash River) and the Little Wabash River were abandoned in 1827, and shortly thereafter Hubbard built the first frame building, a storehouse, ever erected in Danville. For over fifty years this continued to stand on the south side of the public square. The building became the headquarters for the Indian trade for the surrounding region. The Indians would file into town on their ponies, sometimes fifty or a hundred in number, with their furs, their squaws, and papooses, and for several days business would be brisk at Hubbard's corner of the square. The days of the Indian in Illinois were numbered, however, and in 1832 Hubbard converted his stock into ''white goods" as merchandise for white people was needed. The following year he moved to Chicago, where for over half a century he continued as a leading citizen of Chicago.

The "Hubbard Trail," over which Hubbard carried on his fur trade during these years was, of course, but another name for the Vincennes Trace. From Chicago it ran southward a few miles west of the state line, passing through the towns of Blue Island, Crete, Grant, Momence, Beaverville, Iroquois, Hoopeston, Myersville, and Danville. From Bunkum (or Iroquois) to Chicago it was identical with the Potawatomi Trail from Williamsport and Ouiatanon. During the pioneer period, it became a great highway of travel and traffic between the Wabash country and Chicago. In 1834 the legislature caused a state road to be laid out between Vincennes and Chicago. The commissioners who located it tried hard to get a straighter line and better ground than the Hubbard Trail but were forced to follow the old track with little deviation. It was marked with milestones and was commonly known as the State Road. With the coming of the railroads, the old state road was superseded and abandoned, but within the city of Chicago, its name still survives in that of modern State Street.

Many of the most picturesque incidents in the history of the Vincennes Trace are associated with the masterful personality of Hubbard. He stands alone among the fur-traders of Illinois because he successfully made the transition from the trade of the wilderness to the commerce of civilization, and won prestige and wealth as a leader of modern business. Strange indeed was the contrast between his life as an Indian trader and his later business career. The trader's life was one of continual hardship and danger, not less from the untutored Indian than from the natural perils of the wilderness. Hubbard was a man of indomitable will, and he possessed a constitution of iron. While in the Indian country he habitually wore a buckskin hunting shirt or a blue capote belted in at the waist with a sash, or buckskin belt, in which was carried a knife and sheath, a tomahawk, and a tobacco-pouch made of mink or otter skin. In this pouch were flint and steel, together with a piece of punk, to be used in striking a fire. Underneath the outer garment was a calico shirt, breech-cloth, and buckskin leggings. On his feet were moccasins and pieces of the blanket wrapped around to take the place of stockings. His head was bare, and his hair was long and matted. In winter he carried a blanket, which he sometimes wore in Indian fashion. Clad in such a garb, with face and hands browned by toil and exposure to the elements, there was but little in outward appearance to distinguish the trader from the savage.

A notable incident in connection with the Vincennes Trace occurred in the year 1827. This was the summer of the Winnebago War, and the settlers at Chicago were panic-stricken over the prospect of descent of the hostiles upon the place. The nearest settlement from which aid might be procured was Danville, 125 miles away. Hubbard, who chanced to be at Chicago at the time, volunteered to undertake the mission. Starting between four and five o'clock in the afternoon, he reached his trading house at Bunkum at midnight. Pausing only to change horses, he sped on his way. 

The night was dark and rainy, and on reaching Sugar Creek he found the stream over its banks and his horse refused to enter it. There was nothing to do but wait until daylight when he perceived the cause of the animal's refusal; a large tree had fallen across the trail in such a way as to render the ford impassable. Hubbard swam the stream, and at noon rode into Danville. A settler at once set out to sound the alarm, calling for volunteers to assemble at Danville the following evening with five days rations.

At the appointed time 100 men had assembled and organized themselves into a militia company with an old Indian fighter as their captain. It was, of course, a motley assemblage. Some of the men had flint-locks, others muskets, or squirrel rifles, and some no arms at all. Most of the men were mounted on their own or borrowed horses; a few began the march on foot, but these were soon compelled by the condition of the trail to abandon the enterprise. As for rations, each man provided what he saw fit, but it is recorded that none were without the indispensable pint of whiskey to "mix with the slough water" they must drink en route.

The march of this company of frontiersmen over the Hubbard Trace to Chicago presents a good illustration of travel conditions on an Indian trail. Although it was midsummer, heavy rains had turned the rivers into raging torrents, and the sloughs into open lakes. "We swam the former," records a member of the company, and "traveled through the latter sometimes almost by the hour. Many of the roads were so deep that our men dipped up the water to drink as they sat in their saddles." 

The story of the crossing of the Vermilion affords one picture of what lay back of the laconic (expressing much in few words) statements "we swam the streams." Like all the other rivers encountered on this journey, the Vermilion was running bank full with a swift current. The men and saddles were ferried over in a canoe, and an effort was made to compel the horses to swim. When the force of the current struck them, however, they would circle about and return to the bank a few rods (a rod equals 16½ feet) below their starting point. After several attempts had failed in this manner, Hubbard threw off his coat and called for "Old Charley," a large, steady-going horse that one of the settlers had brought along. Mounting Charley, he plunged into the water, the other horses being crowded in after him. In the swift current Charley became unmanageable, when Hubbard dismounted on the upper side and ignoring the danger of being washed under the animal or struck by his feet and drowned, he seized the horse's mane with one hand and swimming with the other, guided him to the opposite side.

Under such conditions of travel, the march from Danville to Chicago consumed four days. A week or two of guard duty at Chicago was performed, when the news was received that a treaty had been made with the Winnebago, and the Danville soldiers were free to return to their homes. Before their departure, the grateful Chicagoans knocked in the heads of barrels of whiskey, gin, and brandy, and all indulged in a glorious drinking bout. It is pleasant to be able to record that after the lapse of many years the men who took part in this campaign were rewarded for their services by the grant of eighty acres of bounty land. No textbook heralds to the rising generation the fame of Gurdon Hubbard's ride to Danville to bring troops to the rescue of imperiled Chicago; yet in comparison with it, the "midnight ride" of Paul Revere was merest child play.

A character whose memory is forever bound up with those of Hubbard and the Vincennes Trace is the gentle Indian maid, Watseka, who was born at the Indian village on the site of old Bunkum about the year 1810. The competition was fierce in the Indian trade, and the trader who could win the friendship of a chief enjoyed an advantage over his competitors which was not to be ignored. In the savage, as in civilized life, the favor of royalty is best secured and cemented through marriage alliances. In accordance with the custom of the forest, therefore, Hubbard entered upon a marriage of convenience by taking to wife a relative of Tamin, chief of the Kankakee band of Potawatomi. It was Tamin's first desire that Hubbard should wed his own grown daughter, but for reasons which may easily be imagined Hubbard declined this alliance. Instead, he indicated his willingness to marry Tamin's niece, Watseka, then a child of ten years of age. A pledge to do so was given, and when the girl had arrived at the age of fourteen or fifteen years she was brought to Hubbard by her mother and the marriage was consummated.

Over this union, as over the career of Watseka, hovers much of pathos (a quality that evokes pity or sadness) and tragedy. Watseka was a beautiful and intelligent girl, and Hubbard after some years testified to the ideal character of his union with her. It lasted about two years, during which a daughter was born and died. The advancing tide of white settlement spelled the doom of the Indian trade, however, and Hubbard, who possessed abundant foresight and shrewdness, laid his plans for abandoning his calling. This would involve severing his connection with Watseka's tribe and taking up life anew in a civilized community. Under these circumstances, the couple separated by mutual agreement, "in perfect friendship," according to Hubbard. His account of the transaction is entitled to entire credit, yet one can readily imagine that it was dictated more by the strong-willed husband, member of the dominant race and sex, than by the submissive wife. Viewed from any angle it was a hard situation, and Watseka doubtless had the sense to perceive that acquiescence in her husband's wishes was the only course open to her. After the separation from Hubbard, she became the wife of Noel Levasseur, whom Hubbard left in charge of his post at Bunkum on his own withdrawal from the place. After living with Levasseur for almost a decade and bearing him several children, this union was also dissolved, apparently much as the one with Hubbard had been. Watseka, still a comparatively young woman, now joined the remnant of the tribe in Kansas, while Levasseur, like Hubbard, remained in Illinois and contracted a new marriage alliance, this time with a white woman. About the year 1863 Watseka is said to have made the long journey, alone and on foot, from Kansas to her childhood home, there to brood over the graves of her people. Sad indeed must have been the pilgrimage, and poignant the memories awakened by the sight of the scenes of her childhood. Her memory is permanently-preserved in the town of Watseka [2] which was named in her honor.

For many years the only market for the produce of the settlements on the Wabash was distant New Orleans and thither (toward that place), on flatboats, nine-tenths of all the surplus produce of the state of Indiana before 1840 was carried. Early in the spring, in almost every inland community, the carpenters would begin the work of building the arks employed in the river trade. The finest poplars of the forest, some of them eighty feet or more in length, were selected for the gunwales (top edge of the hull of a boat). By the first of March, the boats must be completed and at the landing in readiness to receive their cargo. The work of loading them was a stirring community event. The boat-owners watched the stage of the river, and at the proper time word was sent out over the neighborhood to bring in the produce for shipment. Men and women alike turned out, the women cooked for the workers and to assist in wrapping and stowing away the goods. A barrel of whiskey stood open on the bank with a dipper conveniently near for all to drink at pleasure, and with much bustle and enthusiasm, the great work was accomplished.

An indication of the extent of this down-river traffic is afforded by the record that as early as the spring of 1826, 152 flatboats passed Vincennes loaded for New Orleans. A decade later it seems apparent that several hundred annually cleared from the Wabash. For the boatmen, the journey was fraught with hardship and danger. River pirates infested the downward way, a particularly notable rendezvous of these bandits being the celebrated Cave-in-Rock on the Ohio River, near the mouth of the Wabash. The long and tedious return journey on foot led through a sparsely settled region where lurked highwaymen the recital of whose malodorous deeds causes the blood of the listener to run cold with horror. Yet for many an inland dweller, like youthful Abraham Lincoln, the voyage was an enchanting adventure, affording a first glimpse of the great world which lay beyond his backwoods horizon.

The development of a market at Chicago in the early thirties afforded the dwellers on the Wabash a new outlet for their wares. The down-river trade did not cease, but youthful Chicago entered into vigorous competition with ancient New Orleans, and more and more of the produce of the Wabash found its way over the Vincennes Trace to the lakeshore market in the huge prairie schooners of the Hoosiers, the direct offspring of the famous Conestoga wagons of Pennsylvania.
A Conestoga Wagon
The extent of this traffic in the early years of Chicago's development seems at first sight astonishing. Few western communities produced any surplus for export in the earlier years of settlement, while most were compelled frequently to import even such staples like meat and flour. As lands were cleared and farms developed this situation tended to change, of course, but so great was the stream of migration into the country around Lake Michigan that for years there was a steady demand for the staple articles of consumption, which the Chicago market was depended upon to supply. 

Since the Wabash country had a large annual surplus available for export the Hoosiers turned, as a matter of course, to the Chicago market. From a distance of 200 miles or more they drove their livestock on foot and hauled their wheat and other produce in their huge, slow-moving, covered wagons towards Chicago. Their advent was a welcome event to all classes of people in the lakeshore city, not least to the small boys, whose characteristics were akin to those of the street urchin of all times. "The Wabash was our Egypt," wrote one of the men in after years. "Not only did we derive from there our supplies of smoked hams, bacon, poultry, butter, lard, etc., but also our dried and green fruit which was brought to us principally in the old-fashioned, huge Pennsylvania mountain wagons, drawn by eight or ten yoke of oxen or five or six span of horses." 

Between the Hoosier wagoners and the city urchins existed a deep-seated cause of strife, and the latter labored conscientiously to transfer to their pockets a portion of the schooner's cargo of fruit. It seemed cruelty to animals," continues the writer already quoted; "to stick a beautiful apple or luscious peach on a prong or dangle it by a string at the point of a canvas roof, as a sample of what the whole load was, and drive through a village with a big whip in the hands of a skilful Hoosier. Those Wabash fellows had never read 'lead us not into temptation' or they would not have done so. The justice-loving boys gaily assumed the responsibility of inflicting the penalty by filching the fruit."

The Hoosier in Chicago was an alien in a foreign land. Lanky, good-natured, rustic, and uncouth, of lineage hailing from Kentucky, Virginia, or perchance the Carolinas, he was the standing butt of the witticisms of the sophisticated Yankees of the city. Lumbering along the street "with a tar bucket in one hand and a sheet of gingerbread in the other," inquiring of the passing citizen where an ox-yoke or a bucket of tar could be purchased, he was likely to be directed to a dressmaking or millinery store; while it was a favorite pastime of the city auctioneer to inveigle (persuade somebody to do something by means of deception or flattery) a slow-witted Hoosier into bidding against himself for the possession of some such treasure as a red bandanna handkerchief.

At times, however, the Hoosier turned the tables on the more nimble-witted Yankee. A story of one such occasion has to do with the building of the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago. The infant society had in some way secured possession of a lot at the corner of Lake and Clark streets, on which plans were made to erect a temple of worship. One morning before the work was actually begun, the members of the church awoke to find that some enterprising claim jumper had erected during the night a small building on the front portion of the lot, and throughout the day the work of construction went steadily forward. But the children of light proved on this occasion more guileful than their despoilers. A member of the church sought out the lakeshore camp of the Hoosiers and held with a group of its denizens a mysterious conversation; its purpose became apparent on the following day, when the claim-jumpers awoke to find their new store building standing in the middle of Lake Street some distance from the church lot on which they had erected it. In the darkness of night, a party of Hoosiers had quietly yet expeditiously fastened their heavy chains to the sills of the building, and under the motive power of numerous yokes of oxen, it had proceeded to its new resting place. Immediately after this event, the members of the church society erected a new board fence around their recovered premises.

The dwellers by the lakeshore might gibe at him, yet the slow-going Hoosier brought to early Chicago almost its only touch of romantic association. The picture he implanted on the memory of one pioneer resident is thus expressed: "Their large covered wagons, curved at each end like a Roman galley, are seen in our streets no more. The loud crash of their far-reaching whips is lost in the metropolitan din (a loud, unpleasant, and prolonged noise). The whoa-haw, gee as the patient oxen draw their heavy loads, is merged in the shriek of the engine that does their labor for them. The tinkling of the many bells, suspended from their horses' heads, is the charming music of the shadowy past. The fires where they bivouacked (stayed in a temporary camp without cover) on Michigan Boulevard have gone out forever. The scent of their fried bacon and corn dodgers [3] is lost in the evil odors of a mighty city."
The Old Vincennes Trace near Xenia, Illinois.
The Vincennes Trace was a great thoroughfare leading into Chicago from the south. Like the road from the east, it received many tributaries in its northward course. The Indian trail, as we have seen, led almost due north through eastern Illinois, receiving at Bunkum a great affluent in the Potawatomi trail leading from Williamsport and the Wea towns. Illinois in 1834 laid out the state road from Vincennes to Chicago, following approximately the course of the Indian trail. Indiana as early as 1829 made provision for extending the state road from Indianapolis to Crawfordsville over the Potawatomi trail to the Illinois line. From Crawfordsville, the road was to run by Williamsport and "from there to the State line, in a direction to Chicago." Thus was established what has ever since been locally known as the ''Chicago Road." From Williamsport, it ran northwestwardly past the site of the modern town of Boswell to Parish's Grove, and on to the state line near Raub. An extension of the road west of the line joined the Vincennes-Chicago State Road at Bunkum, the site of Hubbard's old trading post.

Although statistics are lacking, it seems not unlikely that the eastern affluent provided the major portion of the travel on the Vincennes Trace between Bunkum and Chicago. Over it, from an early date, a stream of emigrant wagons poured northward into the counties of northwestern Indiana and on to the still-vacant lands of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa. There were whole months, says a local authority, when "at any time, on any day," prairie schooners might be seen traveling across the plains northward from Parish's Grove. "The old trail suddenly assumed national importance. From Ohio, Kentucky, and all Indiana south of the Wabash, a tide rolled on that ultimately filled all the groves and prairies north of the Wabash, and overflowed into the newer territories to the north and west." 

To accommodate this travel, and to supply the wants of the farmers and wagoners who piloted their schooner-laden caravans to the Chicago market, taverns and camping places were established at intervals of a few miles all along the route. The wagoners commonly cared only for a camping place where they could tether and feed their animals. They carried their own provisions, frying their rasher of bacon, and boiling their coffee over the campfire around which they passed the night. In Chicago, their common camping ground was the open stretch of dry land between State Street and the lakeshore. An observer records that on one occasion, from the roof of a warehouse at the corner of State Street and South Water Street he counted 160 Hoosier wagons assembled on this ground. Colorful, indeed, must have been the scene presented at such times by the fitful light of the many evening fires falling upon the white-topped wagons and the clumsy, contented oxen. The association of the Hoosier wagoners within this vicinity has been handed down to present-day Chicago in the name of Wabash Avenue, which, like State Street, takes its cognomen from the traffic of the old Vincennes Trace.

On his return journey, the Hoosier carried back from Chicago such as fruits and vegetables and other "store goods" as the simple wants of his family, or the condition of his purse might dictate. Frequently, too, he hauled a stock of goods for the village merchant, which had been purchased in New York or Boston and brought west to Chicago by way of the Erie Canal and the lakes. These things aside, the great staple of the return cargo was salt. 

For a dozen years after the Vermilion salt works were opened by white settlers they continued to be a profitable source of business, and their product supplied the wants of the population over a wide extent of country. Before their opening, salt had been brought from Kentucky, chiefly by flat-boats up the Wabash and its tributaries, but the expense of this upstream transportation was so great that the use of salt was restricted. Although 100 gallons of water must be evaporated at the Vermilion works to make a bushel of salt, it could be produced much more cheaply than it could be transported from Kentucky. People came to the works from a long distance in wagons or on horseback to procure it, readily paying $1.25 or $1.50 a bushel for it. Much of the output was transported downriver, also, in flat-boats or pirogues (a long, narrow canoe made from a single tree trunk) to supply the lower country. The improvement of the Chicago harbor, however, dealt the industry a fatal blow. Salt from Syracuse could now be shipped by canal and lake-boat to Chicago and then hauled to the Wabash by the Hoosier wagoners more cheaply than it could be produced at Danville. Hence it came about that the Vermilion works fell into decay and the schooners returning from Chicago to the Wabash were commonly freighted with cargoes of salt.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


Additional Reading:
Incidents and Events in the Life of; by Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard pub:1888
Autobiography of; by Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard pub:1911

[1] Fort Ouiatenon, built-in 1717, was the first fortified European settlement in what is now called Indiana. It was a palisade stockade with log blockhouse used as a French trading post on the Wabash River located approximately three miles southwest of modern-day West Lafayette.

[2] An Indian tradition concerning the significance of Watseka's name is so charming as to deserve preservation. It relates that on one occasion an Iroquois war-party fell upon the Potawatomi village situated on the banks of the river a few miles below Watseka, and drove out the occupants with a great slaughter. The fugitives were collected in the nighttime some distance away, engaged in lamenting their disaster. A woman of great spirit and resolution urged the men to return and attack the Iroquois, who would be rioting in the spoils of victory and unexpectant of danger. Since the warriors refused to respond to the woman's urging she at length said she would raise a party of squaws and lead them to attack the Iroquois; and that since death or captivity on the morrow would be the lot of the women, they might as well perish in the attempt to regain their homes. The bravery of their wives and daughters inspired the warriors with renewed courage, and returning to the field of combat they surprised and utterly defeated the Iroquois.

The heroine who suggested and bore an active part in the enterprise was Watch-e-kee. To perpetuate the story of her heroism the warriors decreed in solemn council that after her death her name should be bestowed upon the most accomplished maiden of the tribe, and in this way be handed down through successive generations. The last person to bear the name — transformed by the whites into its present form of Watseka — was she who became the wife of Hubbard.

[3] Corn Dodgers - These easy-to-make cornmeal cakes were popular with pioneers heading west and Civil War soldiers even though they were dense, gritty, and hard-as-a-rock cakes.
Recipe Ingredients:

  • 2 cups yellow cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter (pioneers way: any fat)
  • 2 cups boiling water

Baking Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400º Fahrenheit, and ready an ungreased cookie sheet.
  2. Blend the cornmeal and salt.
  3. With a wooden spoon, mix in the butter and enough boiling water to make a dough that is completely moist, but firm enough to hold its shape.
  4. Drop heaping spoonfuls of the batter on the cookie sheet and pat lightly into mounds or create other shapes.
  5. Bake 20-25 minutes, until golden-crisp on the outside.
  6. Serve straight from the oven.

Opening of the Ogden Park bicycle program in Chicago, 1956.

Dr. Paul White riding in the front of the tandem bicycle and Mayor Richard J. Daley riding on the back. 1956