February 2019 Program
SBAGS Members Meeting Highlights February 25, 2019
By: Bill Minish
Our 2019 meeting season opened in February instead of January due to the weather cancellation of the January meeting, the first time in our meeting history that we have had to make a weather cancellation. We were pleased to have as our speaker, a familiar and respected friend, Travis Childs of The History Museum, who spoke to the attendees on The Fur Trade in Northern Indiana. Travis opened the meeting with levity of the successive titles given his museum over the years, now being settled as The History Museum.
He reminded all that our state’s name Indiana comes from the fact that the area was densely populated by Native Americans (Indians) due the richness of game and cropland. Slides of the dwellings of our native in-habitants showed these to be of “wigwam” or “long house” construction of poles, with bark and leather sid-ing. Travis commented that “tepees” were strictly Plains Indian dwellings and never existed here. A large village of these dwellings existed in the area of Highland Cemetery and was of Miami tribal origin. Slides showed the proclivity of tattooing and nose and ear piercings with these peoples. Also their typical winter clothing of moccasins, leggings, breech cloth, and shirt, all of tanned animal hide. Summer found our Native Indians with little or no clothing.
Travis then commented on the animal species that brought Europeans to the area for fur trapping and for export to the European markets. He had beautiful slides of the following animals of our area which were hunted and trapped:
- Beaver – the preferred animal to trap, valuable for hats and coats.
- Black Bear – last seen 1850, possibly one seen lately.
- Bison – the Wood Buffalo, smaller than the Plains Buffalo, last seen wild in 1830, pelt today worth $1,500.
- Badger – one of the most vicious of the fur bearing animals.
- Porcupine – last seen 1840.
- Elk – last seen 1830, dangerous to cattle as carrier of multiple parasites.
- Fisher – last seen 1859, of the mink family.
- Grey and Red Fox – still common, especially the Red Fox.
- Grey Wolf – last seen 1908.
- Raccoon – still common.
- White Tail Deer – very common, overabundant due lack of predators.
- Turkey – common, hard to hunt due extraordinary eyesight and hearing.
- Skunk – common.
- Bobcats – still common and elusive.
- Lynx – last seen 1832.
- Woodchuck or groundhog – common and very plentiful today.
- Mountain Lion or Cougar – last seen 1851.
- Possum – the only North American marsupial, plentiful, most teeth of any mammal.
The start of the fur trade in our area was the great monetary gain from exporting and selling fur pelts to the rich European market. The richness of the animal population here, and the connecting waterways of the Great Lakes and the river systems made gathering and moving the fur feasible.
Tanning of the hides at this time was time consuming. The inside had to be stretched and scraped of all fat and tissue, then preserved using an ancient Indian technique of rubbing animal brain material into the inte-rior surface of the hide. The purpose was to remove all moisture from the hide, making it supple. Tanning today is chemically done.
The first European to the area was the explorer Rene Robert De La Salle who is documented as arriving in South Bend December 17, 1679 to the area of Highland Cemetery. He built and sailed the Great Lakes in his small ship ‘Griffon’ (believed lost and now a shipwreck somewhere in the Great Lakes). His exploration continued down the St. Joseph River to South Bend, down the river to the Kankakee River, down to the Illi-nois River, and down to the Mississippi River. La Salle returned to the area in 1681, meeting at the famous Council Oak Tree. Sadly nothing remains of the tree, and Travis commented on the tragic attempts to pre-serve it, showing slides of what it was and only the stump and marker that remains of it today.
A major area of fur trapping was the extensive multi-square mile Grand Kankakee Marsh which contin-ued famous after the fur trapping era as a major recreational hunting area with many famous people hunting there including Teddy Roosevelt. Draining began in the 1850s continuing though the1880-90 era for crop-land and remains very fertile agricultural land today. Nearly one million acres were drained.
Travis then spoke of the early settlers, well known to us. Pierre Navarre with the first permanent home in 1820 in St. Joseph County. ‘Cabin Days’ festivities are celebrated today in his restored home. John Jacob Astor I, not a resident, was a major financier and fur company owner of the American Fur Trading Company. Alexis Coquillard who opened the first trading post. Lathrop Taylor who settled here in 1827 and opened the first trading post. Both Coquillard and Taylor owned lots on both sides of the St. Joseph River in what is now downtown South Bend.
Travis then closed taking a multitude of questions and comments from the attendees. Our thanks, Travis, for a informative look at our early history and the fur trade that brought early explorers and settlers to our area.