New trading post at Forks of Wabash to accurately reflect French influence in area

A trading post that will showcase the influence of French traders on the area is the latest addition to the Forks of the Wabash Historic Park.
A trading post that will showcase the influence of French traders on the area is the latest addition to the Forks of the Wabash Historic Park. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

When French traders wandered down the waterway from Montreal to what is now Huntington around 1700, they were just looking to make a living.

Their arrival, though, sparked the beginning of a fundamental change in the culture of the Miamis native to the area.

The French were the first Europeans to make it this far, and their influence extended until they were chased out by the British in 1763 at the end of the French and Indian War (which, despite its name, was actually a war between the French and the British).

Some 250 years later, the French have been largely pushed to the background when the area's history is recounted - something the Forks of the Wabash Historic Park plans to remedy.

"I felt strongly that the French period of the Forks has been underrepresented," says Tim Guy, who serves as treasurer of the Historic Forks' board of directors and, in his spare time, re-enacts the role of a French trader.

With that background, Guy assumed the role of coordinator in the development of a trading post at the Forks to tell the story of the French traders. That trading post will open to the public on Saturday, Sept. 21, in conjunction with a program by the Indiana state archaeologist explaining the French influence on this area.

"The French were the first white people to come to the Forks area," Guy explains. "Whether or not they had a trading post here, we don't know. But there may have been."

The arrival of the French traders can be attributed to French inheritance customs of the time, says Jean Gernand, a retired teacher who was instrumental in the birth of the Forks of the Wabash Historic Park and is still an active volunteer at the park.

"The first-born male got the family fortune and one, if they could spare him, they hoped would be a priest," Gernand says. "The rest were left to fend for themselves, and a lot of them found their way to Canada."

From Canada, they could travel south entirely by way of lakes and rivers - with the exception of a "long portage" that began near Fort Wayne and ended at the Forks of the Wabash and Little rivers.

"This long portage linked it all together," says Guy. "This would have been a very likely place there would have been a trading post."

The French had posts all along the water route, he notes.

The French interaction with the Miamis was peaceful, Gernand says, to the point that many of the traders married Miami women. But the goods that the French brought with them changed the Miamis' way of life as the Miamis became dependent on them, Guy adds.

The traders wanted furs, Guy says.

Europeans needed the furs to adorn their fashionable clothing and for use as warm blankets, but furs had become very scarce in Europe.

The traders brought all kinds of items that had been shipped from France - butcher knives, musket balls, gun flints, vermillion pigment for face painting, scissors, beads, needles and fabric, brandy, musket powder, axes and more. They traded those items for furs, which were shipped back to France.

Those trade items and furs are stocked at the Forks' new trading post, which will be the province of Pierre Roy - a real French trader known to have been active in this area in the early 1700s - portrayed by local re-enactor Randy Bellamy.

Roy was a key figure in the fur trade at Post Miamis (present day Fort Wayne) and also served as an interpreter. He married a Miami woman known as Marguerite.

The trading post, set in the year 1715, will be opened primarily for school tours, Guy says, with Bellamy explaining to visitors how items were traded for furs.

Others interested in serving as an interpreter in the French trading post can call the Forks office at 356-1903.

The log building that houses the trading post was moved to the Forks from its original location on Waterworks Road, where it served as a home for nearly a century after being built in the last half of the 1800s, Gernand says.

The move and subsequent renovation of the building was accomplished with funds raised through the Forks of the Wabash Pioneer Festival by one of the festival's co-sponsors, the Junior Historical Society, she notes.
Three Boy Scouts have earned Eagle awards for their work on the building, Gernand says.

The log building sat empty for years after its move to the Forks.

"It survived several suggestions that it be burned," says Jim Taylor, a member of the Forks board of directors.

The French trading post will be introduced to the public on Saturday, Sept. 21, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. During that time, state archaeologist Rick Jones, from the Indiana Department of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, will present a program explaining the French influence in Indiana.

Refreshments will be served and other buildings at the Forks will be open during the afternoon.

Admission will be charged.

Complete caption: A trading post that will showcase the influence of French traders on the area is the latest addition to the Forks of the Wabash Historic Park. Shown inside the trading post are (from left) Susan Taylor, Forks volunteer; Jim Taylor, Forks board member; Jean Gernand, Junior Historical Society coordinator; and Tim Guy, treasurer of the Forks board of directors.