Water here. Water there. Water just about everywhere was one of the ways many of our early settlers discovered our area. Picture Sugar Creek much larger, width and depth, big enough for keel boats. This is why the original name was Rock River. All of the creeks were deeper and wider, providing water for homes and irrigation. Sugar Creek along with Coal Creek, Raccoon Creek, Wea, Eel River and others are tributaries of the Wabash. The Wabash was massive at one time, fed from the Great Lakes but somewhere along the way (1881 Hiram Beckwith History of Montgomery County) it became “only a riverlet, a shriveled, dried-up representative of its greatness in prehistoric times.” This happened to our Sugar Creek, as well, but in our early years, it remained the basis of exploration, along with the obvious foot and pony way.
Many early historians feel our lush land and timbers were formed by receding water. When Europeans first came to America and “left the dense forests east of the Alleghenies and went west over the mountains into the valleys, they would see small patches of country destitute of timber.” These openings in our area were much increased. The English called these barren and the French referred to them as prairies.
The Native Americans gave names to places or things in view of the peculiarities of the item; thus, our Sugar Creek they dubbed Rock River due to the many rocks it traveled over and those along its banks and the size at the time indicated river. The word Miami was pronounced and referred to in several different ways Oumiami, Maumee, Miahama, Monami, Aumiami and others (Beckwith). As Indiana was developing, General William Henry Harrison noted that the Miami “were diminishing every year” and the more American settlers coming in would drive them to sell to the government (Beckwith). Although they lost some in number by skirmishes with settlers and troops, small pox was the real killer of the majority, wiping out whole villages.
Wild game consisting of deer, turkeys, rabbits and perhaps buffalo (different reports on this) and other wild animals would in just a few minutes of hunting feed several families. Fish galore dwelled not only in Sugar Creek but all the creeks in our area. Settlers (and the Native Americans before them) were lucky to find wild plums, grape and paw-paws in abundance.
The Native Americans lived in harmony with the French, but one chief said to Gen. Harrison, “Why do you not make us happy like our fathers, the French did? They never took from our land. They planted where they pleased — so did we. They cut wood where they pleased — so did we. Now, if one of us attempts to take a little bark from a tree to cover himself from the rain, up comes a white man and threatens to shoot him.” (Beckwith). Our little patches of Native Americans left were mainly good, even living in the area up into the 1830s, although I have heard one family story that when the husband was away, one was aiming to steal and perhaps more. The lady shot out the door and evidently killed him — she buried him and the husband was happy when he returned that all was well! Little did he know!
If you’re a Native American historian and haven’t read the HW Beckwith’s 250-plus pages that opens his Montgomery County History you will want to. Have to admit here, I had never done so, but now glad I did. M.M. Vancleave noted that when he came from Kentucky in 1825 at age 15, there were more Native Americans than white people and that he would dig ginseng to exchange for coffee and teas. Panthers, snakes and wolves were in large abundance. My favorite item he discussed was, “Roads were made in those days by blazing the trees along the line of the route.” (Crawfordsville Weekly Journal Oct. 6, 1877).
At the time of the Beckwith history, and don’t think it has changed any or little, Montgomery County was 24 miles from north to south and 21 miles across, containing 504 square miles with 332,560 acres (figures from an 1875 survey). Several springs fed the many streams. In the early days the diversity of the surface was fairly unique (western broken and hilly, north and center rolling, east and south flat and level and the northern border having fertile prairies.” (Beckwith). Heavy growths of poplar walnut, oak, beech and those still popular sugar maples covered much of the county. There were a few swamps which through the decades have mainly evened out. Huge boulders are still found — in fact, we have one in our basement and it’s staying right where it is.
Well, hopefully, this little piece has given you a bit of a hint of what our area was like before and about the time it was settled, long before Wabash College became the center of our education; long before Lew Wallace’s book put us on the map; long before the beauty of the southwestern area became a state park … long before so many wonderful happenings in our community. So, stay tuned to learn more interesting county history.
Karen Zach is a former Montgomery County Historian.
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