Northeast Indiana: “That Glorious Gate”

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Map of Fort Wayne, said to have been made on July 18, 1795, for General Anthony Wayne, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It is not unusual to hear people new to the Allen County, Indiana area mention that local history seems to be an exceptionally prominent topic.  Some suggest that this is because northeast Indiana was the stage for much of the nation’s early history.  It was through this county that a crossroads was shaped from natural formations that sent rivers flowing in each of the four corners of the compass.

From this point a traveler could move up the Saint Joseph River into Michigan or follow the Saint Mary’s River well into Ohio or head down the Maumee to the Eastern Great Lakes.  To the west too, much of this history unfolded because of a short land barrier over which travelers could portage to the headwaters of the Wabash River. It led directly to the Mississippi Valley and to the heart of the continent. Militarily, whoever controlled this crossway of trails, and the rivers they followed, commanded one of North America’s critical sites in the wilderness era. Savage battles were witnessed in the region and resulted in the displacement of the indigenous American Indian peoples.

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History of Allen County, Indiana (1880), courtesy of Archive.org.
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Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society marker.

Popular history tells of battles such as those fought at Concord, Yorktown, and Gettysburg or developments such as the Wright Brothers’ first flight or Edison’s light. However, northeast Indiana’s region is filled with significant, untold stories founded by its unique location. The area is perhaps best described by Miami Chief Little Turtle in 1795 when he described the Three Rivers vicinity to General Anthony Wayne as “that glorious gate . . . through which all good words of our chief’s had to pass from north to south and from east to west.”

Historian Michael Hawfield once described this region:

“In later years, long after the wilderness had been tamed, transportation enterprises, financial corporations, and major manufacturing companies continued to be drawn to this crossroads in the heartland of the American marketplace and industry. Also, attracted to the crossroads were all those extraordinary and wonderfully ordinary individuals who conceived the inventions, made the components, drove the trolleys, designed the buildings, built the parks, and served in wars, put out the fires, developed the businesses, created the hospitals and much more.”

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Sentinel Building, Fort Wayne, History of Allen County, Indiana (1880), courtesy of Archive.org.

Signs of this lively heritage endure and represent a dynamic present and promising future, as summarized by Hawfield:

“There are churches of touching compassion and beautiful architecture full of meaning, and parks full of recreation, tradition, and natural beauty, and there are noble and curious monuments, the oldest buildings, and the grand homes of bygone magnates. These are the constant reminders of our origins, our challenges and our promise.”

Check out early interpretations of the region’s history with the History of Allen County, Indiana, published in 1880.

Fort Wayne Pioneer: Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman

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Johnny Appleseed, image courtesy of biography.com.

John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, serves as an example of a part of the religious fervor on the western frontier in the years before the Civil War.  The legends and tales about him that grew even in his own lifetime rivaled those of his contemporaries, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.  Like them, Chapman’s career in the wilderness as a preacher and Good Samaritan quickly got caught up in the American imagination.

Johnny Appleseed had been on the frontier for several decades before coming to Fort Wayne, possibly as early as 1822.  Already many stories were told of this gentle man’s propagation of fruit trees in odd plots of land all over the Pennsylvania and Ohio wilderness, his love of wildlife, and the awe in which American Indians regarded him as a powerful medicine man.

He repeated the Bible verse Song of Solomon 2:5, which stated “refresh me with apples.” Johnny Appleseed declared “with apples shall men be comforted in the wilderness of the West.”  A holy man he was, for his principal aim was to bring, “some news right fresh from heaven” as he read from the Beatitudes to the settlers he visited in cabins in the forest. He told them of the spiritual happiness he enjoyed through the teachings of the Church of New Jerusalem. Ironically, the apples produced were not like the sweet apples we eat today, and therefore the fruit was more likely to be used for hard cider. This explains why many of the orchards he planted were destroyed during Prohibition.

One eyewitness described Johnny Appleseed’s appearance when he came to Fort Wayne as:

“simply clad, in truth clad like a beggar.  His refined features told of his intelligence, even though seen through the gray stubble that covered his face since he cut his hair and beard with scissors.  Johnny was serious, his speech clean, free from slang or profanity.  He traveled on foot – sometimes with just one shoe or two different kinds of boots.”

Some descriptions have him wearing his cooking pot for a hat, at times with other parts of hats – the crown or the brim – on top of his tin cap.  Other biographers claim that because his mush-pot hat did not protect his eyes from the bright sun well enough that he fashioned one made of pasteboard with a large peak in front.  Although his eccentric appearance occasionally caused anxiety or even alarm in some people, by and large, he was well liked for his sincere and kind ways.

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Artist depiction of John Chapman tending one of his apple tree plots, image courtesy of Find-A-Grave.

Exceptionally strong for his tall slim frame, one pioneer observed that Johnny Appleseed was able to get more work done clearing the forests in one day than most men could finish in two.  Above all else, however, he was appreciated for his great ability to tell stories about his church, of his many adventures on the frontier, his narrow escapes in the wilderness, his interactions with American Indians, and his association with the wildlife of the Midwest, from bears to wasps.

Johnny Appleseed showed a great reverence for all life, including the lowly insects. In fact, he became a vegetarian later in life.  One story often told was that when he was being stung by a hornet that had crawled into his shirt, he carefully removed his shirt to allow the creature to go on its way unharmed rather than kill the stinging nuisance.  On another occasion he put out his evening camp fire to avoid the possibility of the moths being destroyed in the flames.  He was known to have purchased an aged horse from a pioneer who was continuing to put the creature to work, in order that the animal could spend its last days peacefully at pasture. A settler once described him saying that he was like, “good St. Francis, the little brother of the birds and the little brother of the beasts.”

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Notice, Fort Wayne Sentinel, April 19, 1845, accessed NewspaperArchive.com.

Johnny Appleseed died in 1845 at the age of 71.  He had been protecting his saplings from some cows that had broken down the fence of one of his orchards just north of Fort Wayne.  He was overcome by his exertions and succumbed to what the people of the time called the “winter plague.”  He was buried along the St. Joseph River and the old feeder canal bed on the Archer farm, but the actual site is not known today; a commemorative marker** sits atop the hill in present-day Johnny Appleseed Park, which was once the Archer family cemetery. Each year during the Fort Wayne festival that bears his name, visitors remember the comfort John Chapman brought to the west, for around his memorial children fondly place their gifts of apples.

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Memorial gravesite at the Fort Wayne Johnny Appleseed Park, image courtesy of North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Services.

**This marker is not associated with the Indiana Historical Bureau State Historical Marker Program.

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Learn more about Johnny Appleseed and his influence on cultural history with William Kerrigan’s book, sold at IHB’s Book Shop.