Early History of Indiana to 1779

(This history is not intended as a comprehensive or all-inclusive history on the state of Indiana. The History Museum provides this for general knowledge about Indiana’s history.)


Thousands of years before Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Americas which led the way to North America for the Europeans, an ancient race of people lived in North America. These people were the ancestors of the Indians. Along with the native peoples that lived around the Great Lakes area large animals roamed. One of these prehistoric animals was the mammoth (sometimes referred to as the Woolly Mammoth) which looked like a modern day elephant. There was also giant bison which were very similar to today’s bison. In addition, there were large wolves, saber-toothed tigers, bears and beavers.


The first people who lived in what would later become Indiana were hunters of these (and other) animals. They cooked their food over open fires and used the skins of animals for clothing and shelter. As time went on hunting and gathering among the Indians changed. They began to hunt smaller animals such as deer and rabbits. To do so they had to change their weapons. Small spearheads were used in place of large spearheads. Eventually the bow and arrow was invented because it was easier to hunt small, quick animals.


The Indians used the lakes, rivers and streams of Indiana to fish for food. Sometimes shellfish and mussels were eaten and the Indians threw away the shells. These shells are found by archaeologists even today and provide a glimpse into the everyday life of early Indiana residents. Scientists have also discovered that the Indians ate deer, bear, turtles and water fowl. They also collected berries, apples and nuts from the forest in which they lived.


Indians learned that if they placed seeds into the soil these seeds would grow into plants. This is the beginning of farming. They paid very close attention to the seeds that they were planting which would grow to feed their tribe (or group). Indian farmers turned wild plants into foods which we have today: corn, pumpkins, beets, squash and tomatoes.


Around this time in Indiana history the Indians learned to create pottery and baskets. And because they were able to grow their own food, they started to live together in small communities or villages. Once you have a stable food supply you do not have to travel around every season.


Since the search for food was now not an all day, every day event, Indians spent more time becoming skilled at a certain craft. Some Indians became very skilled at making better and sharper arrowheads. Others started to make things from copper. When an Indian (or whole village) became skilled at one craft they sometimes exchanged their craft with products from other villages. This became known at trading. Trading is the selling or exchange of products.


Indians that traded with other Indians would not only gain a specific product, but would share ideas and customs. One idea that was popular among Indians in Indiana was mound building. A mound was a hill that consisted of built up earth and stone. The Indians that learned this custom are referred to as Mound Builders.

The Mound Builders

The first mounds that Indians constructed within Indiana were burial mounds. A mound was built to house the body (or bodies) of the mound building Indians. The bodies were usually decorated with products the Indians had traded from other villages (sometimes as far away as the Rocky Mountains). The mounds’ function evolved from a burial chamber to a flat-topped mound in which a large building was placed on top. This was possibly the home of an important Indian within his tribe.


A good example of a Indian built mound is at Mounds State Park in Anderson, Indiana. The largest mound inside the park is 360 feet across. The mound is in the shape of a circle with a large platform in the center of the mound circle. The hollow circle is wide enough to place an entire football in the center. In the middle of the mound, scientists have discovered human skeletons and other Indian artifacts. Angel Mounds in Evansville, Indiana is the location of another mound building community.

European Exploration & Recent Indian Tribes

Not long after Columbus (and later Juan Ponce deLeon) discovered the Americas, Europeans began exploring North America. Much of what is known about the Indians living in this area is taken exclusively from early explorers’ notes.


In the 1600s there were two major groups of Indians living in the Eastern Woodlands (the land east of the Mississippi River), the Iroquois and the Algonquian groups. These two groups of Indians had some similarities. They both farmed and hunted for food, used canoes to travel the waterways of North America and used wood and bark for building shelter.


They also had a very important difference, they spoke two different kinds of languages. The two groups also had different customs and traditions. Within both of these groups there were several tribes. A tribe shared the same language, tradition, history and customs.

The Miami Tribe

A majority of Indians living in Indiana belonged to the Miami tribe. The Miami tribe was part of the Algonquian group of Indians. The Algonquian group also included the Delaware, Potawatomi, Kickapoo and Shawnee tribes. Out of all of these tribes the Miami were the largest.


The Miamis lived in villages that were usually along waterways and trails throughout the state. Each spring the men of these Miami tribes would help the women clear the fields for planting. The Miami women were then responsible for planting and harvesting the crop. When the harvest of crops was over the entire village celebrated by having a large party with singing, dancing, game-playing and, of course, eating.


In the fall and winter, Miami men left the villages to hunt. They usually hunted deer, rabbits, bear and beaver. These animals not only provided food, they provided their skins and fur for clothing. When these men returned to the village after a successful hunting trip there would be another large party.


In the latter part of winter and early spring, Miami women and children went out into the woods to tap the maple trees for their sap. This sap was boiled and placed into birchbark containers. If the sap was boiled a long time it eventually turned into maple syrup.


The Miami tribe, just like many other tribes, was divided into clans. The people who belonged to a clan were usually blood related. Each of the clans within the Miami tribe had their own sign, which is similar to having a last name. Some of the clans’ names were: eagle, turtle, fish, duck, fox and acorn.


Within each clan there was an elected chief. There were also chiefs for the village and for the entire tribe. Usually, each chief had a group of advisors which made up his council. There were chiefs assigned just to oversee wars, oversee the community and a civil chief that was assigned to keep peace within the clans, villages and tribe.


Believe it or not, there were actually two chiefs of war and the community. Beside the male chief there was a female chief. The female war chief was responsible for making certain that if the tribe went to war the warriors had the supplies they needed. The female community (or civil) chief was in charge of food preparation for the large festivals that were held at different times of the year. She also kept track of people’s behavior within the clan or tribe.

The Arrival of the Europeans

The Miami Indians, along with most Indians in North America, embraced the tools first brought by the Europeans in the early 1600s. The tribes began to trade for iron pots, knives and guns. They used the colored glass beads and woven cloths the Europeans brought. The Europeans traded these iron tools for skins of beaver, bear and deer.


The arrival of the Europeans caused a great change among the Indian tribes and their way of life. The first catastrophic change among Indian tribes was the introduction of European diseases and viruses. The Indians, who had no natural immunity to these new diseases, died by the thousands. With the arrival of farming settlers into once held Indian territory many Indians died by wars or were forcibly removed to places farther and farther west.


The tribes within Indiana almost completely disappeared by the early 1800s.

The French in Indiana

In the early 1500s a French explorer, Jacques Cartier, discovered the St. Lawrence River. Because he was the first to discover the area around the St. Lawrence River, Cartier claimed all of the land for France. The French government named this new land New France.


In 1603 Samuel de Champlain arrived to govern this new territory and founded the city of Quebec. He also spent a large amount of his time exploring the land around the St. Lawrence River. Champlain encouraged the French already in New France to learn Indian languages and to live in the forests. These Frenchman became known as Voyagers. Many of them lived among the Indian tribes.


Catholic priests also came to New France. They worked on behalf of the Catholic church to teach their religion to the Indians. Often priests and French Voyagers traveled together.

Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle

La Salle sailed to New France in 1666. Once in North America he started to learn the ways of the local Indians. His main desire was not to stay and settle in New France but to travel and explore the western regions and claim any new lands he found for France.


In 1669 La Salle started to explore the areas around the Great Lakes. He traveled south of Lake Erie until he found the Ohio River. La Salle named the river “ohio” after the Iroquois word for “beautiful water.”


La Salle set out to explore more territory in 1679. His main purpose in undertaking this journey was to set up frontier trading posts. His first goal was to have a ship built. When the ship was completed (named the Griffon) La Salle and his party sailed as far as Green Bay on Lake Michigan. After departing from the Griffon, La Salle’s party used canoes to explore the southern shores of Lake Michigan. They eventually found the mouth of the St. Joseph River, which emptied into Lake Michigan. La Salle made camp waiting on the Griffon to return with more supplies not knowing it had sunk.


Not wanting to spend the winter at the mouth of the St. Joseph River, La Salle and his men paddled up the river in 8 canoes. In December of 1679, they camped along the St. Joseph River’s south bend. This place later became the city of South Bend. Robert La Salle was the first white man to visit Indiana.


La Salle went on to travel from the St. Joseph River down the Kankakee and eventually out into the Mississippi River. He claimed all of the land around the Mississippi and its tributaries for France. La Salle named this new land Louisiana after the French king Louis. Indiana was part of this new land named Louisiana.

French Outposts and Fur Trading in Indiana

After the death of La Salle many Europeans, especially of French descent, came into the new area La Salle had claimed for France. His wish of having trading posts set up in this new land became a reality. Trading posts and forts began to be founded throughout Indiana.


The first fort thought to be established in Indiana was named Fort Miami. It was built around 1715 on the Maumee River portage. The portage that Ft. Miami was located on was a path that connected the Maumee and Wabash Rivers. The city of Fort Wayne is located there now. Within Ft. Miami log homes were constructed that housed the families of the soldiers and traders that lived and worked at the fort.


Another fort was constructed in Indiana around 1720. It was built where the Tippecanoe River flows into the Wabash River. This fort was named Fort Ouiatenon. It was located in present day West Lafayette.


In 1732 a very large fort was constructed at a French village on the Wabash River in the southern part of Indiana. The fort was named Fort Vincennes after the French officer in command.


A church was soon built in Vincennes around 1708 and French settlers had cleared land for orchards and gardens. Settlers built log cabins and settled into ‘city’ life. Vincennes had an early population of 300 people which made it the largest French town in Indiana. It is also the oldest settled town in Indiana. Learn more about the Vincennes territorial capital.

The English in Indiana

In the 1600s English settlers along the Atlantic coast began to travel to the western edges of New France (and Louisiana). The English, typically, were not content on trading with the Indians for a career. They began to enter the Ohio Valley in the early 1700s. In response, the French sent the soldier Celoron de Bienville into the Ohio Valley to drive the English out.


Celoron met with the Indian tribes in the Ohio Valley area and told them that they must trade only with the French. Any tribes who traded with the English were subject to attack from the French military. Celoron and his soldiers captured several English fur traders and told them to leave and stay on the east side of the Appalachian Mountains.


In addition, Celoron wrote letters to the governors of Pennsylvania and New York informing the governors to keep their English citizens out of the Ohio Valley. The English ignored the warnings and banishments and continued to travel into the Ohio Valley. The English told the Indians that the valley belong to them and not the French. English traders also told the Indians that they would attack them if they caught them trading with the French. The Indians were caught in a no-win situation.
The French and Indian War


The conflict between the English and French finally erupted into a war in 1755. Indians fought on both sides of this war even though a large portion of Indians fought on the side of the French. This was is known as the French and Indian War.


Even though the French had the help of a larger portion of Indians, they still managed to loose the war. The English colonies along the east coast had more people and more supplies immediately available to soldiers. At this time the population of the English colonies was around 2 million people while the French living in North American only numbered around 60,000 people.


The war finally ended in 1763. Both France and England signed a treaty called the Treaty of Paris. In this treaty, France gave England both Canada and the French held lands east of the Mississippi River. This treaty gave the English control of what is now Indiana.


As a result of the French and Indian War, the king of England issued a proclamation forbidding any English colonist from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains. The main benefit of this was that the Indians, now pleased that the king was keeping new settlers from trespassing on their lands, began to trade solely with the English.

Americans in Indiana

American colonists had helped the British defeat the French during the French and Indian War. Now, the American colonists wanted to be free to settle west of the Appalachian Mountains into the Ohio Valley. However, they were forbidden by the king of England to migrate west and this elevated the anger of the colonists. Around the same time the English Parliament began to tax the colonists in America. The anger of the American settlers was now stirred.


A decision was made by a majority of colonists to fight for their independence from England. This conflict was, of course, the American Revolution of 1775. Even though the war began in 1775 it wasn’t until July 4, 1776, when it was formally written in the Declaration of Independence that we were a new, separate nation.

George Rogers Clark

The future state of Indiana’s contribution to the American Revolution revolves around George Rogers Clark. Clark was born in the colony of Virginia in 1752. When he was 19 years old he left Virginia to settle in the Ohio Valley. While he was living in the Ohio Valley he began to survey the land. Surveying was important so that land could be mapped and eventually sold.


George Rogers Clark explored and surveyed both sides of the Ohio River. He had settled and became one of the first pioneer settlers of the state of Kentucky. When the American Revolution broke out Clark worried that there would be no way to drive the English out of the Ohio Valley, even though they might have been driven out of the east coast colonies.


There was also another, more important reason to attack the English in the Ohio Valley region. The commander of the English army, Henry Hamilton, was paying Indians to kill American settlers.


In 1777 George Rogers Clark traveled to Virginia to meet with governor Patrick Henry. Clark asked Governor Henry to let him lead a secret mission to attack Hamilton and English forts throughout the Ohio Valley. Governor Henry agreed and gave Clark financial support for the venture.


Clark raised a small army of about 150 pioneer farmers. They had no military uniforms, only the animal skinned clothes they usually wore. The small army of men only had short-handled axes, Kentucky long rifles and knives, normal household equipment for men living on the frontier.


After traveling down river on the Ohio, they reached the Falls of the Ohio River. This is where modern-day Jeffersonville, Indiana, is located. At the falls more men met up with Clark’s army. His army now had 200 men.


On June 26, 1778, they stopped 50 miles from the Mississippi River and left their boats. They started out on foot towards the town of Kaskaskia, on the Mississippi River. On July 3rd Clark and his men sneaked into the fort at Kaskaskia and captured it without firing a shot.


Clark then learned that there were no English occupying the fort at Vincennes. He met with the French settlers around Kaskaskia and they agreed to help Clark if he promised them freedom of religion. In the winter of 1779 Clark and his growing army marched through frozen swamps and marshes to the fort at Vincennes. An American flag was soon raised over the fort at Vincennes (Clark named it Fort Patrick Henry).


Meanwhile at Fort Detroit, Henry Hamilton heard about George Rogers Clark’s exploits and decided that he might try to march upon the fort at Detroit. It was necessary, he decided, to fight the American force based at Vincennes.


Hamilton led his troops from Fort Detroit toward Vincennes. They traveled up river on the Maumee River from Lake Erie and then down river on the Wabash River towards Vincennes. By December of 1778, Hamilton and his English army had captured the fort at Vincennes without firing a shot. Henry Hamilton renamed it Fort Sackville.


Clark wanted that fort back into American hands, but decided that he couldn’t engage in a regular military battle with the English, he just didn’t have enough men to complete that kind of task. So he decided to use a very powerful and decisive maneuver-surprise!


In February of 1779, Clark and his 180 men once again began marching eastward from Kaskaskia toward Vincennes. The weather was cold and miserable with most of the land they were crossing flooded or frozen. The men were forced to sleep in the shallowest pools of water they could find. George Rogers Clark did his best at keeping the spirits of his men high.


They were only about 20 miles from Vincennes when the water became waist-high. The group couldn’t hunt for food, couldn’t cook and, soon, they became weak from hunger. It wasn’t long before the water became chin-high!


Clark’s men started to grumble amongst themselves and wanted to stop. It is supposedly recorded that Clark plunged ahead, shouted to his men to follow him and began singing “Yankee Doodle.” The weary group soon found themselves 2 miles from Vincennes perched upon a small piece of dry land. After huddling around a fire and drying out their clothes, they set out for Vincennes.


When Clark’s army reached Vincennes they marched down the streets of the city. As night fell, Clark and his men made their way to Fort Sackville and began to construct ditches and walls for protection. When the sun came up, the English inside Fort Sackville began to fire upon Clark and his men. Being excellent riflemen and hunters, Clark’s men began to pick off the English gunners one by one.


Henry Hamilton, knowing it was only a matter of time before he was beaten, decided to surrender to Clark. The capture of Fort Sackville at Vincennes gave the Americans control of the Ohio Valley. When the American Revolution ended in 1783, the United States gained all of the land west of the Appalachian Mountains.


You can visit the George Rogers Clark memorial by clicking here

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