Eel River Trail and Portage

The purpose of this booklet is not to revive a forgotten Indian name but to remind the readers of much history and many events of their own communities before the coming of the white man. It is only one hundred years since white men and women began to settle along Eel River. But generations, yes centuries before this time human beings lived along Eel River. Yes, more than a century before permanent white settlements began, French and British traders were carrying on an extensive trade with the Indians, and Eel River, the Kenapocomoco, was a great highway of trade and travel. Then when the determined conflict began between the Americans and the Indians for the possession of the great Northwest Territory, the Kenapocomoco furnished a stage and many characters for this great drama. On its banks at least four battles were fought. Eel River villages and Eel River Indians furnished many warriors for this great conflict and produced the greatest Indian chief of their race, Me she kin no quah, the Little Turtle.

The Eel River Trail and Portage

One hundred fifty years ago the most important Indian center in the great Northwest Territory was Ke ki on ga, where Fort Wayne now stands. It had a most commanding location where the St. Joseph and the St. Marys rivers unite to form the Maumee. Here the Indians of many tribes were wont to gather, and the earliest white traders established trading posts with the Indians. Kekionga was a Miami Indian name but had in its make-up contributions from both the Ottawa and Delaware Indian languages. Maumee is but a variation of the name Miami. Formerly it was called the Miami of the Lakes. Because two other rivers in Ohio were already called Miami, the name was somewhat changed. This indicates the predominance of the Miami Indians at Kekionga for generations. To them it was the glorious gateway to the west and commanded many trade routes. From it Indian trails led off in all directions to other Indian centers. Two of these trails were important portages over which trade was carried from the three rivers at Kekionga to other rivers. The best known of these was the portage from Kekionga southwest to Little River where there was a continuous water route down the Wabash to the Ohio, the Mississippi and the Mississippi Valley. Next in importance was the Eel River portage, which led northwest to the headwaters of Eel River, or to where navigation on that river was possible. Because Eel River, the Kenapocomoco, furnished a trade route to the west, because its forests abounded in fur-bearing animals and because on that river lived the greatest of all Indian chiefs, the Eel River trail and portage were known to all the Indians and to the traders and travelers at Kekionga. This trail was all the more important because it was also the trail to important places farther on, the Miami settlements on the St. Joseph River in Michigan and the settlement where Chicago now stands.

The traveler or student today who would visit the Eel River country, starting from Fort Wayne, will take the Old Lincoln Highway, now state route number 2, one time known as the Goshen road, which follows very closely the old Indian trail to Eel River and then on to the Indian villages to the northwest. Eleven miles bring us to Eel River at what is known as

Heller’s Corner

This was the scene of one of the defeats that Little Turtle inflicted upon the Americans. On October 19, 1790, Col. John Hardin, leading a part of Gen. Josiah Harmar’s army from Kekionga, came along this same trail looking for Indians. After having taken possession of Kekionga from which the Indians had fled upon the approach of Harmar’s army, the Americans next gave attention to the Indian stronghold on Eel River. Col. Hardin led this expedition but showed almost no caution, believing that the savage Indians would not fight an armed force such as he had. But he did not know his enemy nor the great Indian chief. The Eel River Indians under Little Turtle were awaiting his coming. Here where the trail crossed Eel River the Turtle had set a trap for Hardin. At that time there was a narrow prairie along the river flanked on both sides by heavy timber. On the far side of the small stream the Indians had built a fire and around it had placed some trinkets. Believing that the Indians had fled, Hardin plunged ahead and soon most of his force was in the narrow defile. Then Little Turtle, who was lying in ambush with his Indians, poured in upon this little army a deadly fire. Most of the men fled back on the trail, carrying Col. Hardin along with them. A part of the army under Capt. John Armstrong stood their ground but were nearly all killed. Capt. Armstrong sank to his neck in the mud and mire and the Indians did not find him. During the night he witnessed the Indian dance of victory over the dead and dying bodies of his comrades. When the Indians left the next morning he escaped and later joined the army at Kekionga. Little Turtle led this same band of Indians on to Kekionga where three days later he inflicted a disastrous defeat upon another part of Harmar’s army.

Few people who speed along this modern highway across Eel River, the Indian Kenapocomoco, realize that here occurred one of the bloody battles of Indian warfare. The battle occurred somewhere between the bridge on route 2 and the Eel River Baptist Church east of the highway, perhaps on the ground now occupied by the cemetery and the marsh just south of it. In those days, Indian trails left the main trail and followed down both sides of the river to the settlements below. Today roads on either side of Eel River follow closely the old Indian trails. Let us take the road north of the river. Three miles west we come to the Concord cemetery. One mile south of here we cross the river. Then following the southern trail for another mile we soon come to an important historical place.

La Balme’s Massacre

On the north side of the road is a large stone on which we read these words: “In memory of Col. Auguste d La Balme and his soldiers who were killed in battle with the Miami Indians under Little Turtle at this place, Nov. 5, 1780.” This inscription will need some historical explanation.

La Balme was a Frenchman who came over with Lafayette to assist the Americans in their war of Independence. He was skilled in the art of horsemanship. He came west and was with George Rogers Clarke at Vincennes. The success of Gen. Clarke suggested and inspired La. Balme to attempt a conquest of his own. So he collected body of men from Kaskaskia and Vincennes and started north with them up the Wabash. He had little opposition until he reached Kekionga. Here he was successful for the time being but did some foolish things that proved his undoing. The Indians and the white traders fled at his approach. He took possession of their stores and used them as his own. He then heard of a trading post on Eel River and desired to secure possession of that also. So leaving some twenty men to guard the captured stores at Kekionga, he started out over the Eel River trail, the same as Hardin did ten years later. He was even more unfortunate.

The Indians, stirred up by the French traders, Baubien and Leselle, were up in arms against this intrusion. They destroyed the small body of men left at Kekionga. They attacked La Balme before he reached the Eel River Trading Post, but he pressed on and took possession. There he was hemmed in by a large body of Indians under Little Turtle. A few days later La Mine negotiated with the traders to leave the place and return all captured possessions, and even to give his own goods, to the Indians and traders. But the Indians were bent on revenge. La Balme and his men had not left the post more than forty rods until the Indians in superior numbers attacked them. They could neither go forward nor return to the post. So he and his men fortified themselves here on the banks of Eel River. They were besieged from November 1780, until February 1781, when they were massacred by an over whelming force.

Here we must pause to acknowledge a difference in historical statements. Most historians will tell you that after La Balme had sacked Kekionga he retired to Aboite Creek, near where it empties into Little River and there the massacre occurred. But S. P. Kaler in his history of Whitley County, after a careful study of reports from old pioneers who had received their information from the Indians, rejects the traditional account. The above account follows his history rather closely. Even the time of the massacre differs from the inscription on this memorial, which however follows Kaler’s history as to the place. There are various reasons why students who make a more careful study reject the traditional account. The early white settlers of this region received the tradition directly from the Indians. The immense number of relics and human bones found at this place would be additional proof. Furthermore no one has been able to give any good reason why Le Balme should have left Kekionga for Aboite Creek. On the other hand the report of the immense stores at the Eel River Post would be sufficient to cause him and his men to attempt to secure them.

Winger, Otho. The KE NA PO MO CO, Eel River, The home of Little Turtle. Self Published. 1934.

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1 thought on “Eel River Trail and Portage”

  1. Interesting. I have learned more from this historical narrative than from twelve years schooling in Fort Wayne. I would lay money that even the students/teachers at Portage Middle School have no idea what the “portage” is – Great Lakes to Mississippi. I was searching for the Eel River portage for kayaking.

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