Wabash River Enhancement Corporation Project Area
The Wabash River Enhancement Corporation (WREC) was founded in 2004. Its project area included Warren, Fountain, Tippecanoe, and Carroll counties, all within the North Central Health Services (NCHS) service area where the Wabash River flowed. NCHS funded WREC’s first five years of operation and was committed to assisting with funding future planning, development, and land acquisition efforts. The WREC Board of Directors was comprised solely of Tippecanoe County leadership and chose to begin work within Tippecanoe County where project resources, support, capacity, and awareness were already strong. It was felt that work in Tippecanoe County could serve as a pilot for initiating river enhancement projects throughout the four county area. WREC’s watershed work is progressing into adjacent counties, where it is developing relationships and fostering leadership.
History of Pre-European, European, and American Settlement in the Region of the Great Bend of the Wabash River
The Region of the Great Bend of the Wabash River is replete with historical significance. When the area was settled, three main tribes of Indians remained - the Potawatomi, the Shawnee, and the Miami. The Potawatomi tribe occupied much of eastern Tippecanoe County while the Wea, a branch of the Miami, occupied the western portion of the county, and the Shawnee occupied much of the southern portion. Thousands of Wea occupied a large village at the confluence of Wea Creek and the Wabash River in 1717 when the French established the first permanent fortified European settlement across the river at Fort Ouiatenon. The Wabash River provided a critical link between the French trading colony in Montreal and its sister colony at New Orleans. Fort Oiuatenon was the southern terminus for the Montreal colony and Vincennes was the northern terminus for the New Orleans colony. Rivers were the interstate highways of that time and this route was at the epicenter of the French-British conflict to control North America and reap its significant economic benefits. Ultimately, the British seized control of the fort and burned it to the ground. The present day Fort Ouiatenon county park is immediately east of the actual historic site. The park hosts the annual Feast of the Hunters Moon festival, which recreates Eighteenth Century life along the Wabash each fall.
Another historically significant event took place along the Wabash River at present day Prophetstown State Park and the adjacent town of Battle Ground. The state park is the historical site where, in 1808, the Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet established Prophet's Town, a multi-tribe Indian confederation, to oppose the loss of Indian lands to the expanding United States. Territory Governor General William Henry Harrison marched troops north from Vincennes to destroy Prophet's Town in early November, 1811 while Tecumseh was away. Harrison's troops camped on a ridge above the eastern banks of Burnett Creek at present day Battle Ground. The Prophet agreed to meet with Harrison the following day, but the Native American warriors attacked the US camp in the early morning hours. The Prophet's warriors were defeated by Harrison's troops before the morning was over. Tecumseh joined forces with the British against the US in the ensuing War of 1812, but was killed by Harrison's forces in the Battle of the Thames in 1813. The Battle of Tippecanoe opened the Indiana Territory for further settlement and the creation of the State of Indiana in 1816. The battlefield is now a National Park Service Memorial and Monument, and a county park. Prophet's Rock, located west of the battlefield site, commemorates the location where the Prophet launched the attack.
Historical Land Use
During its early days, much of Tippecanoe County was resplendent with large trees and prairies as far as the eye could see. Early historians described the region as prairie with black and white walnut; bur oak; pignut, bitternut, shagbark, and scale hickory; wild cherry; sugar maple; and beech trees. Willow, dogwood, hazelnut, crabapple, plum, pawpaw, buckeye, and sassafras were also prevalent. The low water mark of the Wabash River historically measured 504 feet above sea level. Numerous clear, cold streams and springs carried water to the river.
The first post-statehood settlement in Tippecanoe County occurred in the 1820s when Peter Weaver created a homestead on the southern end of the Wea Plains. Several others followed and by 1826 Tippecanoe County was incorporated. The county and many of its towns can trace their founding to the Wabash River and the Wabash and Erie Canal. Lafayette was founded at the upper navigable limit of the Wabash River as a steamboat port in 1825. Platting of several towns soon followed with Romney in 1831, West Point in 1833, Granville in 1834, Clarks Hill in 1850, Chauncey and Kingston in 1850-55, and Battle Ground in 1858. The Wabash and Erie Canal reached Lafayette by 1843, reducing the time it took to ship goods back and forth to New York City to a mere 14 days. The canal’s heyday lasted approximately 10 years before railroads reached Lafayette in 1855, reducing the region’s commercial reliance on the river. The Tippecanoe County courthouse was erected between 1881 and 1884 with development of the downtown following. In 1888, Chauncey and Kingston merged to form West Lafayette. Industry soon moved into the area with the Lafayette Box Board and Paper Company being one of the largest enterprises by approximately 1856. The paper company remained in continuous operation until 2006. By 1905, 80 factories operated within Lafayette. By 1909 the city was home to 23,000 residents and contained over four-miles of asphalt roads, two-and-one-half miles of brick streets, nearly one-and-one-half miles of sanitary sewer, 13 hotels, 34 churches, and two public parks.
Purdue University is another example of how the region’s development related to the Wabash River. John Purdue was a successful local merchant who shipped goods to and from Indiana via the Wabash River. After the 1862 Morrill Act called for a land grant college in each state, he donated money and property to tip the decision in favor of a Tippecanoe County location. Purdue University was established in 1869, and John Purdue was put in charge of building the first buildings. The first student graduated in 1875 and John Purdue died a year later, after a cantankerous relationship with the Board of Trustees.