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little river valley

This video series has been made possible through a grant from Indiana Humanities in cooperation with the National Endowment of the Humanities. 
Our Valley
Our Valley

The area in which the Little River Wetlands Project does its work of wetland restoration and protection is the watershed of the Little River (also known as the Little Wabash), a headwater tributary of the Wabash River originating in Allen County and stretching southwest into Huntington County, Indiana. Most of LRWP’s efforts are focused in the Little River valley, a 25,000 acre area once known as the Great Marsh.

The Little River valley was created when glacial meltwater that had formed a large lake broke through a moraine approximately fourteen thousand years ago, quickly carving out a half mile wide strip of low lying land. The area became marshland that flooded in the wet seasons, and through which a number of small steams meandered year round. Wetland vegetation soon spread throughout the valley and supported numerous and diverse wildlife there. Native American tribes used the marsh for hunting, but early European settlers avoided it as too wet to farm and too difficult for travel other than by horseback, on foot, or by canoe.

One of the streams meandering through the Great Marsh was the historic Little River. It became an important portage between the Maumee River leading to Lake Erie and the Great Lakes, and the Wabash which led eventually to the Mississippi. Later, the Wabash and Erie Canal was dug near the edge of the Little River valley (and along the north boundary of what is now Eagle Marsh). Efforts to drain the Great Marsh began in the late 1800’s. After four attempts, the rich bottom land was finally ditched and drained for farmland, which nonetheless still tended to get too wet during rainy years.

You may wonder why the Little River watershed was chosen as LRWP’s project area. A group of local citizens founded LRWP in 1990 because they were concerned that 85% of Indiana’s original wetlands had been destroyed. In the greater Fort Wayne region, so many wetlands had been drained that nearby rivers were more prone to flooding and native wildlife, especially certain birds and amphibians, had become imperiled due to habitat loss. LRWP’s founders looked for wet areas near Fort Wayne that were not fully built up in homes and businesses, and identified the Little River valley as an ideal site where some land was still available for wetlands restoration and protection. LRWP is proud to protect over 1,100 acres of wetlands in the Little River valley as of 2010.

From A Peaceful Stream To A Power Pawn

Stand for a moment part way down the hill on Ellison Road just south of US 24. Look around and reflect on what you see and hear. An airplane flying over to land at Fort Wayne International Airport. To your left and slightly above, there is busy traffic on I-69 coming and going. Directly above is a power line now occupying the old bed of what was once the 'interurban' railroad. Beside that bed is a depression that once held water to float the canal boats of the old Wabash and Erie Canal.

It's difficult to think back much further as time has erased much of the evidence. If you are really acquainted with the history of this area, and if you listen closely, you might hear many voices from the past 350 years. For this valley was rich in the history of transportation: Transportation which represented power. The Miami Indians, the French, the British and the young Americans all realized the importance of this valley and the power that it controlled. The story is a long one, for the struggle for control of the ground you are standing on was bitter and involved many peoples.

Four hundred years ago, the Little River was a peaceful stream that originated in the area directly west of an Indian village, Kekionga. It was sometimes quite small, almost dry, but in spring and fall carrying volumes of water through a grassy, marshy prairie supporting many varieties of wildlife, including beavers.

As time progressed, the Maumee-Wabash sluiceway became important for it connected the most direct waterways from Quebec and Montreal to French settlements in the lower Wabash, Illinois and Mississippi areas. This route opened up new areas, rich in game, and being further south the route was more temperate than the four or five portages farther north in Canada and Wisconsin.

In the 17th century, France and England were both eager for trade in the New World. England was bent on establishing colonies, and both were desirous of the pelts of the beaver to supply the popular demand in Europe for beaver felt hats.


French Control of Little River

By the middle 1600s, the Iroquois had extended their control to the western Great Lakes and driven the Miami to the west and north of the Maumee-Wabash area. French voyageurs were limited to the Green Bay, Fox and Wisconsin River portages to gain access to settlements in the upper and lower Mississippi valley. With encouragement and help from the French, the Miami Indians began driving the Iroquois back, and by 1712 they were back in their old hunting grounds at the headwaters of the Wabash and Maumee.

The French claim to the western Great Lakes and northern Indiana area was based on explorations byNicollet, Allouez, Marquette, Joliet, and LaSalle. By 1680 LaSalle had explored the northern Indiana area. It cannot be confirmed that LaSalle himself traversed the Maumee-Wabash Portage; however, he was aware of the nine-mile carry between the head of the Maumee and Riviere Petite, the French name for what we call Little River or Little Wabash River. The cordon of French control was now ever closer to English garrisons and colonies.

By 1727, the Wabash portage had become the principal route to the interior. In fact, the French, like the Indians, considered the Wabash River the main stream into the Mississippi River with the Ohio River a mere tributary of the Wabash. Their predominant goal was the dominance of the rich fur trade, and during these times the voyageurs and "coureurs desbois" moved many hundreds of tons of trade goods through Fort. Ponchartrain (Detroit) and Kekionga. French colonization, however, was slow, to their detriment. Their garrisons were poorly manned. In1722, the French had a small fort, little more than a few huts surrounded by a stockade, called Fort Miamis, located on the St. Mary’s River near Kekionga. Later called Fort St. Philippe, it was destroyed by Indians in 1747. In 1750 a new French fort was built on the St. Joseph River, a short distance upstream from the confluence of the three rivers. These were the first of five forts at Kekionga, including English and American, whose purpose was to control the strategic Maumee-Wabash portage. Important trading posts were also located at the Forks of the Wabash at Huntington.

In dry times, travelers might have to traverse "la longue portage," the entire 24 miles or so to the Forks of the Wabash. However, in early spring or very wet periods, it was often possible to pass through the Maumee-Wabash sluiceway without once having to leave one's canoe or bateaux. Normally the portage was about nine miles in length, stretching from the bayou marsh or head of navigation on the St. Mary's, thence southwesterly following the higher ground on the north side to an oxbow on the Little River (the French Riviere Petite) near the intersection of present I-69 and US 24. This oxbow was nearly always flooded by a dam created by a colony of beavers. Their value to the successful launching of watercraft was recognized by all-- by common agreement the beavers were left undisturbed.

From French to English to Americans

​By 1760, the English had effectively defeated the French and moved from Fort St. Philipe or Fort Miamis on the St. Mary’s River east up the St. Joseph River and built a new fort called Fort St. Joseph, which the English renamed Fort Miami. English colonization was slow in the interior and by the American Revolutionary War period England could no longer hold on to the New World.

The Miamis’ defeat at the hands of General Anthony Wayne at the battle field of Fallen Timbers in 1794 led to Little Turtle, the Miami war chief who had previously defeated three armies, surrendering control of the portage to the Americans at the Treaty of Greenville In 1795.

In an impassioned plea in a speech which has been recorded as exemplary of Indian oratory, he called the portage the "Glorious Gate" and petitioned for joint control, but to no avail. (It was known that at times Miami revenue for portaging goods through the nine miles was upwards of $100 per day.) Wayne secured for United States control a six-mile square at the three rivers, including Kekionga, and a two-mile square at the western portage landing, very close to where we are standing here beside present day Ellison Road. For a brief time a small fort was planned at this western terminus site, but to our knowledge it was never built.


Transportation Evolves

The portage continued to be used until the Wabash and Erie Canal was opened to Huntington in1835. Interest in canals, in the new United States, began in the very early 1800s and especially with the financial success of New York’s Erie Canal, completed in 1825. Canal success in Europe fueled the fervor. The Wabash and Erie was not completed to Evansville on the Ohio River until 1853. From 1847 to 1856 was its most profitable period, but heavy debts and the advent of railroads spelled the demise of the canal and it closed by 1874. Today one can still see portions of the canal bed along the north edge of the Maumee Wabash sluiceway. Remnants of the main line aqueduct abutments and foundation timbers are still visible at Aboite Creek.

During the 1930s still another mode of transportation made use of the south bank of the canal towpath. Known as the "Interurban," electric traction cars which were fast and clean transported passengers between Fort Wayne and Huntington and points south and west. These however, gave way to the automobile. The Maumee-Wabash sluiceway has encompassed a rather unique evolution in transportation!

Efforts to drain the swampy prairie began in the 1870s. The rich bottom land was highly desirable for agriculture. Several enterprises failed, but by 1888 the "Great Marsh," comprised of 25,000 acres in Allen and Huntington Counties, was ditched and drained.

A Reminiscence

The Little River valley now is primarily a docile agricultural area, flooding often and bearing little resemblance to the wetland prairie teeming with wildlife that was left by the glacier many years before. The valley did, however, play an important role in the founding and growth of the United States.

As one stands here beside Ellison Road, partway down the hill from the State Police Post, now perhaps, you can hear some of the voices, the chants of the voyageurs, the rattle of musket fire and the braying of mules as they pull the canal boats.

Wouldn't it be wonderful though, if once again we could hear the sharp bark of the fox, the slap of the beaver tail in the water and the mating call of the ducks in this valley? You can when you visit LRWP's preserves.

Geology of the Little River Valley

For a full write-up on the area's geology, please view the map below and the geological history of the Little River valley by clicking here.

History of the Valley
Geology of the Valley
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