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The Fort of Mystery

Porter County’s First Fortification

Along the Kankakee in Pleasant Township, Porter County, Indiana there is a four-acre fortification made of high dirt walls with 14 gun emplacements.  Trees growing on the embankment indicate that the fort was built between 1717 and 1750.  Prior to the present tree growth the area was apparently a high prairie occupied by a landscape, or hedge marked Normandy type cultivation area.  The sites of which there are several in the Kankakee Valley, called Indian Gardens.

 Geologists, ethnologists, archaeologists and historians have visited this fast disappearing fortification, attempting to form some theory of its period and purpose.  Suggestions have been made that it marked the northernmost penetration of De Soto, or that it was a place of defense for the invading Spaniards, or perhaps that it was built by La Salle.  It was big enough to house a garrison of three or four hundred defenders and since there are no borrow-pits, depressions or ditches, it has been logically suggested that there was a good- sized hill nearby which the builders utilized.

 The one theory that has not been accepted is that it was built by the mound builders or Indians.  It apparently took years to build and was erected in anticipation of an attack.  It is located just a mile or so from the old Indian Gardens of current history, and near two old fords.

 The De Soto, La Salle, and Spanish theories have long ago been ruled out by scientists.

 Since the first white settlers of 1830 it has been a thing of wonderment.  It is classified as an unsolved riddle.

 Professor W. A. Briggs, who has made a study of the fortifications for many years, agrees that perhaps the following article has finally come pretty close to the truth.

Old Fort map.jpg (171809 bytes)

 It's just barely possible the mystery of this old fort on the Kankakee has been cleared up by the translations of the French documents of 1717 to 1755.  The work was done by Miss Frances Krauskopf, (now Dr., if you please) when she was a graduate student in history at Indiana University.  These documents show that the French had many minor forts throughout the interior, and one of them was apparently named Kankakee.

 In volume 18, number 2 of the Indiana Historical Society's publications is shown that the French had three major forts, Miami on the St. Joseph River, and Fort Quiatanon, and Vincennes, with numerous unlisted forts scattered elsewhere, they were called tiny outposts and some were listed as itinerant.  Those north of Lafayette were under the jurisdiction of a Canadian governor, and those South, under the administration of Louisiana.  Between the two encroaching British traders were nibbling away at the French trade.  Which the French claimed for themselves.  The French system of selling permits for traders to deal with the Indians made it necessary for the French traders to charge more for their goods than was charged by the free-enterprise English, and as a result many Indian tribes, or parts of tribes, including Potawatomi, Weas, Miami, and Illini, steadily removed themselves from the French-Canadian jurisdiction, and joined the Louisiana District.  From there, locations along the Wabash, the Indians who had deserted the Kankakee site, began trading with the English towards the east.

 The French authorities made several efforts to get them to return.  They promised to send a missionary to them at Kankakee and at St. Joseph.  They offered protection from the Iroquois, they offered a much wider range of trade goods and better fur prices. Several families did return, numbering 40 or 50 in all but they refused to remain when it was evident that the others were not going to join them. 

Governor M. the Marquis de Vaudreuil sent several well-outfitted traders in many canoes to the Kankakee to entice the Indians back.  The documents show the agreement signed by each trader, the names of the traders and the crews, and the value of trading goods carried.  Not only was the governor attempting to bring the Indians back to their former site, but he was also trying to block English expansion.  Later, not being successful in bringing the departed Indians back Governor Veudreuil sent his traders to the upper Illinois to trade.  Of course there was no settlement in Illinois called Kankakee at that time, so students are now convinced that there was such a designated site in what is now Porter County.  In that area prior to 1717 there had been hedgerows, orchard plantings, landscaped areas and cleared sites, which the Indians called an Indian word meaning gardens, and by the settlers and traders “Indian Gardens.”

 There was one of these sites on the Kankakee about midway between the two Indian fords, now known as Baum’s Bridge, and Kahlers Bridge.  In those days the Kankakee Valley was divided into two sections, the upper Kankakee, being that part above Momence, and the lower Kankakee for the other part.  In the early documents the upper or lower Kankakee is spoken up when a part of the river is mentioned, but when one definite spot is indicated it is Kankakee.  The only possible site for such a settlement is that Indian Gardens.

 There the French built a fort.  In 1717, and up to 1760, there was apparently no timbered there, it was all prairie.  All the trees cut since show tree growths of only 230 years at most.  With no timber the French were forced to construct their fort with earthen walls.  It was during this period in French-Canadian history that small cannons were being sent out from France for the impending attack by the English, so the dirt fortifications had gun emplacements provided.  When there was a sawmill at Indian Island the tree rings were counted on one very old tree.  It shows 143 years growth in 1898.  One tree, which N S Amstutz measured, was 18 inches in diameter.  It was growing atop the old wall.  Compared with other once-standing trees, where rings have been counted, this tree on the embankment was probably 200 years old.  Figuring the usual deterioration of dirt structures, the wall was probably just as old as the trees indicated.

 According to the translated documents the first hostilities between the French and English in this vicinity began in 1743.  This was about the time the British took possession of Vasta Wawter, which they renamed English lake.  It is presumed that the French expected an attack from that direction, by both water and land.  The fortification was left open to the west, where a deep swamp prevented access.  At this approximate period the French successfully attacked the English at Grand Miami (not the Miami of the St. Joseph River in Michigan) and with that victory the departed Indians began returning to Kankakee. The French kept this fort garrisoned until 1761, when by the orders of the Canadian governor, they withdrew to Canada.

 It's very definite from these documents that the French had a fortification on the Kankakee, and that the Indians settled around it, that they departed, and returned, and that it was close to fording places to give egress north and south. 

Where else could such a fort have been?