Wabash River in Indiana
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HISTORY

 

The Native Americans had called the river the Wah-Bah Shik-Ki which meant "pure white." When the French arrived they corrupted the word by calling it "Quabache" and eventually, of course, the settlers anglicized the word by spelling it "Wabash." But it was the Native Americans who first occupied the banks of the Wabash, and many important villages were located along its length. French explorers, missionaries and fur traders were the first white men to arrive on the scene, and the Wabash soon became the great trade route linking the lower Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Much of the struggle for control of the New World by the French and British took place along the Wabash. Later it was the scene of George Rogers Clark's surprise defeat of the British, which eliminated the British hold on the Northwest Territory. The elimination of the British left the pioneer Hoosiers with only the Native Americans to contend with. In 1811, Governor William Henry Harrison and his army defeated Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe near Lafayette. This victory, which would later launch the campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too", probably propelled Harrison to the Presidency.

The river was not only the site of war and bloodshed, it was also a center of learning and social advance. This "civilizing" influence was epitomized by the Rappites, a religious group that formed a communal colony at New Harmony on the lower Wabash. Their experiment lasted 10 years until they sold their holdings to Robert Owen, who initiated another communal colony which was based upon education and science rather than religion. Owen's work at New Harmony was short-lived but led to the birth of the Geological Survey and the concept of free public schools.

Of course, the Wabash's greatest contribution to the growth of Indiana was its role as a vital transportation link. When the river proved to be too unreliable, the Wabash-Erie Canal, America's longest, was built along the river. Soon after completion the coming of the locomotive in 1865 resulted in the doom of the canal. It left a long lasting heritage however, in the diverse ethnic groups who came to work on the canal and then stayed to settle in the valley. The "canal towns" which developed soon became industrialized and their focus changed from the transportation of goods to the production of goods.

A little known fact is that during the early 1900's the Wabash and the city of Vincennes in particular was a center of pearling activity. Mussels in the river were gathered in huge quantities to be used in the manufacture of buttons from the shells. Finding pearls in the mussels set off an unprecedented rush of activity. Most were imperfect and of little value but occasionally pearls in the $700 to $4000 class were found.

 
 

Important: The river is constantly changing. Hazards like log jams and tree falls will come and go often, so always be ready for them. Even islands and riverbends come and go over time. Riffles and sandbars will appear and disappear based on water flow levels. Do not attempt boating on this or any river during high water. Please be safe, respectful and responsible on the river.
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