Thursday, October 1, 2009

Progress report: the French connection

Life, like baseball, is a game of statistics. With a new month beginning, it's time to summarize a little. I've walked 139.3 miles in Michigan and 43.6 in Indiana so far, for a total of 182.9 miles, in 14 walks. That's an average of just over 13 miles per walk, but the average has been going up, and for the last 7 walks it has been 14.5 miles. The feet are good. The legs still cry out for mercy at about halfway through the day. But it's like hitting yourself in the head with a 2 by 4--it feels so good when you stop.

Went into Valparaiso this morning and did a little research at the library, still trying to find out about the mystery of San Pierre. But first I checked out Wanatah (pronounced WAN-a-tah), where I'd stayed the night. There's a historical marker that says that Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train stopped here in 1865, retracing his campaign trail from Illinois to Washington. I also remember reading yesterday that Lincoln’s funeral train went through San Pierre. I don’t think it stopped.

In spite of the story about naming the place after a French Canadian railroad guy named Pierre (which I saw repeated in another history of the place), my best guess is that the name St. Pierre was there before the English-speaking types came along, and just got misspelled. After it was called Culvertown for awhile, I think maybe people forgot who Culver was, and decided that the name should revert to the old one, perhaps bestowed on it by the missionaries.

The French were the first Europeans to start nosing around this area, and left French names on a number of places, which the English have been misspelling or mispronouncing ever since. The name LaPorte (for LaPorte County, where Michigan City is) comes from what the early French explorers named the gap in the woods up by the Lake—the door.

In 1673 Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet passed through the northwest part of Indiana, exploring away, Joliet looking for that prison the Indians had named in his honor. Also, Rene-Robert Cavelier, sieur de LaSalle, known as Sir Bob to his friends, explored the area in 1679 with about 30 men. "Gee our old LaSalle ran great," they all sang. They paddled up and down the Kankakee River. Trading routes were opened here, and for the next 30 years French missionaries were busy trying to convert Indians.

After the victory in 1783, the Americans interpreted their treaty with England as giving them claim to the Lake Michigan shore. In 1796 the Brits acknowledged the claim, and by 1803 the US army had crossed the trails to the Chicago River. But by the early years of the U.S., there were still a few Frenchmen floating around, probably married to Indians, since they were more prone to doing that than the English were. (Interethnic marriages are a French specialty, it seems.) The English would just kill the Indians. The French would marry them, then kill them slowly with their outrageous accents.

In 1853, Horace Greeley, legendary editor of the New York Tribune (who said, "Go west, young man") came through San Pierre on a railroad handcar. It was then called Culvertown. In the 30s the San Pierre State Bank was robbed by John Dillinger’s gang, minus Dillinger himself, of $8,000. While leaving the bank with their loot, they saw a deaf and dumb man who always sat on the bread basket in front of the grocery store. As they were coming by, he was waving at the bandits, and they shot him. He died on the spot. And it's been downhill ever since.


Billie Bob said...

Again, great reading. I look forward to each installment. I'm recommending this to friends before they get too far behind.

Anonymous said...

Et voilà! said with the appropriate American accent! Go West Old Man, Horace Greeley, San Pierre, "la boucle est bouclée". Now maybe the French settlers were from Marseilles with an outrageous "assang du midi" or from near Italy and got the san from there.