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COLUMN

Fickle history turns some people into bronze and others into dust

County road project highlights Anthony Wayne's forgotten contemporary

Saturday, August 17, 2013 - 12:01 am

History is indeed written by the victors, but even then its memory can be heartlessly fickle.

Consider poor John Hardin, a military man who – unlike his contemporary, Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne – didn't lend his name to a city or his image to a statue people could argue about hundreds of years after his death.

In fact, Hardin is hardly remembered at all despite the marker that until a couple of years ago stood near U.S 33 and Carroll Road to commemorate the event for which he is best known but probably would have preferred to forget. Today, not even that remains to mark the spot where Hardin and more than 200 men were routed by Indians led by Miami Chief Little Turtle.

Then again, maybe not.

Historians generally agree that Hardin, a colonel with the Kentucky militia, was among the military leaders sent into what was then America's “northwest” in pursuit of hostile Indians. In October 1790 President George Washington dispatched Gen. Josiah Harmar and nearly 1,500 soldiers in a campaign against the Miami Confederacy. Later that month, Harmar sent Hardin and a smaller detachment into the Eel River swamps in what is now northwest Allen County, where his men were routed and many killed. It proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, however: Harmar responded by ordering Hardin to burn and destroy a nearby Indian town, along “with all the corn, etc., he can find in it.”

Whatever your sympathies, however, Hardin's defeat was an event worth remembering. And that's precisely why the Indiana Sesquicentennial Commission erected the marker in 1966. But according to Dani Pfaff of the Indiana Historical Bureau, the sign was removed after being hit by a car in 2011 and never replaced because doubts about its accuracy had begun to creep in.

“We'd begun to look at the quality of a lot of those early signs,” said Pfaff, noting that the bureau had concluded that much of the marker's text had been based upon secondary sources of dubious reliability.

So even though it's accepted that something happened near U.S. 33 and Carroll roads, it's no longer official that “Col. John Hardin, of the Kentucky Militia, with 180 men and Capt. John Armstrong. U.S. Army, with 30 men, were routed here on Oct. 19, 1790, by Indians under Miami Chief Little Turtle during Gen. Harmar's campaign.”

That's because the bureau's review revealed that sources disagree about the precise location of the skirmish, the number of men in Hardin's command and even whether Little Turtle was involved.

And so it was perhaps fitting that, as the public debated the merits of Mayor Tom Henry's plan to move Wayne's statue one block to the west, the Allen County Highway Department was without fanfare spending more than $1 million to rebuild bridges on Carroll just east of U.S.33.

Because no federal funds are involved, county officials say, no archaeological or historical review of the site was required despite the uncertainty that surrounds what happened somewhere nearby nearly 223 years ago.

“If they turn up anything, especially bones, they would be required to stop (working),” said Mike Galbraith, executive director of historic preservation group ARCH. “We have to depend on the integrity and good will of the people involved.”

And if primary or first-hand evidence of the battle should be found there or elsewhere, it could clear up any remaining ambiguity and help restore Hardin to his rightful if dubious place in local history.

“We'd love to replace the marker,” said Pfaff, noting that her agency is especially eager to highlight the history of Native Americans in Indiana. There are just two problems with that, as she sees it:

Because so many Indians lived in the area at that time, she said, “You could put a shovel in the ground just about anywhere and come up with an artifact.” Even so, here's hoping those bridge-builders keep their eyes open.

But even if they do spot something, a new monument would cost about $2,000 – money Pfaff said her agency doesn't have.

So maybe the city could spare just a little of the $75,000 it was prepared to spend on moving Wayne's statue to re-acknowledge the existence of a man history remembered, then abruptly forgot..

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.