It is the official river of the state of Indiana, so designated by law in 1996. It is the subject of the state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” written by Paul Dresser in 1897. It is referred to in the state poem as “the dreamy Wabash River.”
Its significance goes beyond aesthetics. The Wabash played a key role in trade, transportation, and military tactics even before Indiana became a state.
“Much of the struggle for control of the New World by the French and British took place along the Wabash,” according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Wabash is the English version of the name given the river by the Miami Indians who lived in its upper valley near Fort Wayne. Their word — Wah-bah-shik-ki — means pure white water, a reference to the white limestone bed stretching from the river's source near Fort Recovery, Ohio to Logansport.
The French Jesuits, earliest visitors to the region, spelled it Ouabache, thus the spelling of Ouabache State Park in Wells County whose southern edge runs along the river east of Bluffton.
The British Lt. Gov. Edward Abbott, posted at Vincennes during the American Revolution, wrote this about the river in 1777: “The Wabache is perhaps one of the finest rivers in the world; on its banks are several Indian towns, the most considerable is the Ouija, where it is said there are 1,000 men capable to bear arms.”
He was referring to the Wea band of Miami, who had migrated from the Great Lakes to the banks of the Wabash near West Lafayette. The Wea grew maize, melon and pumpkins and traded with other tribes up and down the river.
In 1717, the French selected the north bank of the Wabash, directly across from the Wea village, to build a fortified post to deter British settlement and facilitate fur trade. From 1720 to 1760, Fort Ouiatenon (wee-ah-tuh-gnaw) flourished. One visitor described it as “the finest palisaded fort in the upper country, consisting of a stockade and a double row of houses.”
A replica of the blockhouse was built in 1930 and is open to visitors on weekends from 1 to 5 p.m. May through September. Each year the site hosts Feast of the Hunters' Moon, a reenactment of the annual fall gathering that brought together French and Native Americans. (For more information, see www.tcha.mus.in.us/feast.htm).
After the Indians were pushed out in the19th century, the Wabash continued to play a vital role. It was a major route west taken by pioneers. The Wabash-Erie Canal was built along it and gave farmers access to markets in the East until canals were made obsolete by railroads.
Except for 30 of its 500 miles, the Wabash is an Indiana river, forming 200 miles of boundary with Illinois.
Today the river offers water supply and recreational opportunities, but it can no longer be called pure white. Runoff from farmland has turned it muddy brown as it moves slowly but surely toward its confluence with the Ohio River below Mount Vernon.
Note to Readers: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, beginning with the impact of the Ice Age and ending with the legacy of the Bicentennial itself. Neal is a teacher at St. Richard's Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.