August 19, 1998

T H E  C I N C I N N A T I    E N Q U I R E R 

Wabash festival brings back years of traders

by Jennifer A. Harrison, Correspondent

Swimmers didn’t stand a chance in the North American fur-trading empire of the 18th century. Although sturdy French traders or voyageurs paddled canoes laden with heavy packs for 16 hours a day and heaved 90 pound packs on portages, swimmers need not apply.  For if a voyageur knew how to swim it greatly increased the chance he’d abandon ship and the company’s precious goods when disaster struck. 

Full of danger
And hostile Indians weren’t the only disaster looming in the wilderness. Voyageurs faced life-threatening danger from storms and wild animals, as well as rivals and renegades who would steal not only their wares but their lives as well.  Despite these rigors, voyageurs persisted as the 18-wheelers of colonial times. 

When autumn moons rose in the evening sky voyageurs paddled the Wabash River to trade with the Miami People of Ouiatanon (WEE-ah-ta-non), near present-day Lafayette, Indiana. Now, the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon recreates this trading rendezvous each October. 

The historical festival, organized by the Tippecanoe County Historical Society since 1968, requires more than 1,000 costumed re-enactors and hosts. The Feast saturates the senses with ritual feasting, trade, music, games, dance and military displays of several cultures. The party begins with the arrival of the voyageurs in wooden canoes along the banks of the Wabash. It doesn’t stop for two days.

Shortly after we arrived we were swept-off the path with sharp orders,

“Make way!  Make way!” 

A fife and drum corps marched through the crowd, and broke into a brisk marching song. We hit the banks of the Wabash by 10:45. The riverside buzzed with anticipation. The voyageurs were expected shortly. A welcoming party gathered at the riverside landing. 

A shot fired in the distance told us the voyageur brigade had been sighted. At last the voyageurs appeared around a bend in the river. The boatmen dug their oars into the water with haste. Colorful flags blazed in the breeze. Whoops of excitement erupted from the crowd as the canoes put ashore.

Soon the voyageurs, as well as the women and children accompanying them, were safely ashore.  The fife and drum corps struck a merry tune, and the group was escorted to the garrison in a festive parade by the militia and commander.  The party had begun.

Demonstrations and exhibits
Rather than follow the crowd to the garrison, we made our way through the nearby voyageur encampment.  Here we found traders: selling furs and other goods; several trade families gathered at a campsite reveling in French song; a barefoot, female trader in striped breeches stirring a thick stew over an open fire. A hardy soul was slowly, but arduously burning-out the interior of a log hewn in the shape of a canoe.

We then visited a wigwam village.  Here we found corn and apples drying on open air racks, a tomahawk throw, and a variety of Native American artifacts. Next we headed toward the garrison, a re-creation of the 1717 military and trading post at Ouiatanon. The original stockade at Ouiatanon was 120 by 160 feet.  The current garrison is a two-story log structure with exhibits on fur-trading and Native American culture.

Although the French generally had friendly relations with the Indians, the garrison protected New France’s claims from the British and provided a place to trade with local Indians. Voyageurs brought trade goods such as guns, knives, pots and pans, blankets, beads and alcohol to the Natives. In exchange they hauled out a rich harvest of pelts for the fashion markets of Europe.

The British took control of Ouiatanon in 1761 following the French and Indian War. While Pontiac’s Rebellion attempted to push whites east of the Alleghenies and ended British occupation of the fort, Pontiac did not stem the tide of white settlers into the new West. Following several bloody battles on the Indiana frontier, George Washington ordered the destruction of all Miami villages along the Wabash River in 1791.

From the garrison we wandered through the markets. We found historical clothing, toys, books, patterns for making period clothing, iron smiths, cordwainers, coopers, rope makers, weavers and potters. The Tippecanoe Historical Association has booths scattered among the vendors providing demonstrations, information and exhibits.

Our culinary adventures included pea soup, les croquignoles (French pastry), buffalo burgers, fried bread with fresh apple butter, corn chowder, and Voyageur’s stew. 

When our soles needed a rest we headed for the pageantry and displays at one of the four arenas. We watched a lacrosse game, and were enchanted by Native American music and dance. A fashion-show amused us with the finest French ladies and gentlemen’s attire, to the primitive dress of the voyageurs. 

By the day’s end we were tired but richer for this brief immersion in the culture and lore of the traders and American Indians of the Wabash Valley.

More Information
Feast of Hunters Moon: 765-476-8402 
  (M-F 8 am to 5 pm) ; www.holli.com/tcha/feast.htm
Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau: 800-872-6648 ; www.lafayette-in.com