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August 28, 2013

ANDREA NEAL: On the banks of the Wabash, history happened

Its significance goes beyond mere aesthetics.

Editors note: This is the sixth in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016.

Storied in literature and song, the Wabash is Indiana’s most important river.

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.

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