Les Habitants du
The History of the Actual le
What was le Petit Fort?
A historical marker placed near the auxiliary parking lot in the Indiana Dunes State park reads:
“At La Petit Fort, near this site, a battle was fought on December 5, 1780 between American forces under command of Lt. Thomas Brady and Jean Baptiste Hamelin and British forces under command of Dahreau de Quindre”.[i]
As the story goes, in
December 1780, a group of sixteen Americans under the command of Jean Baptiste
Hamelin set out to raid Fort St. Joseph, near present-day Niles, Michigan, then
controlled by the British, while the native warriors were away for their winter
hunt. The Americans were successful in the raid, but on their return to Cahokia
via the hard beaches of the Indiana Dunes, a contingent of natives and traders
loyal to the British caught up to them. This time, the British were
successful. Some of the Americans were captured, most were killed. This
battle, the only Revolutionary battle fought in Northwest Indiana, occurred near
There are only three primary documents related to Le Petit Fort. The first is the report of this “Battle of the Dunes” written by Major Arent S. De Peyster, British commander at Michilimackinac, to Brigadier General H. Watson Powell. De Peyster’s letter of January 8th, 1781, reads:
Since the affair at the Miamis something similar happened at St. Joseph’s. A Detachment from the Cahokias, consisting of sixteen men only, commanded by a half Indian named Jean Baptiste Hammelain, timed it so as to arrive at St. Joseph’s with Pack Horses, when the Indians were out on their first Hunt, an old Chief and his family excepted. They took the Traders Prisoners, and carried off all the goods, consisting of at least Fifty Bales, and took the Route of Chicagou. Lieut. Dagreaux Du Quindre, who I had stationed near St. Josephs, upon being informed of it, immediately assembled the Indians, and pursued them as far as the petite Fort, a days Journey beyond the Riviere Du Chemin where on the 5th December, he summoned them to surrender, on their refusing to do it he ordered the Indians to attack them. Without a loss of a man on his side, killed four, wounded two, and took seven Prisoners, the other Three escaped in the thick Wood. Three of the Prisoners were brought in here amongst whom is Brady a Superintendent of Indian affairs. The rest he suffered the Indians to take to M. Makina. I look upon these Gentry as Robbers and not Prisoners of war, having no commission, that I can learn, other than a verbal order from Mons. Trottier an Inhabitant of the Cahoes . . .
I am Sir, Your most obedient humble Servt.
At. S. De Peyster”[iii]
The second is a map made by General William Hull, an American General stationed near the area in 1812. In a recreation of the map made by researcher Albert Scharf of the Chicago Historical Society, Scharf includes a quote from Hull’s journal that reads, “From Chicagou to the Little Killomic is 15 miles-from the Little to Big Killomic, 21 miles. To the Little Fort, 12. To River du Chemin, 14”. The original is apparently owned by John F. Steward of Plano, Illinois.[iv]
Finally, there is a remark on a fort in the dunes recorded in the journal of Lieutenant James Strode Swearington. Swearington was leading his troops overland from Detroit to Chicago through Northwest Indiana, when, on August 15th, 1803, he wrote,
“Proceeded on our march at 5 o’clock, a.m., 39 miles and encamped at half past 5 p.m. near an old fort”.[v]
Albert Scharf drew a map that outlined Swearington’s journey. According to Scharf’s detailed charting of Swearington’s journey, the “old fort” he and his men camped near coincides with De Peyster’s and Hull’s approximate location of Indiana’s own le Petit Fort.[vi]
Many local historians have claimed that le Petit Fort was a military instillation, and that the “Battle of the Dunes” was fought over the fort. George Brennan even suggested that the fort “. . . was at times garrisoned by regular military”.[vii] To the contrary, there is no documentation placing any military force at a le Petit Fort, and after understanding the nature of the fort, the fort would have been quite useless as a soldier’s barracks. In addition, there are no documents commissioning a fort to be built there by either the British or the Americans. De Peyster only mentions the battle was fought near the fort, not over it. However, these three documents conclusively support the fact that something was there, even if neither of these of these regimes claim to have built it.
These facts can only lead to the conclusion that the fort was there prior to British and American occupation of Northwest Indiana, and that the people responsible for building the fort were the ones that came before these regimes, the French. Its very name, Le Petit Fort, coined by the English speaking British, seems to imply that the British knew its French heritage.
Who built le Petit Fort?
Further support to the idea that le Petite Fort was not a military instillation exists in the fact that the fort was not built by the French military. Dr. Joseph Peyser , who has examined the expense records of Fort Saint Joseph, comments there is no mention of building a le Petite Fort. Dr. Peyser has also reviewed over two-hundred maps of the Great Lakes Basin housed by the Service Historique de la Marine in Vincennes, France and the National Archives of Canada and reported that there is also no mention of the fort.[i] In addition, the Service Historique de la Marine, which houses all the receipts of the Marines during the time period, have no record of le Petite Fort. The fact that the French government has no documentation of the fort only suggests that it was not built and maintained by the French government.
With the Duneland region filled with game, a French-Potawatomi village near-by, and proximity to the Chicago Portage and Sauk Trail, it seems the area would welcome healthy trade traffic. le Petite Fort was most likely a simple cabin that warehoused furs for traveling merchant-voyageurs and served as a trading spur for traders and Potawatomi traveling through the area. With no French conges, or permits allowing people to trade in the area, the fort was most likely built by the Coureurs de Bois, or illegal traders.
What le Petite Fort Might Have Looked Liked?
Although called a fort, le Petite Fort was probably nothing more than a typical French cabin surrounded by a palisade with gardens for growing vegetables. Such trading cabins were relatively common for a trader living in an Indian community to build. In his travels of 1763, Alexander Henry remarked on a fort that may have been similar to Le Petit, writing,
“At fourteen leagues above the Longue Sault we reached a French fort, or trading house, surrounded by a stockade. Attached was a small garden from which we procured some vegetables.”[i]
It must be understood that “Le Petit Fort” is more of a place name than an official title. The fort was not garrisoned by regular troops or maintained by the military, nor did it have a mission, but a “fort” by definition seems to require something less. Pierre Charlevoix, a French missionary, comments on Fort Saint Joseph,
“The House of the Commandant which is a trifling Thing, is called the Fort, because it is surrounded with a poor Palisade . . .”[ii]
This suggests that Le Petit Fort was nothing more than a trading post surrounded by a palisade, which earned its moniker of a fort. Considering the popularity of gardens within forts, Petit Fort most likely had gardens within its small walls. Even Peter Kalm, Swedish scientist sent to study New France, comments on a village, “Without these palisades are several little kitchen and pleasure gardens”.[iii]
When was le Petite Fort built?
Wentworth also asserts that the fort was built around 1750. However, there is absolutely no evidence that would support an exact date for the construction of the fort. The only assumption that can be made is that the fort was built after the French reopened Fort St. Joseph in 1717, since the goods going to le Petite Fort would go through Fort St. Joseph, and before the fall of Quebec in 1760. In reality, the actual date of erection for the fort is rather arbitrary, and rather the focus should be concentrated on the profound effect the fort had on the region.
TimeLine of History in Northwest Indiana
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