Ouiatenon is a colonial era French fort and Indian settlement on the Wabash river, just south of West Lafayette, Indiana. It was used from around 1717 until 1791.
Ouiatenon started as a French outpost in the territory then occupied by the Wea tribes. Its original
intent was to provide a military outpost north of Vincennes that would keep a watchful eye on the British and their designs for westward expansion in the Americas. The outpost's location in good beaver and bison country and the friendly relations of the French with the Wea tribe led to the establishment of Ouiatenon as a
significant inland trading post of the mid-18th century. Through the Wabash river, the fort had direct access
to the Mississippi river system and ultimately to New Orleans. Access to the Great Lakes overland and via the
Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers was not quite as easy but nonetheless feasible. As with most forts in that era, it
was about location, location, location.
The middle of the 18th century was the heyday of fur trading in the Louisiana Territory. The French, guided and reinforced from New Orleans, used a permit system to ensure their exclusive trading privileges with the local Indians. It wasn't long before both native traders and French fur traders showed up in droves. The Wea did particularly well as they used their relations with other tribes to their trading advantage. It's estimated
that the fort and the Wea village on the opposite bank of the river had a population of over 2000 ca. 1750.
Fort Ouiatenon changed hands in 1760, during the French and Indian War. The British held onto it for only
three years before Chief Pontiac's War saw the fort captured peacefully by the Kickapoo. This turmoil did
not diminish Ouiatenon's role as a population centre. A peace treaty with the Ottawa chief was signed at
Ouiatenon in 1765 but the fort was more or less defunct from then and only a few tenacious Frenchmen stuck
around amidst a whole lot of natives. The British estimated that the area housed a thousand fighting men in 1778, before Vincennes was taken by the Americans. By that time, though, white men were pressing west in large numbers, The 1780s saw Ouiatenon serve as one the main launchpads for raids against settlers in Indiana and Kentucky but the Indian settlement was all but abandoned by 1786. President Washington finally ordered the fort and the settlement to be razed in 1791.
White settlers moved into Tippecanoe County in the early 1820s. The fort was almost forgotten until some
digs in the 1890s uncovered graves and artefacts from the French period. The location of Fort Ouiatenon was not
accurately pinpointed until 1968. A replica of the fort was built about a mile upriver from the original location in 1930, though the blockhouse style is decidedly British rather than French.
These days the fort is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the centrepiece of a public
park. The fort and blockhouse are open to the public from May to September. Despite the style faux pas, the blockhouse is as good as any other replica standing today. The top floor doubles as a museum that houses many of the artefacts from the original fort and Indian settlement. That includes a lot of very odd knick-knacks whose use you might find hard to guess. Should you find yourself baffled, there is
usually a very nice and knowledgeable lady from the Historical Society on the ground floor.
Not far from the blockhouse is the Wea tribe's "living village," which is a tiny but genuine summer village
run by members of the tribe. The village is also open to visitors. Its opening in spring is an event in itself,
and is a good place to get some nice traditional woodwork and toys, some from friendly old fellows sitting under a tree, whittling away at things.
Both the village and the blockhouse become part of the Feast of the Hunters' Moon in autumn. The feast is
the fort's main claim to fame today as the visitors number in the tens of thousands over the weekend and
provide most of the funds for the fort's upkeep.
Should you care to visit, you're best off coming in on US 231 from the north (West
Lafayette) or south (Crawfordsville), and heading west on River Road, which is the traffic light between West Lafayette and the Indiana 25 intersection. If you want to see the inside of the blockhouse and the Indian village, plan to arrive on a weekend afternoon.