Local group turns over ‘forgotten’ documents to Miami tribe

Representatives of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the Historic Forks of the Wabash pose with a treaty signed in 1838 by the Miami and the United States government, along with related documents.
Representatives of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the Historic Forks of the Wabash pose with a treaty signed in 1838 by the Miami and the United States government, along with related documents. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Aug. 22, 2013.

The documents, which were to change the future of a nation, signify their importance by their appearance.

Hand written in elegant script on oversized sheets of paper, the largest document is bordered in gold leaf with a gold medallion dangling from a green ribbon woven through the corner.

That document, a treaty signed by the Miami in 1838 at the Forks of the Wabash, and eight related documents were given to the Miami when they were signed.

But for years, they've lain forgotten, first in a local Catholic church and later in the archives of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Other than faded lettering and creases from being folded, the documents appear to be remarkably well preserved.

Now, 175 years later, the rediscovered documents have been returned to the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma for preservation.

It's not that the contents of the documents have remained unknown all those years; additional copies were given to the federal government and their contents are readily available online.

Rather, a member of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma explains, the transfer represents the recovery of a piece of tribal history.

"These documents are tied to a period of time that our ancestors were struggling to stay in their homeland," said Daryl Baldwin, who accepted possession of the original treaty from the board of the Historic Forks of the Wabash on Friday, Aug. 16. "These treaty documents are representative of that struggle."

Baldwin, who serves on the cultural resource advisory committee of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, also received seven additional documents, signed in 1842 and 1843, granting land along the Wabash, Salamonie and Mississinewa rivers to specific members of the Miami Tribe. The ninth document is an original plat of Huntington that belonged to Chief Francis LaFontaine, the son-in-law and successor of Chief Jean Baptiste Richardville.

In the treaty signed by Richardville, the Miami ceded all their land in Indiana to the United States government in return for 1,200 acres, which included a gristmill and sawmill, and annuities. The document includes a map of the 1,200 acres retained by Chief Jean Baptiste Richardville; part of that land now makes up the Forks of the Wabash Historic Park. The rock where it's believed the treaty was signed is still there.

"That treaty was the first time the federal government asked the tribe to think about relocation," Baldwin said.
By 1846, most of the Miami, Richardville's family among the exceptions, were being moved west of the Mississippi River.

"They didn't really have choices in that period," Baldwin says.

The documents stayed with Richardville's family until the mid-1930s, says Sue Strass, a Huntington resident and a descendant of Richardville.

"I don't have any written knowledge of this," Strass says, but she and her cousins - Charlene Wirtner and Rosalie Boyle - believe they've pieced together the story. All three women were on hand for the presentation of the documents to Baldwin.

"When my grandmother moved into town, I'm sure she took them to the church for safekeeping," Strass says.

The cousins' grandmother was Cecelia Archangel LaFontaine Owens, the granddaughter of Chief Richardville and daughter of Chief LaFontaine. She moved from the Forks to a smaller house in town because she wanted to be closer to her church, Strass says.

The church was St. Mary Catholic Church, located at the top of the hill on North Jefferson Street in Huntington, and Strass believes Owens - who had probably run out of room in the small house - asked the church's pastor to store the documents for her.

The documents stayed at St. Mary's until the mid-1980s, when they were inadvertently packed up with the papers of a priest who had served in Huntington but had been assigned to a new location. They stayed with him, boxed up with his own papers, through several moves, Wirtner believes.

Eventually, the priest became aware of what he had, and turned the documents over to diocesan officials. The documents were stored in the diocesan archives, to be rediscovered only recently when a new archivist was looking through the files.

Strass says she was never aware that the treaty and other documents were in storage at St. Mary's or that they had been transferred to the diocesan archives. She learned of their whereabouts only when the diocese gave them to the Forks of the Wabash, something that happened almost by accident.

"There was a woman at the diocese office and she heard the archivist talking about these papers," says Wirtner. The archivist knew the documents didn't belong with the diocese, but wasn't sure where they should go.

The visitor, Wirtner says, was familiar with the Forks organization, knew it was putting together a museum and suggested giving the documents to the Forks.

In the spring of 2012, says Forks President Jim Scheiber, the diocese contacted the Forks to see if it would be interested in accepting ownership of the treaty and other documents. The board agreed to accept the documents, and has now agreed to present them to the tribe.

Until a final disposition of the documents was worked out, the Forks board stored the papers at Bippus State Bank. They were kept in archival paper in a locked, fire resistant part of the bank for about a year and a half, bank President and CEO Ryan Warner says.

In return for turning the documents over to the Miami for preservation, the Forks will receive high quality copies of the documents to place on display.

"They need to be with the tribe, preserved indefinitely," Strass says.

That's exactly what will happen.

The documents are now the property of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, Baldwin says. The tribe has a partnership with Miami University in Oxford, OH, and together they have established the Myaamia Center at the university.

Myaamia - "That's how you say Miami in our language," explains Baldwin, who serves as director of the center - is dedicated to the revitalization of the Miami language and culture.

The documents will be restored and their content made available online as part of the tribal archive, Baldwin says. Copies of the documents could be returned to the Forks as soon as October, he says.

Complete caption: Representatives of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the Historic Forks of the Wabash pose with a treaty signed in 1838 by the Miami and the United States government, along with related documents. The papers, recently rediscovered after having been in storage for years, were presented to the Miami Tribe by the Historic Forks of the Wabash on Friday, Aug. 16. On hand for the presentation were (from left) Charlene Wirtner; Daryl Baldwin, a member of the cultural resource advisory committee for the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma; Rosalie Boyle; Jim Scheiber, president of the Historic Forks board; and Sue Strass. Wirtner, Boyle and Strass are great-great-granddaughters of Miami Chief Jean Baptiste Richardville, who signed the treaty, and Boyle also serves on the board of the Historic Forks organization.