Toponymy is the study of place names based on etymological (origin of words), geographical, and historical information. George R. Stewart's 1945 classic Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-naming in the United States, published in more than 64 editions, provides an outstanding critical, as well as entertaining, examination of American history as told by the origin of place names.
As Stewart explains, place names can originate from story-telling and tales that are not altogether based on fact. Here, we review one of the first named geographic features in what would become Porter County. But instead of starting our review at the time when the feature was allegedly named, we jump forward 122 years to September 22, 1955, when The Vidette-Messenger published an article titled "Indians Recover Wheels of Stage Coach Mired In North County, Stroller Recalls." The column written by The Stroller, the pen name of William Ormand Wallace, provides an account of an event that allegedly gave rise to the naming of Coffee Creek.
The Stroller relates that a "Converse & Reeves" stagecoach that was built in 1833 by the Standard Wagon Works in Chicago was supposedly too heavy for one team of horses, and poorly built such that freight had to be piled in with passengers inside the coach. The stagecoach's first journey by Converse and Reeves was a trip from Fort Dearborn (Chicago) to Detroit. When the stagecoach approached the mouth of present day Coffee Creek near the Little Calumet River it became "hopelessly mired in a so-called bottomless swamp." The passengers and horses were able to safely get themselves out of the marshland, but a bag of coffee on the top of the stagecoach became torn and dumped its contents into the creek and ever since that time the "stream has been known as Coffee Creek."
The Stroller writes that one of the drivers supposedly rode a horse back to Fort Dearborn to fetch another stagecoach while the stranded passengers trekked to Joseph Bailly's home to wait for his return. We learn from the article that the stagecoach mired in the swamp was supposedly dismantled, the front wheels and part of the body removed, but the rear wheels were "too deeply imbedded [sic] in the quick-sand-like marsh to pay to dig them out" and were abandoned at the site.
The Stroller's narrative concludes with some Indians discovering the rear wheels of the stage near the creek and recovering them for use. The Stroller directly quotes Charles H. Bartlett as saying:
As proud as any conquering monarch in his golden chariot was this red chieftain [Leopold Pokagon] trundling through the forest across the prairie, in his brave contrivance, which, he trusted, should convince the world that the Indian might master the arts of the pale face.
That two-wheeled vehicle continued to do service for many years and was at that time a matter of no little astonishment to the early inhabitants of the region.
One of the old settlers was prone to recall the times when he saw a strange apparition moving across the prairie at a fairly good pace. As the equippage [sic] drew near it proved to be Pokagon and his wagon, with the chief himself holding the reins over a horse and a presumably stolen steer that were harnessed together and worked as submissively as could be desired.
The royal car rolled away along the ridge, then turned to the north for that way lay the Dragon Trace the military road to Fort Wayne, and the Indian village beyond.
Well remembered now is the day when two farmer boys dug out of the spring's spongy earth around Pokagon town the broken parts of a huge wheel, a most fortunate relic of the past.
These fragments of a broken wheel seemed to teach their lesson plainly for were they not to last as visible tesimony [sic] of the Indian's struggle with the white man's art.
Research focused on the facts stated above very strongly suggest that William Wallace's story concerning Coffee Creek may be entirely fabricated, with the exception of the stagecoach operated by "Converse & Reeves" on a road between Fort Dearborn and Detroit during the time period in question.
Source: Collection of Steven R. Shook.
Converse and Reeves first appear in written Porter County history in Adolphus Gustin Hardesty's Illustrated Historical Atlas of Porter County, Indiana, published in 1876. Here, Hardesty states that:
Mr. Bailey [Joseph Bailly] was monarch of all he surveyed up to 1831, when there was a mail line established from Fort Dearborn to Detroit, called the Detroit and Chicago road. It ran through the territory that now comprises Jackson, West Chester, and Portage township. The mail was carried in knapsacks on the backs of two soldiers detailed for that purpose. In 1833 stage coaches ran over this line three times a week. The first contractors were Converse & Reeves. The Porter county Stage House was kept by Jesse Morgan.
Eight pages later, Hardesty, while writing about various locations in Porter County, mentions how Coffee Creek received its name:
Coffee Creek -- named so in consequence of the mail carrier, who was driving a wagon, in the early history of this county, across the creek losing in it a sack of coffee. The creek was swollen from recent rains, and hence the accident.Goodspeed and Blanchard appear to have lifted from Hardesty in their 1882 work Counties of Lake and Porter, Indiana: Historical and Biographical. Unlike Hardesty, however, Goodspeed and Blanchard seem to directly link the tumbling coffee sack incident to Converse & Reeves. In other words, they took two separate entries from Hardesty's history and mashed them together, as follows:
The year 1833 was an important era in our history. A stage line was established, and coaches ran from Chicago to Detroit, making three trips per week. The first contractors of this line were Messrs. Converse & Reeves. At a season of high water, the mail carriers lost a sack of coffee in a large swollen stream, which incident gave to coffee creek its name. With the establishment of this stage line, commenced the actual settlement of Porter County by white families.... The Morgan brothers, Jesse, William and Isaac, natives of Monongalia County, Va., arrived early in this memorable year. Jesse settled in what is now Westchester township, on Section 6. The Chicago and Detroit road passed through his farm, and invited him to assume the character of "mine host." He accordingly christened his home the "Stage House," and had no lack of guests in his hostelry.So, what's fact and what's fiction? Let's scrutinize The Stroller's newspaper column and square it with known historical facts.
Source: Williams Brothers' History of
Geauga and Lake Counties, Ohio, 1878.
the United States House of Representatives, January 28, 1845.
Source: Reports of Committees, 28th Congress, 2nd Session, Report No. 54.
Though "Reeves" has been identified as Henry J. Rees, relatively little is known about his life. It is known that he was born to Thomas and Mary Taft (Reed) Rees on October 20, 1800, at Erie, Erie County, Pennsylvania, and in 1824 he married Mary Hubbard, a union that resulted in at least two children. Henry and Mary would become pioneers of Michigan City where they can be found in the 1850 Federal Census enumeration. These census records indicate that Henry's occupation was "Forwarding Merchant;" he was very likely providing shipping services similar to today's freight forwarders.
Rees served on the Board of County Commissioners of LaPorte County, Indiana, from 1855 through 1857. He passed away on April 20, 1859, at Michigan City and was buried in the "Old Buryal Ground" that was located at the southeast corner of the intersection of present day Detroit Street and Spring Street in Michigan City. This one acre burial ground was set aside by Isaac C. Elston when he laid out Michigan City in 1835. The city council vacated this burial ground in 1882 and during the following year the remains in this cemetery were exhumed and reburied elsewhere; Rees' remains were laid to their final rest in Michigan City's Greenwood Cemetery.
Scant information exists concerning Rees' shipping activities. It is known that while still residing in Ashtabula County, Ohio, Rees was the co-owner of the schooner Nehemiah Hubbard, which was built in 1832 in Ashtabula by Amasa Savage. The great-grandfather of Rees' wife, Mary, was Nehemiah Hubbard, who had been a prominent banker in Connecticut. The ship's other owners included William A. Fields, Walter Joy (a New York banker), George B. Webster, and James Blair. On November 15, 1842, the Nehemiah Hubbard ran aground in Lake Erie off the shore of Conneaut, Ashtabula County, Ohio, resulting in the death of seven crew members. The ship was a total loss.
But what is known about the road mentioned in The Stroller's 1955 column? As pointed out in Hardesty's 1876 history, Porter County's first road was cleared by the United States government in 1831 through the townships of Portage, Westchester, and Jackson, said road connecting Fort Dearborn with Detroit. It would be most commonly referred to as the Chicago-Detroit Post Road.
In 1834, surveyors were contracted by the United States to lay out the townships that would become Porter County two years later. Surveyor Andrew Burnside, with his two chainmen, Adam Guthrie Polke and Seth May, and his marker J. Hines, surveyed the land that the Chicago-Detroit Post Road traversed and provided remarks about this road in their field notes. These field notes were later used by Lucius Lyon of the Surveyor General's Office in Detroit to draw township plat maps. Relevant portions of two of these maps are provided below.
As an aside, Andrew Burnside was an uncle of Civil War General Ambrose Burnside, who also served as the first president of the National Rifle Association and whose rather interesting facial whiskers gave rise to the word "sideburns." Andrew's chainman Adam G. Polke served as the second sheriff of LaPorte County and once owned land north of LaPorte that later became known worldwide as the Belle Gunness farm; Adam would die at the Cascade Locks in Hood River County, Oregon, on November 10, 1847, at the age of 40.
the stage road crossing Coffee Creek (Sections 33-36, T37N R6W), 1834.
location of stage road crossing Coffee Creek.
Chapter XII, the last chapter in Bartlett's book, recalls a story concerning Chief Pokagon's wagon, and even includes a sketch of the chief in his war bonnet regalia guiding his wagon with a horse and ox. The sketch of Pokagon's wagon is rather peculiar. The wheels of the wagon are shown to be very heavy and solid. In Bartlett's story, he states that that the wagon consisted of "two massive wheels, each from six to seven inches in thickness and not less than two and a half feet in diameter. They were cross sections of the trunk of a great white oak." Obviously, these were not the wheels of a stage coach used for delivering mail as related by The Stroller.
Source: Bartlett's Tales of Kankakee Land, 1907.
Books and Maps
Goodspeed, Weston A., and Charles Blanchard. 1882. Counties of Lake and Porter, Indiana: Historical and Biographical. Chicago, Illinois: F. A. Battey & Company. 771 p. [see pp. 17, 35, 156, 215]
Hardesty, A. G. 1876. Illustrated History of Porter County, Indiana. Valparaiso, Indiana: A. G. Hardesty. 90 p. [see pp. 23, 31]
Newspapers (listed by date of publication)
The South Bend Saturday Tribune, South Bend, St. Joseph County, Indiana; March 6, 1897; Volume 24, Page 7, Columns 1-2. Column titled "Old Pokagon Town."
© 2021 Steven R. Shook. All Rights Reserved.