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  • Writer's pictureLawrence Lore

Crossing the Wabash

Did you ever think about the obstacle the Wabash River posed to the early settlers going west? When Esau Johnson’s family purchased land on Allison Prairie in 1811, they were living in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. They started on the third day of February, 1811 and arrived in Vincennes that night. This is Esau’s description transcribed from a handwritten diary found at the University of Platteville, Platteville Wisconsin. “The weather had turned very cold for that part of the country and froze the (Wabash) river over, good and stout. On the morning of the fourth day of February 1811, Father took his axe and went and cut holes in the ice to try to get all the way across the river.

"He came back and said he believed the ice would bear to cross on, for he found no place but what the ice was 4 inches. Father then started, drove down to the edge of the ice, took off his hind horses so as to have the weight as far apart as he could get it. The family all got out of the wagon and waited till he crossed and came back to us, took the other horses and led them across the river, on the ice and with us following him.”

That might have worked in the winter, if the weather cooperated, and if one was brave enough to attempt it, but in warmer weather, travelers relied on “ferry” boats. Colonel Francis Vigo received the first ferry license on the river in 1805. Esau later talks about the spring and summer of 1813, when he raised a large crop of watermelons and muskmelons. He made a bargain with the ferry man, James Gibson to take him and his melons over to Vincennes from Allison Prairie and back for one dollar each trip, noting that this was a cost of doing business.

Tomorrow: The First Bridge over the Wabash

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