When the Culture Wars Hit Fort Wayne
A quiet Indiana city declared a holiday to celebrate its founder. In the age of Trump, nothing is ever that simple.
FORT WAYNE, Ind.—One chilly February evening last year in this Midwestern town where I grew up, a city council member named Jason Arp proposed a resolution: Starting that summer, the city should annually celebrate a “General ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne Day.”
My hometown is a rust-belt industrial city of a quarter-million people on the confluence of three slow rivers, today home to branches of several defense contractors and a regionally famous zoo. Wayne was an early American military leader who in 1794 built a frontier fort here, during the period when white settlers from the young United States were pushing west into the Ohio Valley and coming into conflict with Native Americans. As a piece of city business, having a day in Fort Wayne to honor Anthony Wayne might seem—from a distance at least—to be correcting an oversight. Why wouldn’t the city have a founder’s day?
At the meeting, Arp, a stocky man in his mid-40s with close-cropped hair, leaned back and put forward a glowing portrait of Wayne as a hero and role model, clicking through a slideshow. Not only had Wayne won the Northwest Indian War and established the outpost that grew into the city, but he had earlier won fame in the American Revolution for leading a charge that overran a British outpost at Stony Point, New York. This feat, Arp said, had thwarted a British attempt to capture top American military leaders like George Washington and Henry Knox after the traitor Benedict Arnold had revealed their location. “We can thank Anthony Wayne for the fact that we even have a United States of America,” he said.
He proposed that July 16, the date of the 1779 Stony Point raid, be celebrated as Wayne Day.
Arp’s account of Wayne’s life and contributions to American history is not the universal consensus among historians, and the details appeared unfamiliar to the other city council members. Watching a video of this meeting later, this did not surprise me. Local public schools had taught us almost nothing about Wayne. Occasional Cub Scout visits to the “Old Fort”—a replica fort built in the run-up to its bicentennial and staffed by costumed reenactors—were primarily about spectacles like a blacksmith hammering red-hot iron into a horseshoe and soldiers raising a flag or firing a deafening blank from a cannon, with light discussion of history. To the extent we thought about Wayne himself, the version we grew up with amounted to something like this: Indians had been giving settlers a hard time, and Wayne solved the problem.
Arp described this, in a way. His presentation detailed a military campaign in which Wayne defeated a regional alliance of native tribes, omitting most of the larger context about what had led to the war. His resolution also softened any moral discomfort raised by the basic circumstances of Wayne’s feat—he led outside invaders to victory over people trying to defend their homes—by making the claim that the Indians had been “British led,” reframing the conflict as a struggle driven by two factions of white people.
The council meeting went on to address more typical business, like approving a maintenance contract for a water treatment plant. The impact of Arp’s resolution on Wayne Day would be very different. The people in the room might not have fully appreciated it when they arrived, but the culture wars had just come to Fort Wayne.
It wasn’t surprising that Arp had been the one to fire the first shot. He had stood apart from most of his colleagues on the city council since his election in 2015, embodying a local version of the strain of Republican politics that branded itself as the Tea Party in opposition to Barack Obama and that has tightened its grip on the GOP in the Donald Trump era. Though Arp was one of seven Republicans on the nine-member council, he often found himself fighting against the majority in his own party, as well as the two Democrats. A former mortgage-backed securities trader who told me he primarily lives off his investments, he voted against budgets and redevelopment project subsidies that the council nevertheless passed; he unsuccessfully proposed to eliminate a tax that funds local libraries and public schools. (His own daughters are home-schooled.) Arp went so far as to release a scorecard on his colleagues based on whether their votes supported or opposed activity by the government, which he translated into a choice between an “authoritarian” mindset or for “liberty.” He tarred not only the two Democrats on the council as authoritarian-leaning, but also its five more traditional Republican members.
Arp pitched his Wayne Day resolution at a moment when he needed to shore up support and attract attention. Near his term’s end, he was facing a contested primary. His opponent, a more traditional Republican, won a few prominent endorsements, putting Arp’s political future in doubt. But that was before the Wayne Day fight—which would arouse the anger of a local clergyman, paralyze the city’s historical society, and surprise Fort Wayne with unhappy emissaries from a distant tribal nation in Oklahoma.
The summer of 2020 has become a time of asking questions about what America commemorates and why. The nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis are growing into a broader moment of reckoning, as the push to take down Confederate Civil War monuments expands into reconsidering statues and naming honors for historical figures like Christopher Columbus, Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Sanger. Business owners are dropping longstanding Native American stereotypes as logos and mascots from products like Land O’Lakes Butter and the no-longer Washington Redskins; frictions are erupting over calls to paint over New Deal-era murals in schools that depict slavery and Indian warfare.
But these tensions usually flare around whether to take down existing things and retire established traditions. Such debates tend to be complicated by nostalgia and the impulse to preserve things as we are accustomed to them. Wayne Day was different: This was an attempt to create something new.
On one level, to grow up in Fort Wayne was to be saturated in references to Anthony Wayne and the Native Americans he fought. I opened my first savings account at a branch of Anthony Wayne Bank, across Anthony Boulevard from an ice cream parlor that served massive “Mad Anthony” sundaes. The names of tribes that originally lived here and their chiefs also adorn schools, streets, libraries and camps. The most prominent was Chief Little Turtle of the Miami tribe, whose de facto capital town, Kekionga, had stood here long before Wayne came.
Yet most of us would have been hard-pressed to detail who any of these people were, or explain the ways that Fort Wayne’s submerged and sometimes unpleasant history helped shape modern-day America.
I have no recollection of anyone explaining that the name of our main geographical feature—the Maumee River, which forms here where two lesser waterways merge and flows to Toledo, Ohio, where it empties into Lake Erie—came from the Miami tribe. Nor was I taught that as white Americans pushed west, the Miami invited refugee tribes dislodged from their homelands, the Shawnee and the Delaware, to resettle here.
The fort that Wayne built here was soon abandoned by the army as the frontier kept shifting west, and while the white settlement that grew up around the site boomed for a period as an industrial center, it was always a minor place compared with other cities that grew up around frontier forts in the Midwest, especially Chicago and Detroit. But for a period, this spot was of singular importance in North America.
As a principal Native American settlement under the control of the Miami tribe, it flourished for most of the 18th century because it controlled the shortest overland connection between two vast river networks, linking Quebec and the Great Lakes region to the Mississippi Valley and its seaport at New Orleans. This land portage made it a crossroads both for the lucrative North American fur trade, and for Algonquin tribes throughout what we now call the Midwest.
Already a crucial hub, the cluster of native towns here then served as the military headquarters for a multi-tribal alliance—sometimes called the Western Confederacy—that battled white America for control of the entire Midwest after the Revolutionary War. The war ended when General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, carrying out the policies of President George Washington, subjugated the tribal confederation’s warriors in battle and then systematically burned down their villages and destroyed their food stores ahead of winter, breaking the tribes’ will to keep resisting. Wayne died soon after negotiating a peace treaty, but his conquest unleashed hundreds of thousands of white settlers to rapidly transform the Old Northwest into the new states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Most of its original inhabitants, especially those like the Miami who lived in the lower three states, would be removed within two generations.
Perhaps it was not surprising we hadn’t been taught about the details. Cultural amnesia about the Northwest Indian War might seem more striking in a place like Fort Wayne, which was so central to the story, but it is national in scope. Invading and crushing the native inhabitants of the Northwest Territory was the second act of the nation’s aging Founding Fathers generation, and one that is far less flattering to them from the modern vantage point than their success in pushing the British out of the 13 colonies along the East Coast. Perhaps that is why even though Civil War battlefields are sacred national parks, the site of the decisive battle that brought this war to an end—fought in a tornado-toppled forest and dubbed the Battle of Fallen Timbers—is an afterthought that is managed by Toledo’s municipal park system.
The idea of creating a civic day to honor Anthony Wayne was not originally Jason Arp’s. It was the brainchild of Michael Loomis, an attorney living in Arp’s district. After reading about the Battle of Stony Point in 2017, he wrote a Facebook message to Arp pitching the notion.
“It could be a day of service, or a day of celebration, or both,” Loomis wrote.
Arp liked the idea of having the city do more to celebrate its ties to a swashbuckling Revolutionary-era warrior. He first floated the proposal later that year, but shelved it after it met little enthusiasm. In February 2019, however, he abruptly revived it and put forward his resolution. Loomis said he found out what Arp was doing two hours before the meeting and did not see the resolution’s text in advance.
The idea triggered an argument on the council as soon as Arp completed his presentation about Wayne. One of the council’s two Democrats, Glynn Hines, a retired Xerox salesman who represented a predominantly African American district, declared he would vote against it. He portrayed the context of Wayne’s deeds as the “genocide of the Native Americans.”
The other Republican on the council who often voted in alignment with Arp, Paul Ensley, liked the idea. A financial controller for a local chain of nutrition stores, he said it was folly to view “historical events through the lens of modern morality” and declared that for most of history, “the right of conquest was certainly an acceptable form of acquiring land.”
The council president, John Crawford, a radiation oncologist and moderate Republican, tried to tamp down the issue and suggested waiting a few weeks. But Arp insisted on voting—while sharply escalating his rhetoric.
“There are always going to be people who are detractors of things,” Arp said. “There are lots of people who don’t care for America or American history. There are people who are just not patriotic. And that’s their right, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still continue to celebrate Independence Day.”
Watching on television, Loomis said, “I remember thinking ‘oh boy’” when Arp equated failing to embrace Wayne Day with anti-Americanism.
The council voted, 6-3, to create Wayne Day. But the debate was just starting.
Loomis created a nonprofit organization to plan Wayne Day, listing himself as chairman and Arp as chief executive officer. The main event would be a ceremony in a downtown square next to a bronze statue of Wayne on horseback, his sword drawn. This statue had been dedicated in 1918 with a patriotic speech by Vice President Thomas Marshall, a former Indiana governor. But until 1973, it had stood east of downtown, in a park by Harmar Street.
General Josiah Harmar, for whom that street is named, was one of the leaders whose failures made Wayne’s mission so important. In 1790, President Washington dispatched Harmar to lead 1,400 soldiers and Kentucky militia through the wilderness to attack Kekionga. The goal was to punish into submission the tribes that were attacking backcountry white settlers spreading down the Ohio River, many of whom were carving out homesteads on lands they had no clear right to be on. The tribal confederation saw them as illegal squatters on unceded territory and wanted to push them back across the Appalachian Mountains—and it refused even to discuss a treaty to sell its homelands and hunting grounds. To change that attitude, Henry Knox, the secretary of war, wrote that Harmar was to deliver a “sudden stroke, by which their towns and crops may be destroyed.”
Native civilians fled as the invaders approached. Harmar reported burning 300 of their wigwams and log houses and destroying 20,000 bushels of corn, leaving them “ill off for sustenance.” But Little Turtle’s warriors counterattacked, killing 183 invaders in two battles—including gunning down 60 American regulars as they forded the Maumee River from the future foot of Harmer Street. The survivors of “Harmar’s Defeat” retreated in disarray.
In 1791, another of Washington’s generals, Arthur St. Clair, tried again. But the tribal confederation launched a surprise attack on his camp and essentially annihilated his army. The lopsided outcome further emboldened the confederation and prompted the first congressional oversight investigation.
So Washington tapped Wayne—a more disciplined leader who methodically trained his men—to build a new army and invade yet again. Wayne built a string of sturdy forts to protect his supply lines and guard against raids, including one he named Fort Recovery on the site of St. Clair’s Defeat. When the confederation tried to attack the new fort, its cannons inflicted heavy losses.
Coming to recognize that even if the tribes defeated Wayne, white Americans would just keep coming, Little Turtle now proposed seeking a diplomatic solution. But the consensus of the confederation’s other leaders was to keep fighting. In August 1794, at Fallen Timbers, Wayne’s troops routed them. Then, as Wayne reported to Knox, his men marched up the Maumee River along dozens of miles of evacuated native settlements that amounted to one continuous town, “laying waste [to] the villages and corn-fields,” until they reached its headwaters—where Kekionga remained in ruins from Harmar’s attack—and built Fort Wayne.
After a difficult winter, tribal leaders agreed to sign a landmark treaty ending the war. Wayne demanded that the natives cede most of what is now the state of Ohio along with key tracts further west like the future downtowns of Chicago, Detroit, and Fort Wayne. He promised the rest of the territory would remain Indian land forever—hence “Indiana.”
Hines, the council member who first raised objections to Arp’s Wayne Day resolution, grew up near the park at Harmer Street and told me he played football with friends by the statue of Wayne. The way their parents told the story, Wayne was called “Mad Anthony” because he was “vicious”—one of the era’s “typical white racist folks, who came into Native American lands to kill and steal and destroy.” Arp, including in a presentation to a group of home-schooled children posted on Facebook, declared that the nickname instead lauded Wayne’s personal bravery during the attack on Stony Point. Both stories are wrong: Historians say people appear to have started calling Wayne “Mad” because of an incident when he irrationally punished a valuable wartime informant for getting drunk.
Seeing Wayne’s conquest as one of the nation’s “skeletons in the closet,” Hines also told me that those who wanted to celebrate him were “like Trump, making America great again, but making America great in the case of Native Americans was stealing their land and killing people.”
Arp, too, saw the issue through the lens of Trump-era polarization. “There’s something in the ethos or the zeitgeist of the country currently, in which people have decided they’re going to be on one side or another of some sort of, you know, great ‘woke’ divide,” Arp told me, adding: “Anything that’s patriotic is automatically evil in some people’s eyes. It’s automatically aligned with some sort of ‘ism’ or ‘phobia,’ without any discussion of merits or actual history.”
So what was the actual history? Like many other arguments in the Trump era, that question would soon boil over.
One of the first people it started to scald was Geoff Paddock, the other Democrat on the city council. At first he had little interest in the debate. Whereas Hines had vehemently objected to the Wayne Day resolution, Paddock had not spoken up during the meeting, and then he joined the majority who voted for it. In the moment, Paddock later told me, his only thought was that it would look bad for the city if its council spurned its namesake.
But a few days later, a retired pastor in Paddock’s district, John Gardner, asked him for a copy of the resolution—writing that from what he had heard, it “appears to express the sentiments and work of a white nationalist,” according to emails I obtained under a public records law.
Paddock, who also ran a nonprofit organization that developed a riverside park near downtown, passed on the request to the council’s administrator, Megan Flohr, telling her he would try to convince the pastor that he was no white nationalist.
“There’s no win on this one,” Flohr wrote back. “If it failed, you all would have gotten dragged for not supporting history. But passing it is bringing up these points. No win.”
“Yes,” Paddock wrote. “I knew that when it was introduced. Hopefully, we will get by this one.”
Gardner later told me that he had been stewing about Wayne Day since first hearing about it, seeing it as a “bully” move that, in his view, seemed to reflect the same toxic racial animus behind 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. But after receiving a copy of the resolution, Gardner decided to read a biography of Wayne.
What he learned in the book about Wayne’s actual life, he said, caused him to become “even more enraged.”
As I sorted through this debate myself by studying books and interviewing historians, it struck me how sanitized my childhood exposure to my hometown’s past had been. In the period after Fort Wayne was built and before the natives were forced to leave, it could be an ugly place.
The government used the fort to distribute annual treaty payments it had promised the natives in exchange for giving up their lands. The money attracted white traders who sold them manufactured goods and liquor, turning annuity days into exploitative bacchanals, contemporaneous accounts show.
Beset by rising alcoholism and dependency on annuities, tribes in the region like the Miami declined, able neither to adapt to the new culture of private property and yeoman farming, as an aging Little Turtle urged, nor to preserve their way of life. Between annuity days, the traders encouraged the tribes to buy on credit, running up debts that their existing payments could not cover. The government leveraged this dynamic to continually push Miami leaders to sell ever more reservation land, and then to agree to the tribe’s eventual removal.
But several hundred Miami would get to stay—mostly leaders who owned private property and their relatives, who had a place to live after the reservation land was gone. The catch was that the government had bestowed those deeds on prominent Miami figures as incentives to sign the very land cession treaties that led to the larger tribe’s removal, heightening a sense of betrayal and resentment among the rank and file. A schism opened between the two groups and their descendants in 1846, when the government brought in troops to coerce hundreds of non-exempted Miami to board canal boats for a journey into exile.
“Well I remember the sober saddened faces, the profusion of tears, as I saw them hug to their bosoms a little handful of earth which they had gathered from the graves of their dead kindred,” a witness in Fort Wayne wrote. “As the canal boat that bore them to the Ohio River loosed her moorings, many a bystander was moved to tears at the evidences of grief he saw before him.”
In 2017, a Fort Wayne river organization launched tours on a replica 1840s canal boat. Intending to honor Little Turtle’s daughter, known in English as Sweet Breeze, it gave the boat her name. But the Miami recoiled from the linkage to their historical trauma.
“It’s a painful thing, rubbing salt in wounds,” Diane Hunter, a Miami member who now lives in Fort Wayne, told me. “I think they didn’t understand. But they didn’t ask, either.”
The Miami kept their feelings about this to themselves in 2017. But then came Wayne Day.
An early public sign of dissent over the city’s creation of Wayne Day appeared in the March 8 issue of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, the morning newspaper where I worked as a clerk in high school, and got my start as a summer reporting intern in college. It published a reader letter calling Arp’s account of history a “victor’s version” and scorning his claim that opposing Wayne Day somehow made Hines unpatriotic.
Two days later, the first major salvo exploded with the publication of a full-length column by Gardner, the retired pastor, who wrote that the council was exaggerating Wayne’s heroism and whitewashing all kinds of negative truths. He was scathing, calling the resolution “frivolous, unnecessarily provocative, sloppy in composition, replete with dubious conjecture and full of historical inaccuracy.”
It was not true, Gardner explained, that the British had been on the verge of capturing Washington when Wayne and his men overran Stony Point. And he pointed out that the resolution also botched a basic fact about Midwestern history by claiming that Wayne established Fort Recovery after the Battle of Fallen Timbers when the outpost was built and manned months before.
But most importantly, he recounted facts about the general’s life that Arp had omitted, and to which few Fort Wayne residents had previously been exposed. Anthony Wayne had purchased slaves, failed to pay his debts, and essentially abandoned his wife while earning a scandalous reputation with other women. He had been in a state of personal and political disgrace when Washington recalled him to military service to go after the tribes, having just been ousted from Congress for election fraud. Gardner called for the council to rescind Wayne Day.
It was then that a letter arrived from Oklahoma. It contained a message for “the members of the city council of Fort Wayne, who inhabit, care for and oversee that place, which sits upon the ancestral lands of the Myaamia people.”
The Miami nation today is headquartered on the edge of Miami, Oklahoma, population 13,000. The town is mostly one-story buildings, surrounded by cornfields, ranches, and piles of old mining waste. The tribe gave its name to the town as well as to several Midwestern rivers and Miami University, a western Ohio public college founded by pioneers 15 years after Wayne’s conquest. (The town is pronounced “my-am-uh”; despite the spelling coincidence, there is no connection with Miami, Florida.) Later in the year I traveled there to see how the tribe lived now, and what its members thought about Wayne Day and the Fort Wayne area more broadly.
For the first 20 years after its removal from Indiana, the tribe had lived in Kansas. But white settlers kept pushing west, so the government removed the nation again. By that point, the tribe says, fewer than 100 adults survived.
In Oklahoma, there was a generations-long struggle not to let the tribe sputter out. Miami children were pushed to assimilate in boarding schools where the tribal language was banned. Over time, some members sold their land allotments and moved away. Around the mid-20th century, the last speaker of the Miami language died.
Two senior tribal leaders and twin siblings—Douglas Lankford, its elected chief, and Julie Olds, its cultural officer—told me how they had been among a handful of children dragged by their parents back in the early 1970’s to attend annual meetings at the post office, where several dozen members brought food to share and took up collections to cover meager expenses like postage for tribal business. One leader kept official records in his car trunk.
“We were hanging by a thread,” Lankford said.
After they grew up, Lankford got a job assembling furniture for a La-Z-Boy store and Olds became a buyer for an art supply company. But around them, the Miami tribe was starting to revitalize, and both eventually devoted themselves to that effort.
The turnaround began in the 1990s. The nation changed its constitution to permit any descendant of people on historic rolls to join, beginning a reunion with its diaspora and more than tripling its enrollment to about 5,600 members. Notably, in the start of a reconciliation over the old breach, this now includes several hundred Indiana-based members, many descended from those who won exemptions from removal.
The tribe also opened two small casinos, eventually diversifying into enterprises like a construction firm, an ambulance company and a cabinet manufacturer. (This growth was temporarily supercharged by a mistake: It partnered with an online payday lender whose owner was trying to use tribal sovereignty to evade government regulation and went to prison. In 2016, the government fined the tribe $48 million—essentially seizing what it got from the deal.)
With money has come a voice, and a more meaningful ability to exercise sovereignty. Tribal leaders hired lawyers to pore over old treaty and trust records in search of unkept promises to pursue. They created a police department and court system, launched social services programs, and began pouring resources into recovering fragments of their nearly lost culture. In 2001, the tribe partnered with Miami University to start the Miyaamia Center. Its scholars are reconstructing their language using vocabulary notes by missionaries and grammatical structures from related Algonquin tongues, and tribal members have started to pepper their conversations with newly learned phrases. The center’s founder, Daryl Baldwin, a Miami member, won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2016.
Against that backdrop, the Oklahoma-based Miami, when discussing northeastern Indiana, sound like descendants of immigrants in the generation that has become comfortable and established enough to look backward and yearn to reconnect with the old country.
“That is our homeland in the same fashion that many people who live in the United States travel ‘home’ to Ireland, travel ‘home’ to Italy—wherever it may be,” Olds said. “They need to go there. They need to walk on it. They need to pick up the dirt. It’s exactly the same.”
And as I visited Oklahoma, it became clear to me that the strength of the Miami reaction to Wayne Day was an expression of tribe’s recent renaissance.
“Indiana’s always going to be very important to us because that’s home—it’ll always be home, even though we live here now,” Lankford said. “What we’re trying to do is rebuild from the loss. And in that rebuilding, we need the truth to be told about us.”
“Are you kidding me?” sputtered Donya Williams.
A former middle school assistant librarian who is now one of five elected members on the Miami tribal council, Williams had just walked into the tribe’s headquarters when Olds called out to her from her office. Next to a map of the Midwest with red marker outlining where the Miami once lived and their removal route, Olds had played a video of Jason Arp making his presentation to the Fort Wayne city council.
It was not just that the Miami remember “Mad” Anthony Wayne as a villain, both for his personal deeds and for the larger catastrophe for the tribe that his conquest symbolizes. They also believed the resolution put forward an inaccurate and insulting account of their history. Arp said Wayne had been merciful to their ancestors, omitting his systematic burning of their homes and winter food. In discussing the tribes’ own use of violence, Arp glossed over the context that they were defending their unceded homelands against invaders seeking to take over.
And they were particularly offended by the resolution’s statement that the confederation was “British led,” erasing its own war chiefs and reducing their ancestors to pawns. In fact, there is no evidence the confederation ever subordinated itself to white command. (Historians agree that the Indian confederation was supported by British-Canadian allies, who supplied them with small arms and encouraged them to resist American encroachment. But the British were spotty allies at best: In a betrayal after Fallen Timbers, surviving confederation warriors retreated to a British fort near Lake Erie, but its commander refused to let them come inside to safety.)
The misleading historical account raised the question of whether the tribe should speak up. Adding to the pressure, tribal leaders in Oklahoma kept learning through email and social media that Indiana-based members were upset.
Diane Hunter was one. A former university librarian, she had been hired by the Oklahoma tribe to run an outreach office it opened outside Fort Wayne several years ago. The agency provides language camps for the children of Indiana-based members and intervenes when construction in the region uncovers native graves, taking custody of the remains for reburial.
“The city council resolution was not just inaccurate—it impugned the Miami people and insulted our sovereignty,” Hunter told me. “Our sovereignty is what allows us to do what we do and be who we are as a tribe. You don’t mess with that.”
In a show of respect for Fort Wayne’s own sovereignty, the tribal council came to a decision: It would object to the resolution’s historical errors and omissions, but not to the honoring of Wayne himself, though they privately opposed that, too. “We are a government, too,” Williams explained, “and we can’t tell another government what they can do or who they can give credit to.”
Asking the city to rescind the resolution to rework it, the tribe’s letter laid out “gross inaccuracies which must be addressed.” While acknowledging that the war had been brutal on both sides, the tribe portrayed the city’s distortions as an attempt to “cleanse” Wayne’s history and “silence contrary evidence to favor the conqueror.”
It was late March, a few days before the city council would meet again. Williams borrowed a Buick Enclave belonging to the tribe and drove to Fort Wayne, bringing along her mother for company. The older woman, Williams said, had never been to Indiana, and “it’s special to go back, to touch the land where our ancestors were.”
The tribe’s letter to the Fort Wayne city council immediately became public, and local news outlets trumpeted its message even as the director of the Fort Wayne History Center, Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, issued a statement in the city museum’s name pointedly saying the city museum had not been consulted about the resolution.
A scholarly, earnest man with a cautious demeanor, Pelfrey has run the museum for more than a dozen years. Pelfrey later told me that he had been distraught at the city resolution’s inaccuracies but stayed on the sidelines because he and his board worried that criticizing Arp’s handiwork as he campaigned for reelection could jeopardize their nonprofit status.
Arp was not backing down. In interviews and talk radio appearances, he sidestepped questions about historical inaccuracy and reframed the matter as being about whether Americans should celebrate the fact that the United States—with Wayne’s help—succeeded in expanding west to become a continent-spanning power. When a reporter asked him directly to respond to the tribe’s accusation that he was essentially celebrating Wayne’s mistreatment of Native Americans while obscuring what really happened, he pivoted to patriotism.
“For us, we’re very happy to live in Fort Wayne and that the United States of America exists,” he said. “I would not call those negative impacts. Maybe other people may see those as negatives. As being a patriotic American, I think having the United States be a place is a good thing.”
This display of defiance delighted another faction of residents. They posted numerous messages on social media and in the comments under news articles like, “Worry about what’s going on in Oklahoma!” and “White people have history too. We won get over it. You would still be in the stone age if it weren’t for us.”
The debate also rekindled local anger over a 2015 school board decision to retire the “Redskins” mascot of the city’s North Side High School, from which I graduated in 1994. The school had been the Redskins since it opened in 1927, with a red warrior head as a logo and a tradition of having a male student dress up in a Plains-style feathered headdress to help lead cheers at football games and perform a “war dance” at pep rallies. For a time, my Facebook feed had displayed angry posts by fellow alumni, and the backlash to Wayne Day stirred up those memories again.
Arp later expressed surprise at the factual scrutiny his resolution received, telling me, “I didn’t put that much consternation into the selection of each and every word.” But when I asked why he had not simply put forward a corrective resolution, he paused.
“One, I’m not sure there are any inaccuracies,” he said. “Two, as you know, this wasn’t a unanimous thing in the first place. Getting into it a second time …”
He trailed off. I ventured, “Might not work?” and he nodded. To reopen Wayne Day for debate was to risk that the council might just drop it instead.
Much about the Wayne Day debate settled into a pattern that seemed familiar from many culture-war flare-ups across the country: An opening move that turned out to be perhaps more divisive than anticipated, ensuing criticism met by a refusal to concede error or back down, and a fusing of contemporary grievances with deep historical resentments.
But I remained puzzled by another aspect of the story: The resolution’s dramatic selling point was the claim that by capturing Stony Point, Anthony Wayne had foiled a bold British attempt to capture General George Washington, whose location they had learned as part of Benedict Arnold’s treason. I had scoured books and consulted historians for any support for Arp’s tale, but every source portrayed the battle as a strategically minor morale booster, with no mention of Arnold or any risk that Washington might have been captured. Where had that come from?
When I asked Arp why he had not consulted the History Center when he wrote his resolution, he said he could do his own research. For the Northwest Indian War portions, he mentioned reading several military history websites and a 2004 book about Wayne’s campaign against the tribes by Alan Gaff, a local amateur historian who joined Loomis’ planning committee. (While Gaff threw his support behind the Wayne Day resolution, I read his book and it did not contain the errors critics pointed to in it.) But when I asked Arp for the source of his understanding of Stony Point, he grew vaguer.
I had a theory. One day, I had tried an Internet search for keywords from Arp’s version of Stony Point but without Wayne’s name. The query returned recaps for an episode from the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies. Although it had no Wayne character, the episode’s fictionalized version of Stony Point lined up with the dramatic version put forward by Arp—who had even told the city council that Washington ordered the attack after learning of a British plan to surround his encampment “from his own spies.” The AMC show contained that exact plot point.
A call to Craig Silverstein, Turn’s executive producer and showrunner, confirmed that they had made all this up.
“Stony Point in history has nothing to do with Benedict Arnold,” Silverstein added. “We connected that for dramatic license.”
I asked Arp whether he had watched the series, and he had. I asked if this episode was the origin.
“I don’t know,” he replied curtly. “I guess anything’s possible.”
At the March 26 city council meeting, Hunter and Williams delivered greetings in the reconstituted Miami language and, in English, reemphasized that the tribe was objecting only to historical inaccuracies. Several council members thanked them for coming and said they had meant no offense.
Arp instead used the moment to tout the planning for Wayne Day. He and Loomis had already convened two meetings with other volunteers, including an executive with the Boy Scouts, whose area council is named for Anthony Wayne and runs Camp Chief Little Turtle where I spent summer weeks as a kid, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, whose area chapter is named after the general’s wife, Mary Penrose Wayne.
The tribe’s appeal spurred an outpouring of commentary, and momentum seemed to be building for the council to repeal or correct its resolution. said the resolution was “divisive and unnecessary” and should be rescinded.
But on April 10, Loomis and Arp convened a news conference to unveil their plans and push back, distributing a statement accusing the resolution’s critics of “hysteria” written by Gaff, the amateur historian. And in early May, coasting on a wave of news media attention from the Wayne Day debate, Arp turned back his primary challenger and secured the Republican nomination for another term.
With Wayne Day supporters dug in, the council displayed no appetite to revisit the issue. It continued to ignore the History Center’s raised hand asking to be called upon to weigh in. It took no action after a state agency, the Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission, urged it to rescind and rework Wayne Day and offered its own resources to help—nor after Williams returned to Fort Wayne in late May with another elected Miami leader, bringing a measure the Miami tribal council enacted to formally reiterate its complaints.
As the scheduled date for Wayne Day neared, strains were beginning to emerge among its supporters. Loomis later told me that he grew uncomfortable with how Arp had turned his idea into “a political asset” to garner publicity as he campaigned for reelection. Then Arp mentioned that he had unilaterally invited Vice President Mike Pence, the former Indiana governor, to be the keynote speaker, Loomis told me. The planning committee voted on June 1 to reject the idea, and Loomis demanded that Arp rescind the invitation before there was any response.
“I did not want to politicize our event,” Loomis told me. “I did not want to turn it over to the Secret Service. I did not want to have criticism of the Trump administration to become the centerpiece of our first General Wayne Day. And I didn’t want protesters.”
Loomis was also upset to learn about the second visit by tribal leaders—something Arp, who did not meet with them, did not mention ahead of time. Loomis had invited the Miami to participate in Wayne Day and present their perspective on Wayne, “warts and all,” as part of its events, but they ignored him. He was frustrated by the missed opportunity to talk.
Adding to the tensions, Arp stopped attending planning committee meetings but continued to hold himself out as the face of Wayne Day. In a July 10 radio interview—just a week out—he delivered an obsolete description of their events. Loomis told me he rebuked Arp in a lengthy Facebook message, and Arp wrote back with an apology. (Messages about public business in officials’ personal accounts are covered by Indiana’s public records law, but the city did not produce this exchange in response to my request for council emails about Wayne Day.)
By then it was clear that Wayne Day was going to happen with the resolution unchanged. Its critics were angry.
“We had reached out to say, ‘Look, you got this wrong. We’re not Anthony Wayne fans and never will be, but we’re not asking you not to have your founder’s day. But you’ve made history up with this resolution. All we’re asking you to do is take a look at it again, get it rescinded or superseded, and fix it,’” Olds told me in early July. “It’s incredible: There’s not a single sign they are considering it, let alone taking any action.”
The morning of July 16 was sultry with the threat of rain. Flanked by cameras, five dozen people gathered at the Wayne statue—Boy Scouts, American Legion members, sash-wearing members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and onlookers. Loomis and Gaff watched from the sidelines as another planning committee member, Bob Jones, strutted about in costume as the general. Other reenactors played Wayne’s wife and one of his children.
As the ceremony neared, Arp, who was to give the keynote address, was sweating. He had had difficulty sleeping, he later told me, because his children were coming and he worried about protesters. But local critics had decided to shun the event. The Miami tribe, too, was focused elsewhere. That same day, Lankford was in Washington testifying in support of a bill that would permit the tribe to pursue compensation for 2.6 million acres in Illinois that it says it never legally ceded.
After a flag ceremony, Arp stepped to the microphone and gave an account of Wayne’s life. As I watched, it struck me that despite his previous defiance, he was not repeating any of his inaccurate claims. Arp, this time, even mentioned Wayne’s ouster from Congress and his financial troubles—though he skipped that Wayne had taken out the large loan he had trouble repaying in order to buy slaves. Still, it was a more three-dimensional portrait than the cartoon action hero of his February presentation.
“I couldn’t think of a better American to have our fair city named after,” Arp concluded.
Martha Barnhart, a national Daughters of the American Revolution leader from Indiana, stepped to the microphone next. She spoke of keeping alive “an understanding and appreciation for American history as it happened,” saying Wayne was “not perfect.”
“We recognize that not all chapters of American history are easy to accept today, given that our evolution as a people has made us more enlightened,” she said. “We also recognize that men like General Wayne were human beings like ourselves, and that we know not how our descendants will judge our actions of today by tomorrow’s standards. Yet the stories of men like General Wayne deserve to be told.”
Barnhart later told me she had wanted to maintain space to celebrate Wayne while acknowledging that some dark things happened in the Northwest Indian War, arguing that “we need to find a way to recognize the contributions of our Revolutionary War soldiers without insulting the Indians or taking sides.” Her overriding goal was to dampen the antagonism, from fear the Wayne Day backlash could merge with the movement to remove Confederate monuments.
“I was concerned that they might decide that Anthony Wayne was not a hero and so the statue should be taken down,” she said.
Arp met me for breakfast the next morning. During our wide-ranging conversation, I pressed him about his claim that criticizing Wayne or Wayne Day was anti-American. Some would argue, I proposed, that you can “love this country and be glad you’re in it, but also still want it to be better.” If so, acknowledging the ugly parts of our history, rather than sanitizing them into feel-good myths, is “not unpatriotic—it’s just grown-up. What’s your rebuttal?”
Arp said he agreed but argued that when it came to civic days honoring historic figures, it was appropriate to “celebrate things in an American, apple pie way”—recognizing their accomplishments rather than dwelling on their failures. He cited Martin Luther King Jr. Day, saying we honor his civil rights achievements without bringing up character flaws like his infidelity.
“Wayne was apparently quite a womanizer for his time,” Arp continued. “But that’s not part of what it is that we admire about him. What we’re celebrating are the things that we admire. People that live here in Fort Wayne can have an opportunity to know more about a very significant historical figure without having to go through all of the self-hatred that appears to be the desire of the day.”
One night in August, someone spray-painted “No Pride in Native Genocide” on the Old Fort. “It has to do with—I’m sure—with some folks that were somewhat miffed about the General Wayne Day,” said Tom Grant, a volunteer.
Though the first Wayne Day was past and tensions ebbed from their peak, they still simmered on. Because the council had established it as a perpetually recurring holiday, it seemed possible that the city would be caught in a loop—with rancor over the resolution set to inevitably flare anew every year when July 16 rolled around.
Paddock decided to try to reduce that risk. In September, he asked the History Center to evaluate the draft of a resolution to recognize local tribes for November’s Native American History Month. But it turned out to be far more. While the document did not address the falsehoods about Stony Point, it acknowledged “factual inaccuracies” about the Northwest Indian War in both the Wayne Day resolution as well as in Arp’s presentation, offering a litany of corrections and clarifications.
Invited to weigh in at last, Pelfrey moved to build a case to pass the corrective measure. From his paper-cluttered office next to a glass case holding a white shell necklace Little Turtle received to commemorate the treaty with Wayne, Pelfrey identified scores of historical experts to consult. He received 68 responses with positive views. Just one—Gaff—was less enthusiastic.
Miami leaders viewed Paddock’s draft resolution with ambivalence—surprised and pleased with how far it went, but wary that it could provoke a new backlash.
“I’m afraid this fix is only going to make it worse,” Lankford said in October.
On Election Day, Arp won a second term by 309 votes out of more than 11,000 cast. Afterward, Paddock—who had been more handily reelected—unveiled his resolution. Pelfrey sent the council a report describing the experts’ response and appended a History Center statement that finally said aloud what he had long wanted to proclaim: The Wayne Day resolution’s historical claims “quite simply did not occur as presented.”
Three council members skipped the meeting at which Paddock’s resolution would be debated. One was Arp. But Diane Hunter again came to speak, telling the council, “This does resolve the concerns of the Miami Tribe.”
The council voted, 6-0, to bestow its preliminary blessing, but it still needed final approval. At the next meeting, all nine members were present. Only Arp voted no. He offered no explanation and did not respond when I asked him for one by email.
“That silence speaks,” Olds told me.
In January, political power in Fort Wayne shifted when new terms kicked in. Democrats had picked up two seats on the nine-member city council, dropping the GOP’s majority from seven to five. The distillation left Arp and Ensley relatively louder voices within a diminished local Republican Party. They soon moved on to new culture-war fights, like attacking the county health commissioner for closing church services as the Covid-19 pandemic swelled.
But because one of the other five remaining Republicans, Russ Jehl, had voted against Wayne Day in the first place, Hines said it’s possible the council could act to retire the original resolution—perhaps after the dust settles from the 2020 election.
“We probably won’t touch it this year,” Hines said. “But it’s definitely something I’d like to look at going forward.”
Jehl declined comment. But Loomis, who replaced Arp as the other leader of his planning committee, told me that he does not need the city government’s sanction to keep Wayne Day going regardless.
Loomis had to cancel public events for Wayne Day this month because of the pandemic but is working on a more elaborate observance in 2021, including talking with the military’s ceremonial unit—the “Old Guard” of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment—about potentially visiting Fort Wayne to perform.
As the oldest continually existing component of America’s armed forces, the Old Guard is famous for its changing-of-the-guard ritual at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. What is far less known is that it traces its origins to the legion General ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne built and used to conquer the Midwest.
The Wayne Day saga fascinated me not just because it concerned my hometown, but because it offered a lens to consider the toughest civic issues raised by whether and how, in this polarized political era, we can engage with ugly but important events in our shared history—events that rarely seem to have been addressed in an accurate and complete way.
One day while reporting this article in Fort Wayne, I decided to visit all the relevant historical sites I could identify. Some I had no memory of anyone mentioning when I was growing up, like an 1827 brick mansion that the government built for a Miami chief to entice him to sign a treaty ceding more tribal land, and the battle sites of St. Clair’s Defeat and Fallen Timbers across the border in Ohio.
Due to a faulty old map, the Fallen Timbers monument is ignominiously mislocated across a highway from the actual battlefield. Dedicated in 1929, it mourns “the white settlers massacred 1783-1794” and praises Wayne for opening “much of the present state of Ohio to white settlers.” Its back face is dedicated to “Chief Little Turtle and his brave Indian warriors,” without acknowledging significant leaders of other tribes in the confederation, like Blue Jacket of the Shawnee, nor explaining the motivation behind their raids on settlers: The confederation was trying to expel intruders, recognizing that their rapidly swelling numbers posed an existential threat to their own society’s survival in their homelands.
Other sites I had seen as a child but was now better equipped to understand, like the Little Turtle Memorial, squeezed between two houses near a riverbank. In 1912, a century after Little Turtle died, construction workers stumbled across his grave and desecrated it, looting funerary items and bones before erecting a house on the lot anyway. But in 1958, a retired high school history teacher bought the property and donated it to be a tiny city park. That improvement has nevertheless left something important unacknowledged: This was not just Little Turtle’s grave.
Dozens of other human remains were also unearthed here, contemporaneous accounts show. By restoring a sliver of open space and calling the site a memorial to one person, the city has obscured the “uncomfortable” fact that it has allowed the surrounding houses to sit atop a general cemetery for the Miami people, George Ironstrack, a tribal member who teaches at Miami University, told me. I brought this up to Tom Henry, the Democratic mayor of Fort Wayne, and asked him whether the city had considered buying up nearby houses to turn the entire burial ground into parkland. Henry told me that was the first he’d heard of it being anything more than Little Turtle’s grave.
As for the original fort, Wayne had ordered it built on a hill overlooking the river confluence. The spot’s view of the waterways is now blocked by a railway line on which freight trains regularly bring hazardous chemicals through downtown. The railroad was in turn erected atop a 19th-century canal dug to connect Lake Erie to the Wabash and Ohio rivers—infrastructure that rendered the land portage obsolete.
In 1934, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a boulder at the site. Squinting at its bronze plaque, I read that Wayne’s fort here had “commanded the shortest portage between the St. Lawrence and Mississippi systems, a portage known to the Indians as ‘Glorious Gate’ and a strategic crossroads in early trade and exploration.” The historical marker contains no discussion of the fort’s purpose in occupying the area following a military conquest, and it takes the phrase “Glorious Gate” out of context; rather than a general Miami name for the portage, it was a metaphor used by Little Turtle, recorded in the minutes of the 1795 treaty talks, as he protested Wayne’s insistence that the Miami give up the historic heart of their territory.
I determined to trace that original portage—the reason both Indian and early American settlements here had mattered so much. The near entrance and exit had been on a riverbank just west of what is now downtown, upstream from the Maumee confluence. The other end had been several miles southeast, along the Little River, a tributary to the Wabash.
The exact point on the Little River where travelers once transitioned between canoe and foot had shifted by miles with seasonal water levels, so I sought the stream’s source. But at its U.S. Geological Survey coordinates, I found a void. A limestone quarry had consumed the spot.
Looking down into this artificial canyon, I felt the deepness of the geological time that laid the literal groundwork for centuries of human struggles over these lands—and now, over the meaning of that history. More than 20,000 years ago, a glacier crested to this point, pushing a moraine of rock that it left behind when it melted back into what is now Lake Erie. The ridge is a continental divide, causing rainwater to drain toward the ocean in opposite directions—and creating a land portage between two major channels.
Beyond a heap of excavated glacial till and behind the Wayne Asphalt & Construction Co., I found a pipe conducting milky water from the quarry. The stream flowed down a narrow channel that turned corners at sharp angles, eventually following a road along farmland toward the Wabash.
The source of this once fabled waterway had been reduced to an unmarked, industrialized ditch. But as I walked alongside, the waters below starting to wend their way toward the distant Gulf of Mexico, I saw a trio of raccoons swim across the channel and disappear into a thicket—an echo of its past in a flash of wild fur.