In June 1960, about 200 people in Fort Wayne, including its mayor and school board president, gathered in the Spy Run neighborhood for the dedication of the city's newest park: the Little Turtle Memorial, where the once-lost grave of the Miami war chief had been discovered nearly half a century earlier.
The main speaker, a First Presbyterian Church minister, was paraphrased the next day by The Journal Gazette as declaring that Little Turtle “should be appreciated for his contribution to the destiny of the white man.”
If that thought strikes contemporary ears as crass, so too might a fact that was apparently left unspoken on that day and has been largely forgotten: This was not just the chief's burial place.
Growing up in Fort Wayne, I visited the tiny park but had no idea that Little Turtle's grave site was just a fragment of a tribal cemetery that had been almost literally covered up. I learned its true nature while researching an article about the culture-war fight over the city's creation last year of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne Day, which Politico Magazine recently published. But it had room for only a few sentences about the Spy Run burial ground.
City residents may wish to know more – though some details are unpleasant.
When workers building a house in the 600 block of Lawton Place uncovered Little Turtle's skeleton on July 4, 1912, people looted his grave. A Journal Gazette article the following month, covering the announcement of the grave's discovery by a local history buff and collector of Native American artifacts named Jacob Stouder, said the “contents of the tomb were scattered about the city and it was with considerable difficulty and no little expense” that he recollected them. Stouder later recalled that Little Turtle's remains themselves were “scattered and carried away by the curious as mementos.”
On top of all that, the property owner then had a house erected on the site anyway.
A skull, labeled as Little Turtle's, ended up in a display case at the First National Bank of Fort Wayne. But an expert at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., later examined it and determined it had instead belonged to a woman who died in her early 20s. In the chaos of the grave site's looting, skulls from different human remains had gotten mixed up.
Indeed, Little Turtle's grave was just one of many found in what that 1912 Journal Gazette article frankly described as an “Indian burying ground.” Editors of an historical journal later wrote that Stouder told them the spot “was, perhaps, the last cemetery of the Miamis at Fort Wayne, and that more than twenty-five bodies have been exhumed in that locality.”
The burial ground must have been much larger, for other writings show he was describing the concentration of graves found on just that lot. Stouder wrote that the workers had “uncovered seven or eight skeletons with few or no ornaments” when digging the cellar, then found four more – Little Turtle's among them – when digging a trench for a drainage pipe behind it. The property owner recalled that a week later, 16 additional skeletons were exhumed when his backyard was systematically dug up.
And while the contents of this small rectangle of land were unusually well documented, there is evidence that the Spy Run burial ground extended far beyond its borders.
The Spy Run neighborhood lies just north of downtown along the St. Joseph River, tucked into a bend on its western bank. For most of the 18th century, the principal Miami tribe town – a prosperous regional hub – was across the St. Joseph River in what is now Lakeside.
Accounts from the 19th century describe Spy Run as an old orchard where William Wells, Little Turtle's son-in-law, once had a house; his descendants eventually sold it off in several large tracts. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were further carved up into lots. And when streets were put through and houses built along them, the unearthing of Native American graves was routine, contemporaneous writings show.
“The place was in early times a burial ground for the Indians, and there are hundreds of graves in the locality,” reported a 1903 Journal Gazette article. “Whenever any excavations have been made, skeletons were found, always accompanied by the trinkets the aborigines customarily buried with their dead.”
That article was about local lore that the still-lost grave of Little Turtle was in the Spy Run orchard, although it focused on a spot several blocks south of where the grave would later be found. As potential corroboration, it detailed the large number of Native American remains that had been unearthed around there; “many Indian graves were found” during the recent creation of Anderson Avenue, for example.
A man named Marshal Comincavish, who lived on Spy Run Avenue between Tennessee and Anderson avenues, showed the reporter “a great box and two bushel baskets filled with human bones” he had collected from such graves. He believed that Little Turtle's grave was instead on his lot, based on what the area's previous longtime owner – the Mr. Anderson for whom the new street was named – had told him; Anderson, he said, had pointed out numerous places where there were Indian graves on his lot and “whenever I dug down, I always found the skeletons in the spots he indicated.”
A March 1912 article in the Fort Wayne Sentinel, also examining rival lore about where Little Turtle's lost grave might be located, returned to Comincavish's claim and noted that the area near and around his home was “one of the burial grounds of the Indians.” That article also focused on a spot in the 600 block of Prospect Avenue – a block further south of Anderson, stating: “That many Indians were buried in that immediate vicinity there is no doubt. In the excavations for residences built there many Indian bones have been exhumed, and with them a vast array of relics – tomahawks, swords, guns, pistols, beads, etc.”
As late as 1923, the News-Sentinel reported that workmen digging a cellar for a new house in the 600 block of Prospect Avenue had unearthed “seven complete skeletons.” This article was unusual because it treated the discovery of ordinary Native American graves as inherently newsworthy without any link to Little Turtle.
Fort Wayne residents of the time clearly saw digging up Indian graves as generally unremarkable; it was usually only the romance of the chief's lost grave that prompted reporters to write articles detailing concentrations of graves found near various places of interest.
The available record is therefore incomplete. What had been found in the ground under the neighboring houses around what is now the Little Turtle Memorial and further along Lawton Place? Were graves disinterred in similar volumes during the development of the 600 blocks of Riverside and Tennessee avenues, in between Lawton Place and Anderson Avenue?
The precise scope of the Spy Run burial ground is lost in time. But enough is knowable to reconsider this legacy of Fort Wayne's history.
That was, of course, a different era. Attitudes gradually evolved, and over time some people in Fort Wayne have sought to repair some of this damage. The Little Turtle Memorial exists because in 1959, Mary Catherine Smeltzly, a retired history teacher, decided to purchase the house where his grave was found and donated it to the city to be a park.
The law has also changed; what happened in Spy Run would today be a crime. It is a felony in Indiana to dig without permission for and disturb human remains buried before 1870 and to traffic in such grave relics. Congress passed a similar law to protect Native American graves on federal lands that also requires organizations that receive federal funding to return grave relics to tribes or descendants of identifiable individuals.
Some of the human remains and relics dug up locally ended up with the Fort Wayne History Center. Although it was not clear whether the museum is covered by that federal law, the current board and director Todd Maxwell Pelfrey have complied with its principles by giving those items to the Miami, who removed them for reburial in 2019. The museum transferred ownership of Little Turtle's grave objects to two families descended from him; they asked to have several culturally sensitive objects removed from public view but allowed others – such as a sword George Washington gave the chief – to remain displayed.
The question remains: What about the Spy Run burial ground?
Seemingly resigned to a litany of ways in which Fort Wayne has historically not treated the original inhabitants of the area respectfully, the Miami have not sought to make an issue of it.
When I visited the tribal nation in Oklahoma, where it ended up after its 1846 removal, I asked its elected chief, Douglas Lankford, about the other graves found alongside Little Turtle's. He said he would like to see the little park expand to encompass the adjoining lots. But he and Julie Olds, the tribe's cultural officer, also emphasized that there are many other native graves in Indiana.
That is true. A March 1910 Fort Wayne Daily News article identified Spy Run as one of several “old Indian burial grounds” in the city, also putting one somewhere in Lakeside and another at the west end of downtown – where bones were discovered as recently as 2017.
Construction periodically uncovers native skeletons, and several years ago the Miami tribe placed an agency in Fort Wayne to handle reburials.
Still, Fort Wayne's historic treatment of the Spy Run burial ground seems especially worthy of scrutiny due to its volume and relatively recent vintage. At least some people buried there had been in the ground for 100 years or fewer when city forebears casually dug them up.
Little Turtle had been buried in July 1812; the 1903 article also mentioned unearthing from graves coins that had been minted in 1805 and 1810. Archaeologists excavating ancient graves is not disturbing, but this was like today digging up the remains of people who died in the 1920s.
The city, of course, can choose to take corrective action on its own. For example, the Parks and Recreation Department could put information at the Little Turtle Memorial to acknowledge that many other Miami people were also buried there. George Ironstrack, a Miami member who teaches at the Myaamia Center at Miami University in Ohio, said that the city's restoration of one lot of open space in Spy Run while deeming it a memorial to one person has obscured the “uncomfortable” fact that it has allowed houses to sit atop a general Miami cemetery.
“When there is just a focus on Little Turtle, intentionally or not, it ignores everything else underneath it. It's an interesting symbol for the broader problem,” he said. By celebrating one chief, “the process doesn't focus on how we got where we are today or attempt to understand us as a people to a level where one might be able to empathize with us.”
I also asked Mayor Tom Henry whether the city had considered buying up some of the surrounding houses to turn the broader burial ground into parkland. Henry said that was the first he'd heard of the site being anything more than Little Turtle's grave.
More recently, I had a similar conversation with Geoff Paddock, the city councilman who wrote a corrective resolution addressing problems with the initial creation of Wayne Day and whose district includes Spy Run. Paddock also leads a nonprofit organization that redeveloped a former commercial area along a riverbank near downtown into Headwaters Park. He expressed interest, saying he wanted to consult historical and tribal experts to learn more.
“We have got some fences to mend here,” Paddock said. “It would be nice to be proactive about something.”
Charlie Savage, a Fort Wayne native and one-time Journal Gazette intern, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times.
To read more
• "When the culture wars hit Fort Wayne" can be found at https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/07/31/culture-wars-fort-wayne-373011.
• Some of the historical materials mentioned in this account can be viewed at https://beta.documentcloud.org/documents/20383685-spy-run-burial-ground.