University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
Notre Dame: Foundations, 1842-1857 / by John Theodore Wack

Chapter I
Foundation, 1840-1843


Two years was little time for the building of a college in even the most settled area; Sorin had agreed to fashion his college in the wilderness, on lands which had recently been in the possession of a village of Potawatomi Indians. A man whose optimistic vision had given him over to such an undertaking could brook no delays in its commencement, and in less than a month's time the eager priest had made his arrangements for departure. There was little money. The community had received another gift from Samuel Byerley, this time of seventy-five dollars, late in October of 1842,{1} and on November 10 the Bishop gave them three hundred and ten dollars from the Delaune collection, plus a bill of credit payable in South Bend for an additional two hundred and thirty dollars. As a reserve, the Bishop still held over a thousand dollars from the Delaune funds and from money sent to him for Sorin and the Brothers by the Propagation of the Faith.{3} One can only marvel at Sorin's audacity, making ready to travel to a sparsely settled country with little if any knowledge of the conditions to expect on his arrival, with the Herculian task of building and opening a college in two years time, and with but some three hundred dollars and a small bill of credit in his pocket.

It was the desire of Bishop de la Hailandiere to keep the novitiate of the Brothers in existence at St. Peters while Father Sorin established the college in the north. The teaching Brothers were the Bishop's primary concern, and their continued existence and success was essential to his plans for diocesan education.{4} When Sorin's ambition led him off to the wilderness, de la Hailandiere did not wish to see the reality of the novitiate destroyed by the possible dissolution of the dream of the college. As a result, when Sorin departed from the farm of St. Peters on November 16, 1842, he left the greater part of his community at St. Peters in the charge of Father Etienne Chartier,{5} a local priest, and of Brother Vincent. Sorin took seven Brothers with him, men suited for the rough life which he anticipated would be met while building the college. The young, but invaluable Brother Gatian was one of these men; he served as an unofficial assistant and secretary to Father Born, keeping track of many of the accounts and records. Moreover, Gatian was expected to begin his work as an elementary teacher as soon as possible. The other men, Brothers Mary, Patrick, William, Basil, Peter, and Francis, were laborers and craftsmen. The latter five Brothers were all new recruits found in America.{6}

The trek north was long and cold; the frozen ruts of the dirt roads must have jarred and jolted both the travelers and their loaded supplies. Soon after they took the road north, the group separated into two parties. Sorin, eager to reach his destination before the onslaught of the worst of winter and impatient with the slow progress thus far, took four of the Brothers with him and struck out at a faster pace, leaving the other three Brothers to follow with the equipment and supplies.{7} On the afternoon of November 26, 1842, he reached the small village of South Bend, where he sought out the cabin of Alexis Coquillard, a French-American trapper who had been the first permanent white settler in the area and who was known to Bishop de la Hailandiere.{8} In his eagerness, Sorin was too impatient to wait until the following morning to view the site on which he had already built his hopes. The group went that very afternoon to investigate the lands on which Sorin would raise his college, finding them mantled with snow, softening and mellowing the harshness of the bare winter-frozen forest, so that they were "perfectly enchanted by the beauty of their new home."{9} After walking around and over the two frozen lakes which lay at the center of the new lands, and pausing to examine the three log buildings which stood on the bank of one of the lakes, Bonn and the Brothers who had accompanied him returned to spend the night at the Coquillard cabin.{10}

The next day, November 27, they retraced the road from South Bend to the Lakes, a journey of some two miles, and took formal possession of their new home, which was frozen in the grip of a winter which promised to be most severe. Their lands constituted five hundred twenty-four acres. Two small, shallow, spring-fed lakes were centered in the grant, surrounded by forest land, uncleared except for some ten acres around the log buildings. Had the land been free from snow, Father Sorin could have seen that the two lakes were separated by a low, marshy area which rose gradually into a pair of small hills between the lakes and then once again fell off to low ground. Thus, in the high water of spring, the two lakes would become one, with a small island marking their point of previous separation. The banks of the lakes, as the spring also would expose, were thick with white marl, a clinging, clay substance which would later prove invaluable to the new community in the making of the characteristic yellow-tan building bricks which distinguish the early buildings of Notre Dame. The acres of land which surrounded the lakes were heavily forested, except for a few natural clearings. The soil was average, but Sorin hoped it would be improved by the use of lime as fertilizer, lime which would also come from the white marl of the lakes.{11}

On the south bank of St. Mary's Lake (the southern-most of the two lakes, the other being known as St. Joseph's Lake) was a cleared area which contained the buildings of the former mission which now served as a church for the few Catholic families living in the vicinity. This site was known locally as Ste-Marie-des-Lacs.{12} The mission had a short but unusual history. The local Indians, a part of the Potawatomi tribe, had come under the influence of Jesuit missionaries from their mission at Fort St. Joseph near the present city of Niles, Michigan, some seven or eight miles north of the Lakes. When this fort was captured and later abandoned in 1763 during Pontiac's uprising, these Indians remained without a church or priest until the westward movement of the American frontier reached them after the turn of the century. In 1830, their chief, Leopold Pokagan, asked that a priest be sent to them. Father Stephen Theodore Badin, an experienced missionary at the age of sixty years, the first priest to have been ordained in America, came to reopen the Potawatomi mission.{13}

Father Badin's mission was destined to be only a temporary one. The Indian wilderness of the northern Midwest was rapidly changing in character as the numbers of while settlers increased. However, at this time, the role of the missionary was a crucial one. The Potawatomi, like all Indians east of the Mississippi, had found themselves to be helpless before the whites after the Indian military power was broken in the War of 1812. Debauched and degraded by contact with the disease and liquor of the frontiersmen and traders, cheated of their lands by government treaties, these Indians were left friendless in the face of Andrew Jackson's unfeeling policy which called for the removal of whole Indian tribes to the alien plains west of the Mississippi. These were the Indians among whom Father Badin labored until 1835. His work was carried on by Father Deseille, who had joined Badin in Pokagan's village in 1832 and who worked there until his death in 1837, and by Father Petit, the saintly young Frenchman who succeeded Father Deseille in 1837 and who died early in 1839 after accompanying his Indians on their removal to the West.{14}

Father Badin, recognizing the changing character of the area, determined to build an orphanage for the children of the vicinity,{15} and for this purpose he purchased the five hundred twenty-four acres of land known from then as Ste-Marie-des-Lacs. This was done in the early 1830's, but when plans for the orphanage failed, he sold the property in 1835 to Bishop Simon Bruté of Vincennes for one dollar plus the promise that he would be paid seven hundred and fifty dollars for the improvements which he had made on the land.{16} In 1840, the property was offered to Father Ferdinand D. Bach of the Fathers of Mercy in the hope that he would be able to establish a college at Ste-Marie-des-Lacs. Should he not do so in two years' time, the land was to be returned to the Bishop.{17} Father Bach secured an additional three hundred and seventy-five acres of land from Father Badin, land lying in St. Joseph County in northern Indiana just to the south of the Michigan state line. This land was a few miles north of Ste-Marie-des-Lacs.{18}

A short time later, as a result of his appointment to another post, Bach was forced to abandon the contemplated establishment at the Lakes, and the land reverted to Bishop de la Hailandiere.{19} The original Badin grant of five hundred and twenty-four acres which constituted Ste-Marie-des-Lacs was then offered to Father Sorin late in 1842. The three hundred and seventy-five acres of land which Father Bach had acquired from Father Badin also went to the Bishop and were transfered to Father Sorin a few years later by a title indenture drawn on October 27, 1847, showing the purchase price as one dollar.{20}

All that remained in 1842 of Badin's 'improvements' of 1835 were three log buildings. The largest of these "was an old log cabin 24 x 40 ft., the ground floor of which answered as a room for the priest, and the story above for a chapel for the Catholics of South Bend and the neighborhood, although it was open to all winds."{21} Close by was a small, two-story building which housed a half-breed named Charron and his wife. Charron, whose family constituted the only residents at the mission before Sorin's arrival, served as an interpreter between visiting priests and the local Indians, about two hundred of whom remained in the vicinity.{22} The last building, if it may be called such, was a small shed, some six feet by eight feet.{23} These rudimentary structures constituted the basis of what Sorin was now beginning to call Notre Dame du Lac.

Nor was the surrounding countryside much more promising as a site for a college, despite its beauty. The Notre Dame lands lay within St. Joseph County, one of the northernmost of Indiana's sparsely settled northern counties. At that time, this county held some 6,500 to 7,500 persons, most of whom were employed in typical pioneer fashion, carving out homes, farms, and towns from the wilderness forest.{24} St. Joseph County was, fortunately, rapidly growing. In 1840, it already ranked fiftieth of the eighty-seven counties in Indiana, despite the fact that settlement in northern Indiana had been light until after the War of 1812. By 1860, the county would be the twentieth in size of the counties in the state, and it would contain almost 18,500 people.{25}

Sorin's new lands lay in the north-central portion of the county. To the west of the two lakes the St. Joseph River curved northward, passing within a mile or two of the old Indian mission. As the river flowed to the north, moving into the state of Michigan, it passed through the small town of Bertrand, Michigan, a village of about one thousand inhabitants which was already beginning to decline in importance as, a few miles to the north and also on the river, the town of Niles began to flourish.{26} Northeast and east of Ste-Marie-des-Lacs no large towns existed, but to the southeast, about five miles away, was the small community of Mishawaka, which lay on the banks of the St. Joseph River as it flowed westward into St. Joseph County before turning north into Michigan. Finally, south of the Lakes, along the broad curve described by the river as it began its leisurely journey north to empty into Lake Michigan, lay the town known, with frontier directness, as South Bend. At this time, this town, which was the county seat, was not much larger than the small community of Bertrand, about one thousand persons,{27} but it soon would surpass all of its neighbors. In reality, in these early years, it was composed of two towns -- South Bend on the south side of the curve of the river, and Lowell (showing the inevitable New England influence) on the north side, but the smaller town of Lowell would soon be swallowed by the expansion of South Bend.{28}

These four pioneer towns, none more populous than a small village, were the immediate neighbors of Notre Dame. Aside from these towns, the rest of the population of the area was scattered on farms newly hacked. from the wilderness, many still bordered by the forest. Most of the people in the County were farmers, and the towns existed to serve the farms, although a few native industries could be found growing up, industries such as that of the Studebaker brothers who became wagon makers in South Bend. The people were predominantly Protestant in religious conviction; there were three Protestant churches and no Catholic services at all.{29} The settlement at the Lakes was expected to serve the religious needs of all of the Catholics in the vicinity. There were some twenty Catholic families in the four town area, and, in addition, Father Sorin was expected to minister to the few Indians remaining on their old lands and to travel as a mission priest to a number of settlements which were strung out along or near the river, from the Indiana town of Plymouth to the Michigan town of Kalamazoo.{30}

The task of Father Sorin was no small one. He must serve as a missionary to both whites and Indians in a relatively large area, direct his Brothers in their work of clearing land for a farm to support themselves and their projects, and, simultaneously, accomplish his major task of preparing, building, and filling a Catholic college and a religious novitiate within two years' time. All of this was to be done in a land which only recently had been a hostile wilderness and which even then was sparsely settled by people who were, for the most part, Protestant in faith (and suspicious of Roman Catholics), rudely lettered, and primarily insterested in the pragmatic problems of pioneer existence, with little time or inclination for the arts and classics. It was a task at which any man might quail, yet Sorin accepted it eagerly. The young priest confidently expected to conquer all obstacles and to lay low all resistence. His enthusiasm was boundless; his faith was bottomless.{31}

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