The Waters of the Walk-in-the-Water

Chief Walk-in-the-Water, Chief Tarhe, Isaac Zane, and Princes Myeerah Tarhe Zane, lived through their life stories along waterways including the Detroit, Potomac, Ohio, Thames, and Mad Rivers and Lake Erie. The struggle between the British and French for domination of the Ohio Country and the Mississippi Valley, and the fate of the Walk-in-the water, the first steamship on Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan combined to make a human and historic drama as powerful as a Lake Erie storm tossing sand, shells, and waves on its beaches.

chief walk-in-the-water

Maera…Awmeyeeray…Mirahatha…The syllables of his Wyandotte name whisper in the winds blowing down the Detroit River to his Wyandot village. English tongues spoke and transcribed his name as Walk-in-the Water, a name that is connected to Tarhe, the Crane. Chief Tarhe had a daughter named Myeerah which means The White Crane and literally translated means Walk-in-the-Water. As well as their names, their lives and times are connected.

Walk-in-the-Water was born in the late 1700s in the Great Lakes region. By the early 1800s he lived in the Detroit River village of Maquaqa, the present site of Wyandotte, Michigan, in a village consisting of about twenty houses and at least 1,300 fellow Wyandots.

Walk-in-the-Water grew tall, nearly six feet and stood arrow straight. He could smile with good nature and treat his fellow Wyandots kindly, but he could also fight as fiercely as a wolf. Walk-in-the-Water made passionate speeches and worked to help his people survive and prosper in their villages. His name appears as one of the 1795 Treaty of Greenville signers, a Treaty that the Native American tribes signed after their loss in the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers. The Treaty of Greenville ended the Northwest Indian War in the Ohio County and redefined the boundary between Indian and white lands in the Northwest Territory.

The Native American tribes were caught between the British and the Americans in the War of 1812 and were forced to choose sides. Influenced by Tecumseh and his Indian Confederation, Walk-in-the Water sided with Tecumseh and the British, although he realized that he and his people were caught in a vise grip between two super powers. He told the British that his people had no wish to be involved in a war with the Americans and they had nothing to be gained by it.

Chief Walk-in-the-Water  begged the British not to force the Wyandots into the War of 1812. He said, “We remember, in the former war between our fathers, the British and the Long-Knife (Americans) we were both defeated, and we, the red men, lost our county; and you made peace with the Long-Knife without our knowledge, and you gave our country to him. You said to us, ‘My children, you just fight for your country, for the Long-Knife will take it from you.’ We did as you advised and we were defeated with the loss our best chiefs and warriors, and our land.”[1]

Chief Tarhe remained true to his belief that the terms of the 1795 Treaty of Greenville prohibited aggression against the United States. He sided with the United States [2]

After Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British fleet at the Battle of Lake Erie, General William Henry Harrison, General Lewis Cass, and Commodore Perry defeated a combined force of British and Indians at the Battle of Thames near Lake Erie on October 5, 1813. Walk-In-the-Water and 60 of his warriors surrendered to General Harrison. Chief Tarhe moved to Sandusky on Lake Erie and Chief Walk-in-the Water returned to his home and farm on the banks of the Detroit River near the present day village of Trenton.[3]

chief tarhe: warrior, orator, sachem

Tarhe was born into the Porcupine Tribe of the Wyandotte Indians in 1742, and he lived in a  Wyandot village along the Detroit River.  Some accounts say that his name is the French translation of  grue, “the crane,” describing Tarhe’s slim build.[4] Other accounts contend that the Tarhe is a Wyandot word meaning “the tree,” again describing his six foot four inch, slender build. [5]

As a boy, Tarhe learned the customs of his people, and as a young man, he developed the heart of a warrior and the determination to fight to preserve the lands and culture of his people. Chief Tarhe and most American Indians were alarmed at the increasingly numbers of white settlers coming into the Ohio Country. Although the British had issued the Proclamation of 1763, ordering their colonists not to move west of the Appalachian Mountains, they still continued to settle on Indian lands.

Fighting between the settlers and Indians increased to the point that in 1774, the governor of Virginia, John Murray, Lord Dunmore, sent troops to attack the hostile Indian groups. Chief Tarhe sided with Cornstalk, a Shawnee leader, against the colonists who were generally victorious in Lord Dunmore’s War. When Lord Dunmore’s War ended, Chief Tarhe advocated peace between the white settlers and American Indians, but his efforts didn’t produce a lasting peace between the two sides.

At the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, the troops of General Anthony Wayne defeated the Indian forces. The Wyandot clans lost many of their warriors and Chief Tarhe was the only chief to survive the battle, although he suffered a badly wounded arm. After this first decisive defeat of the American Indians in the Northwest Territory, Chief Tarhe and Chief Little Turtle of the Miami advocated peace with the white settlers, because Chief Tarhe believed that without peace the Indians would be destroyed.

In 1795, a delegation of American Indians met with General Anthony Wayne in Greenville, Ohio, and the Ohio tribes chose Chief Tarhe to speak for all of the nations and keep the calumet and wampum belt of peace. Chief Tarhe had the honor of being the first of 90 chiefs to sign The Treaty of Greenville.  with Isaac Zane serving as translator and also signing it. The Treaty ended the wars between American Indians and white settlers, and moved all of the Indian tribes to the northwestern third of Ohio. When Tecumseh and other American Indian leaders formed an American Indian confederation in the Ohio County to unite against the settlers, Chief Tarhe counseled his people to honor the Treaty of Greenville that they had signed.

Chief Tarhe married Ronyougaines La Durante, a French Canadian girl. Some stories about Ronyougaines La Durante state that the Wyandots had captured her at a young age and raised her as one of their own people. In his biography of Chief Tarhe on the Wyandotte Nation website, Charles Aubrey Buser says that version of the Ronyougaines La Durante story probably isn’t true because the French and the Wyandots got along well and capturing a young French girl would have been unlikely.  The young couple had a daughter, Myeerah, who the settlers called “the white crane,” because of her fair skin. The literal translation of Myeerah is “Walk-in-the-water,” referring to the white crane who walks in the water. Chief Tarhe later married another captive woman named Sally Sharpe and they had a disabled son who died at age 25.[6]

During the War of 1812, Chief Tarhe, now 70, went to war again. This time he fought with American troops under General William Henry Harrison in his campaign into Canada and helped secure an American victory in the Battle of the Thames. After the War of 1812 ended, Chief Tarhe settled near Upper Sandusky and died there in 1818 at the age of 76, two years after his daughter Myeerah and her husband Isaac Zane. The Ohio tribes honored Chief Tarhe, and hundreds of American Indians attended his funeral. General William Henry Harrison expressed his admiration for Tarhe as “the noblest of them all.” [7]

Colonel John Johnston, then United States Indian Agent, attended Chief Tarhe’s funeral. In his “Recollections”, he writes  that Chief Tarhe represented his race in the northwest and as well as his own tribe, Shawnees, Delaware, Senecas, Ottawas, Mohawks, and Miamis mourned his death. The early settlers of central Ohio also considered Chief Tarhe a wise and honorable chief and they benefitted from his friendship and influence. He often camped on the west bank of the Scioto River, eight miles north of Columbus, later known as Wyandot Grove. He was the friend of Lucas Sullivant and his comrades who founded what is now Columbus, Ohio.

According to Colonel Johnston, Chief Tarhe “belonged to a race whom we are usually please to call savages,” but “should have his memory perpetuated as far as possible by an enduring monument. This is a duty which the white race owes to one of the best representatives of a race which has passed away and whose territory we have taken for permanent occupation.”[8]

princess myeerah and isaac zane

This painting of Princess Myeerah by artist Hal Sherman is at the Logan County Historical Society Museum in Bellfontaine, Ohio.

Further complicating an already involved story, but adding much to the romanticized version, Zane Grey, a descendant of the Zane family and famous novelist, contributed his own romanticized vision to the story of the struggle for the Ohio County and the role that his family played in it. In his book, Betty Zane, Zane Grey wrote that Indians had captured Isaac Zane,9, and his brother Jonathan, 11, near their home on the Potomac River as they were returning from school. Their captors took them to Detroit and eventually Sandusky, where they lived with the Porcupine Tribe of the Wyandot. The two boys lived in the home of Wyandot Chief Tarhe and his wife Ronyougaines La Durante and their daughter Myeerah.

Since the Zane family had helped lay out the National Road, helped found the town of Zanesville, and were important pioneers in settling Ohio, Zane Grey’s version of the Isaac Zane and Myeerah story rang true to most people settling along the Ohio River.

The Wyandots ransomed Isaac in 1764, but Chief Tarhe and his family had grown so fond of Isaac that he insisted Isaac remain with the tribe as his adopted son. In 1771, at age 18, Isaac left the Wyandots, but he eventually returned. He served as an intermediary between the Native Americans and the settlers of the region. In 1777, he and Myeerah were married in Logan County, Ohio, when he was 24 and she 19 and they eventually had three sons and four daughters. Most of their children married Wyandot tribesmen.[9]

Myeerah Zane is credited with saving the lives of many white captives and the life of her husband Isaac Zane himself more than once. She can be listed among Native American women who, like Pocahontas, served as intermediaries between the white and Native American factions, striving for peace. Zane Grey casts her role a little more romantically, focusing on her love for Isaac Zane as the focal point of her life and chronicling her visits to Zanesville on the Ohio River.

In 1795, the United States government ceded Isaac Zane 1,800 acres of land near what is now Zanesfield, Ohio. During the War of 1812, white settlers drove out the resident Shawnee Indians occupying the area and established a settlement that they called Zanesfield after Isaac Zane. Isaac and Myeerah Zane were the first settlers in Zanesfield and the Zanes also established the first fort in the region. They lived there until they died – Myeerah in February 1816, and Isaac on May 6, 1816. He and Myeerah are buried in the Isaac Zane Burial Ground in Zanesfield, Ohio.

The Walk-in-the-Water- the First Steamboat on Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan

In 1818, just two year after the deaths of Isaac and Myeerah Zane, the Walk-in-the-Water’s name appeared on a steamboat built at Black Rock, New York. Accounts about the origin of the Walk-in-the-Water’s name vary. Captain Barton Atkins of Buffalo, New York, held the opinion that the steamer name originated from a Native American’s comment when he saw Robert Fulton’s first steamboat, the Clermont, plying the Hudson River in 1807. The Native American exclaimed the steamboat “walks in the water.” Other accounts say the steamboat was named for Wyandot Indian Chief Walk-in-the-Water and has connections with Myeerah and Tarhe.

lake erie’s first steamboat

In 1818, Noah Brown and Harris Fulton supervised the construction of a paddlewheel driven vessel at Black Rock, New York. Her machinery had to be hauled across the 300 miles from Albany to Buffalo in wagons pulled by five to eight horses each.

Their new steamboat measured 132 feet long and 32 feet across the beam, with a smokestack 30 feet high set between two sails for use when the winds blew strong. The steamer could hold 100 cabin passengers and many in steerage and it featured smoking, baggage, and dining rooms. Captain Job Fish was the first captain of the Walk-in-the-Water.

The Walk-in-the-Water began her maiden voyage from Buffalo on August 25, 1818, carrying 29 passengers bound for Erie, Grand River, Cleveland, Sandusky and Detroit. It took the steamer about nine days, achieving about eight to ten miles per hour, to complete her entire voyage. The trip cost her passengers $18.00 for a cabin and $7.00 for steerage.

When the Walk-in-the-Water arrived in Cleveland, most of the population of the village stood on the shore of Lake Erie to greet her. The people living along the shores of Lake Erie were interested and astonished at the sight of the Walk-in-the-Water and stopped in their tracks to watch her as she steamed past. She blew her whistles, and fired her cannon as she neared each port and her smokestack belched a dark cloud of smoke as she steamed across the lake.

Native Americans who didn’t know about the power and possibilities of steam gazed in wonder at the “thing of life” moving through the water without oars or sails propelling it. The few who heard the name of the magical ship gazed at it until it passed over the horizon, perhaps reminded of the famous Wyandot chief and the daughter of another chief who had given their names to the white man’s invention.  When the Walk-in-the-Water safely docked in Buffalo after her experimental round trip, convincing her owners, passengers, and people who watched her progress along Lake Erie that steamboats could safely and successfully navigate the lake.

Since the Walk-in-the-Water ran regularly from and to Black Rock Harbor, not the harbor at Buffalo, she had to travel a short distance down the Niagara River. She navigated the down stream trip successfully, but didn’t have enough power to prevail against the strong current at the head of Niagara River. Her owners and operators used what was called “the horned breeze,” which meant that a number of yokes of oxen regularly towed the ship up the Niagara River. [10]

In September 1818, the ship ran aground near Erie, but her owners quickly repaired her. The Walk-in-the-Water became the first steamboat to navigate Lakes Michigan and Huron when it voyaged to Mackinaw and Green Bay in 1819. The Walk-in-the-Water’s successful voyage was a 19th Century navigation miracle, because of the scarcity of harbors and unimproved conditions of landing places where ships could anchor and load and unload cargoes and passengers. Navigation aids and ship to shore communication advances were still a century away.[11]

For three years, the Walk-in-the-Water successfully navigated these obstacles- until a sudden Lake Erie squall hit the steamship on October 31, 1821.

Captain Jedediah Rogers had commanded the steamship since 1820, and its consistent, multiple runs each season had proven to be a sound investment for its owners. On October 31, 1821, the Walk-in-the-Water left Buffalo at 4 p.m., carrying about 75 passengers and a full load of merchandise. Although a steady rain fell, the skies weren’t dark and threatening until the ship had travelled up Lake Erie about six miles from Buffalo and run into a squall complete with high winds, torrential rain, and crashing waves.

Captain Rogers faced a difficult decision. He knew he couldn’t keep moving into such a wind, but neither could he return to Black Rock. He decided to anchor where he estimated the Buffalo pier should be. The wind pounded all night and an earlier leak grew so much that the engine had to be used to pump out the water. Even with these measures, the water continued to rise inside the steamer. Frightened passengers listened to the howling wind, the creaking timbers, and felt the listing of the steamer as the anchors begin to drag.

At 4:30 a.m., the captain summoned all passengers on deck and notified them of his plans to beach the steamer. The Walk-in-the-Water, with the force of the gale and her anchors dragging, approached the shore of Buffalo Bay. Passengers, though frightened, took comfort in the prudence and intelligence of Captain Rogers, and with one last tremendous blow of an Lake Erie wave, the Walk-in-the-Water slammed firmly onto the beach. The steamer’s 75 drenched passengers, many of them women, huddled on deck and, together, waiting for daylight. As dawn lurked above the horizon, a sailor in a small boat ferried the thankful passengers to land. About a mile in the distance, though obscured in the storm, the Buffalo lighthouse waited to welcome the weary travelers.[12]

The Cleveland Weekly Herald reported that “everyone on board with whom we have conversed speak in the highest terms of the master, Captain J. Rogers, whose calmness and persevering endeavors to save the boat, excited the admiration of all.”[13]The Walk-in-the-Water’s hull had been damaged beyond repair, as was her cargo, resulting in an estimated loss of $10,000 to $12,000, but her legacy, like those of Chief Walk-in-the-Water, Chief Tarhe, and Isaac and Myeerah Zane, survived into modern forms. The Detroit Gazette of May 31, 1822, recorded the legacy of the Walk-in-the-Water when it reported the new location of her engine.

the new steam boat

On Saturday last arrived at this port, the elegant new steamboat Superior, Captain J. Rodgers, with a full freight of merchandize and ninety-four passengers. This excellent vessel was built at Buffalo the past winter, and is owned by the proprietors of the old steam-boat Walk-in-the-Water which was wrecked in the fall of last year. [14]


[1] Wyandotte Nation Biographies, Chief Walk-in-the-Water

[2]Walk-in-the Water,  A Wyandot Chief.” Sallie Cotter Andrews.

[3] John F. Winkler.The Thames 1813: The War of 1812 on the Northwest Frontier (Campaign Book 302) Osprey Press, 2016

[4]Chief Tarhe

[5] Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, Volume 9, July 1900, No. 1

[6] Wyandotte Nation

Ohio History Journal, Tarhe the Crane

[7] Ohio History Journal, Tarhe the Crane

[8] William Alexander Taylor, Centennial History of Columbus and Franklin County, Ohio, Volume 1. Chicago: S.J Clarke Publishing Company, p. 87.

[9] Granville- Licking Pioneer’s Minutes and Isaac Smucker Scrapbooks, Pioneer Papers No 100:  The Zanes, a Family Sketch, September 1, 1926, p. 273.

[10] The Marine Review, Thursday, March 30,1893.

[11] Cleveland Weekly Advertiser. Thursday, January 28, 1836, page 1.

[12] Cleveland Weekly Herald, Tuesday, November 13, 1821

[13]  Ibid.

[14] Detroit Gazette

May 31, 1822, p. 3