South Bend: History

French Exploration Establishes South Bend

The first European explorer to reach the region surrounding present-day South Bend was Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, who in 1679 passed near the spot where today the University of Notre Dame's administration building is located. Two years later, La Salle met with Miami and Illinois chiefs under a tree named Council Oak in what was then the heart of the Miami nation; they signed a peace treaty that involved a pledge from the Miami and the Illinois to fight the Iroquois. LaSalle, protected by the treaty, was free to explore the Mississippi River region in which present-day South Bend is included; he then claimed the territory for France, naming it Louisiana.

Pierre Freischutz Navarre, a Frenchman married to a Potawatomi woman, established the first trading post for the American Fur Company in 1820 near South Bend's future site. But Alexis Coquillard is credited with founding South Bend; the town's name was derived from his trading post, which was called "The Bend," and noted its southerly location on the St. Joseph River. Coquillard's business rival and friend, Colonel Lathrop M. Taylor, renamed the settlement St. Joseph in 1827 and then Southold. The U.S. Post Office officially named it South Bend. Coquillard and Taylor worked together to develop the settlement and encouraged settlers with gifts of land and money. The city was platted and named the county seat in 1831, incorporated in 1835, and chartered in 1865.

Industry and Scholarship Enhance the City

In 1852 Henry and Clement Studebaker arrived in South Bend and opened a blacksmith and wagon shop. They built farm wagons, carriages, prairie schooners, and then a gasoline engine automobile in 1904, transforming the company into an automobile plant that remained in business until 1966. James Oliver came to South Bend in 1855, founding the Oliver Chilled Plow Works, which manufactured a superior farm plow that revolutionized farming and introduced a manufacturing process that replaced iron with chilled and hardened steel. The Singer Cabinet Works began production in 1868 in South Bend to take advantage of the proximity of Indiana hardwood forests, emerging as the world's largest cabinet factory by 1901.

The most significant event in the city's history was the arrival of Father Edward Sorin, the founder of the University of Notre Dame, who reached the future site of the university on November 26, 1842, with seven Brothers of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Bishop Hailandiere of the diocese of Vincennes had given Father Sorin 600 acres to found a college for seminary and secular students as well as to start a mission for the Potawatomi Native Americans. The college's first student was Alexis Coquillard. Enrollment picked up with the arrival of the Lake Shore Railroad in 1851. A fire destroyed the campus in 1879, and the Neo-Gothic Administration Building, with its golden dome topped by a figure of the Virgin Mary, was opened later that year. The golden dome, a tradition of academic excellence, and winning football teams have become familiar symbols of this famous university, which remains a significant part of life in South Bend in the twenty-first century.

Historical Information: Northern Indiana Historical Society, Northern Indiana Center for History, 808 W. Washington Street, South Bend, IN 46601; telephone (574)235-9664