On Jan. 29,1830 at the elaborate home of the prominent and wealthy Alexis Coquillard two counties were officially and lawfully formed. St. Joseph and Elkhart, sister counties born of fur trading and hardwood lumber, each now had a treasurer, an assessor, a tax collector, a constable, an overseer of the poor, and a fence viewer.
By Sept.1830, the Board of Justices held a second meeting at Coquillard’s estate to select Grand and Petit jurors for the upcoming November term of the Circuit Court.
Once again, the Coquillard home hosted a third meeting of the justices where the county commissioners each received $3 daily for their services in locating the county seats. Then, at a final meeting in the home, St. Joseph County was divided into four townships and from there growth and prosperity allowed for the eventual world-wide recognition and respect for a people of such humble beginnings.
Alexis Coquillard, now widely recognized as the first founder of South Bend, born of French Canadian decent in Detroit on Sept. 28, 1795, was never so humble as the people he did business with. Before he was a fur trader he had been a soldier. At age 16 Coquillard joined William Henry Harrison against the British in the War of 1812.
After the war, Alexis went to Fort Wayne, Indiana and joined John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. By 1823 Coquillard and his partner Francis Comparet had built a trading post on the West bank of the St. Joseph River. Comparet returned to maintain his post in Ft. Wayne while Coquillard stayed to run his post which was called “The Big St. Joseph Station”. The two men dominated the fur trade business in Northern Indiana and Southwestern Michigan.
It was Colonel Lathrop Taylor , the first postmaster, who named this settlement “St. Joseph” in 1827. Later the name was changed to Southhold. Then, finally by actions of the U.S. Post Office, “South Bend” became the final official name of the town.
Coquillard, who had married Frances C., his partner’s daughter and had one child with her, Alexis Theodore, had bought out Pierre Navarre’s interest in the fur trade and worked with Taylor to entice settlers to come to South Bend by promising them land and money.
Later, William Brookfield, the first county surveyor, made the first public surveys in 1829 and it was Coquillard and Taylor in 1830 who purchased the first adjoining tracts of land from the government for $1.25 an acre. Then, the two men and others with a $3000 gift and 15 lots of land persuaded the county to place South Bend as the county seat.
South Bend proceeded to grow slowly at first and was incorporated in 1835 and was chartered in 1865 when it was divided into three wards. An election held on June 5,1865 with 542 casted votes had elected the Honorable William G.George as the first Mayor.
Coquillard, whose large, powerfully muscled frame of about 250 pounds, was both feared and revered by the Indians. Like Pierre Navarre, whom Coquillard once offered $300 to stay as his assistant, Coquillard was fluent in the native languages. However, unlike Navarre, Coquillard had a hidden distain for what he called savages and he eventually became involved in the actual removal of the Indians to Kansas after the Treaty of Chicago in 1833.
The removal of the Indians was no more than and no less than a means of income for Coquillard who was hired by the Government who agreed to pay him a $40,000 fee-an enormous amount for the time. The fur trading business had diminished by that time and Coquillard, being a man of enterprise, sought other ways to expand his wealth. However, Coquillard was swindled out of the money by Alverson, an associate of his and it left Coquillard bitter and nearly broke. He had to rebuild and that is what he did.
One of the ways Coquillard expanded his wealth was to look no further than his nephew who was also named Alexis. This favorite nephew was always taken care of by the elder Coquillard. In 1849, the young Alexis once again convinced his uncle to fund a venture that was sure to pay good dividends. He and his uncle agreed to terms and the young Coquillard set out with nine other men who called themselves “St. Joseph Valley Mining and Operating Company ” to find gold in the hills of California. Nine months later, young Alexis returned to his uncle $4000 richer. As agreed, the men split the proceeds. The younger Coquillard used his half to buy a farm which he later sold due to boredom of farming. He re-invested his money into real estate and a sawmill. The lumber from the sawmill made the young Alexis a fortune so that by 1860 he was one of the largest landowners in St. Joseph County. By 1865, young Alexis Coquillard was the wealthiest man in St. Joseph County. His wealth continued to grow when the young Coquillard began to manufacture wagons due to the inspiration of one of his best customers for lumber-the Studebaker brothers.
Had young Alexis not had an uncle who was not only generous with his money but also abundant in his guidance and encouragement, South Bend may not have become the strong city it is today. The elder Coquillard was known to have helped leagues of men with all sorts of endeavors in the area without the expectations of personal gain.
Alexis Coquillard died on Jan. 8,1855 from a blunt trama to his frontal skull. This was the result of a fall he took while he was investigating one of his flouring mills after it had burned. The news of Coquillard’s death spread quickly and it is told that his funeral was one fit for a king with every business closed and nearly every citizen of the time lining the streets to morn his passing.
Today, the citizens of South Bend have not forgotten thier founder. There are places , streets and schools named for this man to whom South Bend is so indebted.