When European explorers arrived at the area around what is now Tippecanoe County, it was inhabited by a tribe of Miami Indians known as the Ouiatenon or Weas. In 1717, the French government established Fort Ouiatenon across the Wabash River and three miles (5 km) south of present-day Lafayette. The fort became the center of trade for fur trappers, merchants and Indians. An annual reenactment and festival known as Feast of the Hunters’ Moon takes place there each autumn.
The town of Lafayette was platted in May 1825 by William Digby, a trader. It was designated as the county seat of the newly formed Tippecanoe County the following year. Like many frontier towns, Lafayette was named for General Lafayette, a French officer who significantly aided George Washington’s Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Lafayette toured the United States in 1824 and 1825.
In its earliest days, Lafayette was a shipping center on the Wabash River. In 1838, Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, the first United States Patent Commissioner, published a booklet titled Valley of the Upper Wabash, Indiana, with Hints on Its Agricultural Advantages, to promote settlement of the region. By 1845, Ellsworth had purchased 93,000 acres (380 km2) of farmland in and around Lafayette and moved there from Connecticut to supervise land sales. By 1847 Ellsworth was distributing broadsides looking for farmers to purchase his farmland. He became president of the Tippecanoe County Agricultural Society in April 1851 – despite some local resentment over what was called “the Yale Crowd” – but he was defeated the same year when he ran for the Indiana House of Representatives. Ellsworth Street and Ellsworth Historic District are named for the early real estate developer.
The Wabash and Erie Canal in the 1840s stimulated trade and affirmed Lafayette’s regional prominence. Railroads arrived in the town in the 1850s, connecting it with other major markets. The Monon Railroad connected Lafayette with other sections of Indiana.
Lafayette was the site of the first official air mail delivery in the United States, which took place on August 17, 1859, when John Wise piloted a balloon starting on the Lafayette courthouse grounds. Wise hoped to reach New York; however, weather conditions forced the balloon down near Crawfordsville, Indiana, and the mail reached its final destination by train. In 1959, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 7¢ airmail stamp commemorating the centennial of the event.