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More Amazing Tales from Indiana
By Fred D. Cavinder
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2003 Fred D. Cavinder
All rights reserved.
Battle of the Dunes
Ask most people what the Indiana dunes were like in the late 1700s, and most would imagine an empty wasteland — a logical and fairly accurate assumption. Yet the dunes were the site of a battle during the Revolutionary War. It was a minor skirmish but one that caused loss of life and changes in war strategy. It became known as the Battle of the Dunes or the Battle of Trail Creek.
In December 1780, after George Rogers Clark had seized Vincennes, the British controlled Fort St. Joseph far to the north, near what is now Niles, Michigan. It was an old trading post established by Catholic missionaries and fur traders in the 1600s. One of its chief functions remained trading with the Potawatomi Indians, and bales of valuable furs were stored there by nearby villages.
About thirty Americans and Creoles from Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and other French settlements marched to Fort St. Joseph. They had little trouble seizing the post, which did not maintain a regular garrison. Knowing they could not hold the fort, the invaders fled with the furs, chased by Indians allied with the British and probably led by Chief Anaquiba and his son, Topenebee, from a large Potawatomi village south of the fort.
The two forces met in a running fight December 5, 1780, along the trail in what are now LaPorte and Porter Counties. Only three invaders escaped. Seven were taken prisoner. The rest were killed. The furs were recovered at a spot called the Petite Fort in what is now Dunes State Park.
The battle was small. The motive for it may have been to divert attention from other French American movements, but that was obscured by the lure of the furs. Nevertheless, historians feel that the fight, of which little is known and even less written, raised British prestige in the area and slowed American plans to capture Detroit, a stronghold vital to control of the Northwest Territory.
The Settler with Burning Desire
The most famous settler of Carlisle in Sullivan County, the legendary James Ledgerwood, was able to make a home in the Indiana wilderness because of a timely rainstorm that was as dramatic as a Hollywood movie script.
Ledgerwood had already visited the area that was to become Sullivan County. Captured in one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War in 1782 while serving as a scout at Blue Licks, Kentucky, he had been taken through what is now southwest Indiana by his Indian captors en route to Detroit.
Imprisoned on Mackinac Island for two years, he learned much about the Indians and their alliance with the British. And he probably thought about the night he and his captors had camped on picturesque Busseron Creek, twenty-five miles north of Vincennes.
Released in a prisoner exchange in 1784, Ledgerwood quickly found himself back in Indiana, serving as a scout for Capt. John Francis Hamtramck, who was assigned to quell Indian outbreaks near Big Spring (later named Marengo). In the course of his dangerous inquiries into Indian activities, Ledgerwood was captured again.
This time he was strapped to a tree and the Indians surrounded him with twigs and dead wood, preparing to burn him at the stake. With the fire lit and the savages about to begin dancing, it unexpectedly rained. The shower extinguished the flames and impressed the Indians. They spared Ledgerwood's life and again took him to Detroit, where he remained captive seven or eight years.
Freed by the efforts of two of his old scouting friends, Ledgerwood went where few men would have gone again, taking his family to Indiana in 1803. They established a homestead on the 49 square miles of land given him for his government service.
There was one drawback: The land was north of the treaty line that the governor, William Henry Harrison, had established with the Indians. Few if any settlers lived there except Ledgerwood. To secure this pocket of land, he called the tribes together under an elm tree near his cabin. He negotiated a treaty with the chiefs to protect his land from attack. The tree became known as the Treaty Elm. In that pocket of land, the town of Carlisle was later founded.
And there has always been the nagging suspicion that the Indians signed a separate peace with one man because they thought he could call the rains from the sky.
The Forgotten and the Dead
The Delaware Indians, having migrated to eastern Indiana from Pennsylvania, were forced to say good-bye to the state in 1819, when they were moved west of the Mississippi River by terms of the Saint Mary's Treaty. All went, it is said, except for Chief Ben Davis. He had spent his life on the land in Indiana, and he would defy authority and stay on it to die.
And so he was camped along Blue Creek near Brookville in Franklin County in 1820. Almost daily he would walk into the town and ease his troubled mind with whiskey in a tavern run by a widow named Adair. One day, it was said, when drink had loosened his tongue, Ben Davis bragged about a raid in which he participated on an isolated cabin in Kentucky. All the family living in the cabin had been killed except for a boy named Young, who escaped.
Call it fate or a Hollywood ending, but the boy named Young, now grown to manhood, was in the tavern that day and heard Ben Davis bragging. Ben Davis left after his normal visit but did not return. A passerby found Ben Davis in his camp by the creek side, sitting in his chair, his pipe fallen to the ground and a fatal bullet in his head.
Young, who was suspected, found public opinion on his side. No indictments were brought against him, and he never was tried for the murder. Although he had killed the man, he had not killed his name. Ben Davis has been memorialized in the name of a high school in Indianapolis, a church in Union Township in Rush County, and the Blue Creek, the campsite, which later became known as Ben Davis Creek. As for Young, not only is his full name forgotten but so is the entire part he played in the story.
A Plague on All the Houses
Perhaps no town in Indiana ever suffered the drama that befell Hindostán, which began in Davies County and eventually became the seat of Martin County. It doesn't exist on the map today. Many other towns have vanished through the years, often victims of economic downturns. What happened to Hindostán was relatively sudden, however, and even today it remains mysterious.
Those who traveled in pioneer days across southern Indiana between Clarksville and Vincennes encountered the splendid and noisy falls of the east fork of the White River. One of them perceived the site as perfect for a town with a mill as the focal point. Housing started by at least 1819. Nobody knows why the name Hindostán was chosen. Perhaps its exotic sound was a factor; perhaps someone connected the tone of it with India.
When Martin County was formed in 1820, Hindostán became the county seat, although there was some competition from nearby Mt. Pleasant. Everyone expected the town to become a metropolis. The mill was successful. There was a river ferry nearby. Building flatboats for river commerce became an industry in the town. There was a whetstone and grindstone factory. Stagecoaches made Hindostán an overnight stop.
Then disaster struck. There is some dispute about the date. Some say the plague struck as late as 1840. Others claim it occurred much earlier. It seems certain that the county seat was moved to Mt. Pleasant, with approval of the Indiana General Assembly, in July 1828, because of the malady.
What is certain, however, is that within a year or so, nobody was left in Hindostán. Every home had fallen victim to something that historians believe was either cholera or a form of influenza. There was no physician in the prosperous community. At times so many were ill there was nobody to bury the dead. The few not stricken by the illness fled, taking their belongings with them. Some were drowned while trying to ford the White River in their wagons. What's more, none of those who left returned after the plague had passed.
Within a short time Hindostán was deserted. Graves were left unmarked. Abandoned houses collapsed, and the mill vanished. In 1860 Hindostán was removed from the state maps.
Only one thing survived: the rumor of buried treasure. When the Martin County treasurer was urged to leave town to escape the plague, he tarried long enough to bury all the gold and other money he held in custody. Then he, too, fell ill and died, apparently before he could tell anyone where he had buried the county's assets.
That alone has perpetuated the name of Hindostán. Hoosiers have periodically hunted all over Martin County for the gold. It has never been found. If it ever existed, it disappeared as completely as the town.
Shucks — One, Two, Three, Four
When the Black Hawk War started in Illinois in the summer of 1832, Col. Alexander Russell, an officer in the untested militia at Indianapolis, called for 300 volunteers. Who knew how far the uprising might spread if the disturbance wasn't quelled?
The troops, bent on protecting Indiana with a preemptive strike, formed on Governor's Circle, now Monument Circle. Despite an accidental cannon discharge, which wounded William Warren, the force headed with little trouble for what is now South Chicago.
At Lake Michigan the unit found that the fighting was over and that the Indians had been captured after a confrontation at Bad Axe River. So the troops had to come right back home.
A South Bend newspaper editor jeered the unit, dubbing it the Bloody 300, who marched some 400 miles for nothing because they arrived too late for the war.
Breaking New Ground
Henry L. Ellsworth of Lafayette was made U.S. commissioner of patents in 1835. Since the nation was rural in nature, most patents pertained in some way to agriculture. Ellsworth, a shameless booster of the rich soil of Indiana, began doing the job that later became the province of the secretary of agriculture.
Under Ellsworth, the patent office distributed new seeds, planned rural cottages, undertook the study of stock raising, researched ways to adapt soil to crops, and examined new methods of ditching and fencing. In 1838 Ellsworth introduced mowing machines to the prairies near Lafayette, and in the early 1850s he tested 17 newly invented plows.
When his tenure was over, his record caused authorities to agree that he was the father of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, formed in 1860.
His Honors, the Governors
Brookville has a claim matched by no other town in Indiana. The Franklin County seat was home to three men who governed Indiana consecutively: James Brown Ray, flamboyant and eccentric; Noah Noble, whose brother James, also of Brookville, was a U.S. senator, and David Wallace, who was the father of Lew Wallace, author of the novel Ben Hur. The town also claims Abram H. Hammond, who lived in Brookville as a boy. But he was only elected lieutenant governor and served as governor after Ashbel R Willard died in office.
A native of Kentucky, Ray moved to Brookville in 1819 and became an Indiana senator in 1822. He served as president pro tempore of that body and became acting governor in 1825 when William Hendricks resigned to serve in the U.S. Senate. Ray was elected governor in August 1825 and was reelected in 1828. Before the new constitution of 1851, Indiana governors served only three years.
Popular at first, Ray's oddities soon surfaced. He refused to reappoint two judges to the state supreme court because they opposed him politically. He also served on a U.S. commission to negotiate treaties with the Potawatomi and Miami Indians in 1826, although governors were prohibited from holding federal positions while they were in office. He supported roads for internal improvement of the state instead of canals. This was unpopular at that time.
Ray was imperial as governor. He reportedly signed hotel registers as "J. Brown Ray, Governor of Indiana and Commander in chief of the Army and Navy thereof." His Messiah attitude was revealed in two instances.
Bridges, one of three men sentenced to hang at Pendleton for the murder of Indians, was quaking on the gallows, hoping the governor would pardon him. A man arrived on horseback.
"Do you know who I am?" asked the rider. Bridges said he did not.
"There are but two powers known to the law that can save you from hanging by the neck until you are dead," announced the rider, handing Bridges a document. "One is the Great God of the Universe; the other is J. Brown Ray, Governor of the state of Indiana. The latter stands before you. You are pardoned."
At Brookville, Ray also saved Samuel Fields, killer of a constable who was trying to serve a warrant. Again on horseback, Ray arrived wearing the uniform of a general in the Indiana militia.
"Here," he told Fields, handing him a pardon. "I give you your life."
Wrote one historian, "In his latter days Governor Ray was so eccentric that most people thought his mind diseased." Sometimes Ray would stop on the street and write imaginary words in the air with his cane.
In 1848, he died of cholera in Cincinnati, where he was buried.
Noah Noble followed Ray as governor, elected in 1831 and reelected in 1834. He came to Brookville from Virginia, served two terms as sheriff, and was elected to the Indiana General Assembly with only twenty votes cast against him. Many said he profited by the seeming insanity of Ray.
Noble was popular but lost some luster when his program of building canals, railroads, and turnpikes produced a financial crunch. Indiana also erected a statehouse during his term. Noble was a candidate for U.S. senator in 1836 (when they were elected by the General Assembly) but lost; he lost the same bid two years later. Noble's opponent in 1836, Oliver H. Smith, described Noble as "tall and slim, his constitution delicate, his smile winning, his voice feeble, the squeeze of his hand irresistible."
When Noble died in his Indianapolis home February 8, 1844, he still was so popular that a committee of 43 met in the Marion County courthouse to draft a resolution of condolence that was published and delivered to his widow and three children.
Lieutenant governor under Noble was David Wallace, a proponent of internal improvements. He had gained a West Point appointment by way of Gen. William Henry Harrison, ex-governor of the Indiana Territory, who was in Congress at the time. After West Point, Wallace served in the military and then joined his father in a Brookville law office.
After 10 years there, Wallace moved to Covington and was elected to the Indiana legislature. In 1827 his son Lew was born to his first wife, Esther French Test. She died in 1834, and Wallace married Zerelda S. Sanders in 1836. The next year he was elected governor.
Wallace worked to save the state from the financial ruin caused by his predecessor's internal improvements. In 1838 he used the state militia to quiet opposition from the Potawatomi Indians, who were resisting a move to a western reservation. He was the first to occupy the new governor's mansion, and he proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in Indiana. His eloquence as a speaker failed to gain him reelection as governor, but he was elected to Congress in 1841. He only served one term. One reason is that Hoosier voters disliked him casting the deciding vote approving tax money for Samuel Morse to develop the telegraph.
Wallace served as a member of the state constitutional convention in 1850. He died on September 4,1859, in Indianapolis.
Brookville has historical plaques marking the residential sites of the three governors and also the site where Hammond lived. Ray's house survives. It has additional history because Ray built the home while he was running for governor and installed a second-story Palladium window. The window, which also survives, caused the opposition to charge that Ray was too extravagant to serve as governor, almost causing his defeat. The Ray house is now divided into apartments.
But even if the last shreds of physical evidence disappear, Brookville can always claim its unique role in Indiana politics. As one historian noted, "It was in Brookville that they made their start in Indiana politics, and it seems that the county may have a just pride in having furnished governors for the state for a consecutive period of 15 years."
Ray never was so crazy that he would not have appreciated that.
Excerpted from More Amazing Tales from Indiana by Fred D. Cavinder. Copyright © 2003 Fred D. Cavinder. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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