The Lafayette Trace: An Important, but Forgotten Early Indiana Road

There was an early route though Indiana that is mostly forgotten today. It was known as the Lafayette Trace in Hamilton County, but as the Strawtown Trace in other counties. Voss Hiatt, a historian in Hamilton County, spent several years researching it, but was unable to publish anything definitive. A statewide effort may be required to establish the significance of the route.

The trail ran from the Whitewater Valley, up to the White River and paralleling it until crossing at Strawtown, and then heading northwest to the Wea and Wildcat prairies on the Wabash River. It probably began as a prehistoric game trail, used by elk and other migratory animals headed for the prairie pastures. Early Native Americans eventually followed the game and established settlements along the trail. Traces of those settlements, in the form of mounds, can be found at New Castle, Anderson, and Strawtown. Europeans began using the trail possibly as early as 1717 to get to the fur trading post of Fort Ouiatenon.

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Mound burial similar to that found at Strawtown, image courtesy of moundbuilder.blogspot.com.

At the site of Strawtown in Hamilton County, a trail going north-south crossed the Lafayette Trace. This went to the Miami Indian town of Kekionga (Fort Wayne). Although north-central Indiana was Miami territory, the Lenape (Delaware) tribe had negotiated a treaty with them and established a town at Strawtown by the 1790’s. Sometime around 1800, a member of the Brouillette family of Vincennes allegedly became the first fur trader to establish a post there. As settlement increased, the traffic increased. The trail would have been the route that Tecumseh used when he would travel from the Delaware village at Anderson to the Tippecanoe River, an area that would become Prophetstown and the site of the Battle of Tippecanoe.

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IHB historical marker.

In the 1820’s, the trail was used by settlers heading into the territory opened up by the 1818 Treaty of St. Mary’s. The Brookville land office was established at one end of it. Sandford Cox describes traveling on the trail as a young boy in 1824 in his book “Recollections of the Early Settlement of the Wabash Valley.”

The trail was eventually replaced by roads created by Internal Improvement Act of 1836. County seats had been established and new roads were designed to connect them. Since the Lafayette Trace was not an official road, it’s not on the earliest maps. It starts appearing in the 1840’s, but is gone in many places by the 1880’s. The land had been sold for farming and had been plowed under. By the 1930’s, part of the trail was erroneously called the “Conner Trail,” although it was long established by the time William Conner used it. This notion was put forth in the book “Sons of the Wilderness.”

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“Conner Trail,” Sons of the Wilderness: John and William Conner (1937), images courtesy of Archive.org.

Not much is known about the trail after it left Hamilton County. Evidently, part of it split off to go to Thorntown. It would be a worthwhile project to identify and mark the old route.

Learn more about the area via Ball State University’s Archaeological Resources Management Service reconnaissance report.

A Pioneer Murder Mystery

A version of this appeared in the Hamilton County Business Magazine – January 27, 2012.

When doing historical research, it’s easy to find yourself investigating unexpected paths. The murder of Benjamin Fisher is one such case. While examining the War of 1812 and its presence in Hamilton County, I came across Fisher’s story in the local histories. The more I looked at the case, which is considered the first known murder in the county, I began to wonder about many of the tales about it that have been passed down through the years.

The murder happened in Strawtown, which was a lively place at that time. It was the intersection of the Lafayette Trace – which ran from the Whitewater Valley to the Wabash River at Tippecanoe – and the trail that followed the White River from southern Indiana. The area was a convenient stopping point for travelers along the trails.  A distillery and horse racing track were among the first businesses. At this point in time, Hamilton County had not been established and the area was still part of the Delaware New Purchase.

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1908 Map of Hamilton County, Image Courtesy of My Genealogy Hound.

I was unable to locate contemporary accounts of the murder – the earliest version available is from 1874, some 53 years after the incident. Fisher himself was born in 1791 in Pennsylvania and moved to Indiana after serving in War of 1812. He was an early settler of the Fishersburg area, which would be named for him, in Madison County.

The cause of the incident was a man named Philip Shintaffer (1776-1840), who ran a tavern in Strawtown, (mostly known as a gin mill), and who made his money by selling liquor to American Indians. Later writers described him as a “notorious character.”

The standard version of the story begins in March of 1821 when Shintaffer got into an argument with one of the local Native Americans – supposedly about watering the liquor. Shintaffer knocked the Native American down and threw him into the fireplace, where he was severely burned and possibly died. The repercussions of the incident were felt in April, when Benjamin Fisher and other farmers traveled to Strawtown to get axes sharpened at Shintaffer’s (who had the only grindstone in the area). A group of American Indians, possibly Miami or Pottawatomie, came to revenge themselves on Shintaffer for his actions the month before. Armed with knives and tomahawks, they attacked the tavern. The farmers responded with axes and whatever was at hand. They held off the Native Americans until Shintaffer was wounded and Fisher brained by a tomahawk. One Native American was killed, at which point the group fled.

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Excerpt from The Good Old Times in McLean County, Illinois, Vol. 2, p. 638, image courtesy of Google Books.

This narrative has been repeated for many years. Versions exist from possibly Shintaffer himself (second- or third-hand), Benjamin’s daughter Mary Fisher Simmerman (1816-1884), and Benjamin’s son Charles Fisher (1819-1912). One might assume these are reliable sources, despite Fisher’s children being quite young when the incident occurred. However, oddities and discrepancies emerge when the story is analyzed by a historian. They include:

1) Different versions vary regarding the number of parties involved, but it generally comes out as 4 to 6 farmers holding off 8 to 12 American Indian warriors. When one farmer was down and another wounded, the Indians abandoned the attack without completing what they came to do. This is pretty impressive hand-to-hand fighting skills on the part of the farmers and seems somewhat unlikely.

2) No guns were used – the Indians allegedly wanted silence, but nothing prevented one of the farmers from stepping into the trading post and picking up a firearm.

3) For unknown reasons, Fisher was buried in Strawtown, where he died – not sent home to his family and his own property, which was only about eight miles away. There was no official burial ground at that time in Strawtown and no reason why that site would have been preferred. The grave was apparently left unmarked. Later historians would mention a “low mound” with no headstone near what would become the Strawtown Cemetery. It could possibly be located with modern archeological techniques.

4) The night after the killing, Shintaffer packed all of his goods and his family into a canoe and left the area. He followed White River to Greene County and settled there for a few years. The histories there refer to him a man of “considerable notoriety” having a “quick temper” and often being the defendant in court cases. He left there in 1832 and finally settled in Cass County, Michigan.

5) Finally, despite this being a sizable attack on an isolated settlement, no record of an official reaction has been found. There was apparently no attempt to capture the perpetrators, even though during the War of 1812, soldiers would chase Native American warriors from Franklin County all the way to the area of modern Hamilton County. In 1824, three years after the Strawtown fight, Governor Ray would call out the militia because of the fears of retaliation for the Massacre on Fall Creek. But in this case – a wholesale assault and battle involving possibly 20 people and two deaths – nothing was said or done that appeared in any official documents.

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Image courtesy of Hoosier History Live.

Some of the people who remained to tell the story were interesting characters. Shintaffer himself was probably the source of the account written down in 1874. One of the alleged participants was Jacob Hire, although he’s not named in the earliest versions. He has a shadowy background and was sometimes partner with Shintaffer in business. He was the person who built the distillery and horse racing track. Later, he became Overseer of the Poor for White River Township, (he had apparently built up a good client base). Another alleged participant was Jacob Colip, but he is also not mentioned in the earliest versions and there is no record of his being in Hamilton County until 1823. No other participants are named.

Charles Fisher, the son of Benjamin, was two years old at the time of the attack. While he was too young to have witnessed anything, he told this story often. He was known for his stories. For example, he said that he had the powder horn that his father carried in the War of 1812. He also said that he had the tomahawk that his father was killed with. And he also said that he had pieces of his father’s skull from the attack and would show these pieces to visitors. (As a side note, Charles was also one of first to say that Strawtown was named for the Delaware Chief Straw, a person that modern historians have found no evidence actually existed.)

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the final analysis, many of the stories don’t appear to hold up and it’s not clear what actually happened. Native Americans have been accused of this crime for over 190 years, even though they gained nothing from it – not even revenge. With the signing of the Treaty of St. Mary’s in 1818, the American Indians were already leaving the state, so the motives in all cases seem a little unclear.  No other possibilities seem to have been considered – including the short-tempered, violent man who fled the area immediately after the killing. No matter what else may have happened, Benjamin Fisher was in the wrong place at the wrong time and left a conundrum for future historians.

The Hamilton County School of Illustration

The period between the 1890’s and the 1920’s is known in the art world as the Golden Age of American Illustration.  A surprising number of people from Hamilton County, Indiana, were contributors to this movement.  Until recently, it wasn’t realized how interconnected they were.  However, research has now uncovered material showing the extent of their influence on each other.

George Brehm easel
George Brehm at easel, courtesy of Hamilton East Public Library Collection.

The notion of a common group was first brought up in the Noblesville High School annual in 1904 when they noticed how many alumni were going on to artistic careers.  The group got a name from a February 2, 1913, article in the Indianapolis Star which reported on a book that one member had illustrated and used the phrase “Noblesville School Forges to the Front Again.”  (This is actually a misnomer – some of the artists were from towns like Carmel.  Noblesville was just the largest community in the area.)

The patriarch of the group was Granville Bishop (1831-1902).  Bishop was born in Fayette County and his family moved to Hamilton County in 1836.  He was a self-taught artist who taught penmanship, painted wagons, and did advertising signs on buildings to supplement his income from painting.  He did well enough to support a wife and five children despite being physically handicapped.   Unfortunately, few examples of his work exist today.  There are two paintings at the Indiana State Museum and a painting of the Indian chief Red Cloud somewhere in the Indianapolis area.  According to an interview with George Brehm in the May 1943 issue of the Rainbow, the national magazine for the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, Bishop and an unknown woman watercolorist were credited as the inspirations for some of the next generation of Hamilton County illustrators.

James Whitcomb Riley, illustrated by George Brehm, Bookman magazine (December 1903): 349, accessed Hathitrust.org.

George Brehm (1878-1966) and James Ellsworth “Worth” Brehm (1883-1928) were key members of the group.  After graduating from Noblesville High School in 1898 and 1902 respectively, they went to Indiana University and other schools for training in art.  George achieved his first local fame by doing caricatures of Hoosier authors.  After working at the Indianapolis Star, they moved to New York around 1905 and were soon very successful. George had his first Saturday Evening Post cover in 1906 and Worth had his first cover in 1908.  They established separate careers in 1912 when Worth moved to an artist colony in Connecticut. George and his family had an apartment in New York and a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard.  Much of the brothers’ work was based on scenes from their boyhood in Noblesville.

Worth Brehm Song Cardinal
James Ellsworth Brehm, “The Song of the Cardinal,” Retail Catalog of Standard and Holiday Books (1913-1914): 76, accessed Google Books.

Franklin Booth (1874-1948) and Hanson Booth (1884-1944) were raised in Carmel and followed much the same path as the Brehms.  Hanson went to Noblesville High School and was a classmate of Worth Brehm.  Franklin Booth would return to Carmel from New York on regular occasions and eventually built a studio behind his family’s home.  He is the only one of the four artists who is buried in Hamilton County.  He developed a very unique style based on hundreds of pen strokes that would make the finished drawing look like an engraving.  Three books have been written about Franklin and his style which, among other things, has become an important influence on modern comic book artists.

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Hanson Booth, Boys’ Life (November 1914), accessed Google Books.

These four artists did illustrations for books, advertisements, and stories in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, American Magazine, Colliers, and Cosmopolitan.  For a short time, they ran an art school together.  Their work could also be found in the business magazines of the period.  At one point or another, all of them worked with James Whitcomb Riley.  George Brehm did work as varied as Saturday Evening Post covers, women’s magazines, Business Week, and Edgar Rice Burroughs stories.  Worth Brehm was known for his illustrations of children, and became famous for his images of Penrod, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and others.  Franklin Booth did pipe organ advertisements and worked with authors like Theodore Dreiser and Joyce Kilmer.  Hanson did not become as well-known as his brother, but did work for pulp adventure magazines, Popular Science, and Boys’ Life.

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Circa 1923, image courtesy of Terapeak.

Thomas Blaine Stanley (1884-1965), a classmate of Worth Brehm and Hanson Booth at Noblesville High School, became known for a different kind of drawing.  He began as an illustrator, but eventually got a degree in English.  He used his degree to teach courses in business English, which eventually developed into the modern profession of Marketing.  He wrote two standard textbooks on the subject, which would have been used by the sort of people who populated the fictional HBO series “Mad Men.”  Along with this, he used his art skills to become a cartoonist, creating a regular business-oriented comic strip in the magazine Advertising and Selling.  It could be considered a “Dilbert” for the 1920’s.

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Thomas Stanley, Advertising and Selling (June 26, 1920), accessed Google Books.

Franklin Booth had protégés – Ralph Applegate (1904-1978) and Booth’s nephew Grant Christian (1911-1989).  Applegate was known for creating murals at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.  Christian was a part of the WPA post office mural project and did murals in Indianapolis and Nappanee.

There were also acquaintances of the group who were recognized locally for their art talent, but went into other careers.  Worthington Hagerman (1878-1967) worked for the State Department and was Consul in Lisbon, Portugal, during WWII.  Buren Mitchell (1886-1955) became a respected college theater teacher in Oregon.

Russell Berg
Russell Berg, accessed Stanton Renner Collection.

There were other area illustrators, but it’s not known how much they interacted with the group.  Russell Berg (1901-1966), did illustration and editorial cartoons, and became known for his Chautauqua performances involving drawing and lecturing.  Floyd Hopper (1909-1984) was known regionally for his watercolors, and known locally for his illustration and mural work.

While Hamilton County is not typically thought of as having an artistic heritage, obviously there was inspiration here.  The tradition is evident in the ever-developing Carmel Arts and Design District, which features various galleries, showrooms, and the Hoosier Salon. Continuing to research and discuss artists of the past will highlight Indiana’s artistic heritage and, hopefully, encourage others to follow.

Learn more about the state’s rich artistic history with IHB’s state historical markers: William Merritt Chase, William Forsyth, and T.C. Steele.