Judge William Polke: Constitutional Convention Delegate and Conductor of the “Trail of Death”

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William Polke’s house, http://www.jimgrey.net/Roads/MichiganRoad/11_Fulton.htm

William Polke was born on September 19, 1775, in Brooke County, Virginia. As a boy in 1782, he was captured by raiding Native Americans, along with his mother and three sisters. Handed over to the British at Detroit, the family was held as prisoners for a year before being released in 1783 at the end of the American Revolutionary War.

Later the Polke family moved to Knox County, Indiana, and as an adult, William established a career in public service. He was with Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, helped build the original stronghold at Fort Wayne, and was wounded during the Battle of Tippecanoe. In 1814 he served as a Knox County associate circuit court judge and won election to the Territorial Legislature. Polke became one of 43 delegates to the Constitutional Convention responsible for writing Indiana’s first state constitution in 1816.

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Constitutional Elm, Corydon, Indiana, circa 1921-1925; Delegates to the 1816 constitutional convention worked under the shade of this tree, image courtesy of Indiana State Library blog.

He served two terms as the state senator of Knox County, but lost his bid for Lieutenant Governor in 1822, apparently ending his quest for elective office. From 1824 to 1825, Polke was a missionary teacher in Michigan among the Ottawa Indians. In 1830, he was appointed by an act of the Indiana General Assembly as one of the three commissioners for the construction of the Michigan Road. Polke served a critical role in the success of that project, which established a road extending from the Ohio River to Lake Michigan.

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Kee-Waw-Nay Potawatomi Village, council between Potawatomi leaders and U.S. government representatives in July 21, 1837 to settle details for the impending removal of the Potawatomi from northern Indiana. Painted by George Winter, image courtesy of Legends of America.

During 1838, Superintendent Emigration of Indians, Able C. Pepper, assigned Polke as a conductor of the Potawatomi peoples’ removal from their northern Indiana homeland on their grueling march to Kansas. Polke was instrumental in the removal of the Potawatmi in Indiana via a forced march of over 800, known as “The Trail of Death.” According to The History Museum, at Sandusky Point, Illinois command of the group of Native Americans was turned over to Polke. Along with “Father Petit, and an escort of fifteen men continued with the broken tribe to their destination on the Osage River in Kansas. The journey required about two months with the cost the lives at one-fifth of the tribe. A few Potawatomies remained in Indiana scattered on small reservations in various parts of the State.”

Paul Wallace Gates noted in The John Tipton Papers that Polke, “was convinced that his prompt action had prevented bloodshed between the two races. That he regretted the haste, the lack of preparation, and the suffering is equally clear. And once they reached Kansas he was certain the tribe would be protected . . . from the encroaching aggression.”

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Map courtesy Fulton County Historical Society, Rochester, Indiana, image courtesy of Legends of America.

In 1841 President William Henry Harrison, in recognition of patriotic services, appointed Polke to serve at Fort Wayne as register of the land office. When Polke died, his April 29, 1843 the Fort Wayne Sentinel obituary ends with these lines: “He was buried with military honors; and a large concourse of citizens followed his remains to their last camping ground.” However, the cemetery name is not mentioned, creating questions about the location of his remains.

In 1860, the interred in Fort Wayne’s Broadway Cemetery (present-day McCulloch Park) were to be removed and re-interred in Fort Wayne’s Lindenwood Cemetery. Today, only one grave from its days as a cemetery is marked in McCulloch Park and that is Indiana’s seventh Governor Samuel Bigger. For years, questions persisted as to whether or not all the burials were found, and surviving family members located for approval to conduct the graves’ transferred. Since there is no record of Polke having been removed to Lindenwood, it was thought he was interred in McCulloch Park.

However, during a research project conducted to identify the burial site of each of the Constitutional Convention delegates, Indiana State Archivist, Jim Corridan led an effort and identified Polke’s long forgotten grave located, “in an early Fort Wayne cemetery.” Through a diligent search of records in Polke’s estate filed at the County Clerk’s office by SuzAnn Runge, Corridan has been able to confirm that William Polke, in fact, is interred in the Old Broadway Cemetery.

Learn how to attend the Indiana Archives and Records Administration’s June 27 event, commemorating William Polke.

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.