Jonathan Jennings: Honoring the Autonomy and Democratic Values of Pioneer Hoosiers

Governors’ Portrait of Jennings, Artist: James Forbes, American, c. 1800-?, oil on canvas, 36 x 29 (91.5 x 73.6) Signed l.l.: Jas. Forbes/Pinxt, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

Jonathan Jennings was born in 1784 in New Jersey, the sixth child of Jacob and Mary Jennings. His father was a physician and minister. The future first governor of the State of Indiana grew up in western Pennsylvania. He moved to the Indiana Territory at age 22, settling first in Jeffersonville, where he began a law practice. In 1807, Jennings moved to Vincennes, capital of the territory. There, he clerked for the land office, the General Assembly of the Indiana Territory, and for Vincennes University. An incident at the the university between Jennings and Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison and his supporters, prompted Jennings to leave Vincennes. In search of a more hospitable residence and career, he returned to Clark County and settled in Charlestown by 1809.

Jennings’ move would prove to be very timely for his political ambitions. Congress separated the Illinois Territory from the Indiana Territory, which lessened Governor Harrison’s political influence. Furthermore, Congress mandated that the Indiana Territory’s delegate to Congress be popularly elected, as opposed to elected by the territorial legislature.

William Henry Harrison, circa 1813, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mrs. Herbert Lee Pratt, Jr.

While Jennings was an outsider to Harrison’s clique, he was extremely personable and a great campaigner. His outsider status was also relatable to the population in the eastern counties, who resented the patriarchal political power structures in Vincennes. Indiana historian William Wesley Woollen described Jennings’ appeal, noting he was “a man of polished manners . . . he was always gentle and kind to those about him. He was not an orator, but he could tell what he knew in a pleasing way.”

An oft-repeated story about Jennings illustrates his political populism in contrast to his patrician political opponents. Author John Bartlow Martin described the scene this way:

Jennings’s opponent, a Harrison man, arrived during a logrolling [at a Dearborn County farm], chatted at the farmhouse a short time, then rode away. But Jennings, arriving next day, pitched into the logrolling and when it was done, tossed quoits and threw the maul with the men, taking care to let them beat him. He was a natural politician, the kind the Hoosiers lived, almost the original model of the defender of the people against the interests.

Historical marker located in Jennings County, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

In 1809, only white, property-holding men could vote in the Indiana Territory. At age 25, Jennings ran for Congress and defeated an older and better politically connected candidate. Jennings won re-election in 1811, 1812, and 1814. As a territorial delegate, and not a fully vested member of Congress, Jennings could not vote on legislation. However, his role was very important to Indiana’s road to statehood as he advocated for legislation from Indiana Territory constituents, including petitions for statehood. The first statehood petition was sent to Jennings in 1811, which Congress denied on account of the territory’s population not yet reaching 35,000. The United States had more pressing problems in subsequent years, most notably the War of 1812, which raged until 1814. The war disrupted the business of Congress when the British Army burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

A year after the Treaty of Ghent ended the war, Congress was back to lawmaking. On December 28, 1815, Jennings introduced another territorial petition for statehood. This time the U.S. House leadership referred the petition to a committee and named Jennings as chairman. A week later the committee reported a bill, which eventually passed. On April 19, 1816, President James Madison signed it into law. Known as the Enabling Act, the legislation authorized residents of the Indiana Territory to hold a Constitutional Convention. On June 10, 1816, convention delegates convened in Corydon to draft a constitution. Jennings was one of the delegates. He was so esteemed by his peers that he became president of the convention. The resulting document borrowed from previous state constitutions, but reinforced a lot of democratic ideals. Although there was a system of checks and balances, most of the power lay with the elected representatives, which many people viewed as being closer to the people than the governor. The constitution also allowed for universal white, adult male suffrage, gave voters the right to call for a new constitution, recommended a state-supported education system, prohibited establishment of private banks, and prohibited slavery.

Portrait of Posey, Artist: John Bayless Hill, American, 1849-1874 oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 26 3/16 (76.5 x 65.6) Unsigned, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

Indiana held its first state elections in August 1816, and Jennings won the gubernatorial election over Territorial Governor Thomas Posey. Jennings was then only thirty-two years old. For the next six years he would serve as Indiana’s first executive. Keep in mind, under the 1816 Constitution, a governor’s powers were limited, and he could not set legislative agendas. He could make appointments, including judges, and could also sign or veto legislation.

According to Carl E. Kramer’s profile of Jennings in The Governors of Indiana, the state’s first governor faced the daunting challenge of “placing Indiana on a sound financial footing, implementing a court system, and developing rudimentary educational and internal improvements systems, while also attempting to prevent government from becoming so burdensome that it obstructed personal advancement and enterprise.” Kramer noted that as governor, Jennings concentrated on “organizing an educational system that reached from the common schools to a state university; creating a state banking system; preventing illegal efforts to capture and enslave blacks entitled to their freedom; organizing a state library; and developing a plan of internal improvements.” His limited success in accomplishing these, was “as much a reflection of the governor’s limited powers and the state’s impoverished financial condition as it is upon his political skills and knowledge of the issues.”

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

His most far-reaching action during the time he served as governor actually occurred when he was not acting in that capacity. In 1818, Jennings served as a treaty negotiator on the Treaty of St. Mary’s which obtained title to a large part of land from the Miami Indians. As an aside, while Jennings was absent from Corydon during these negotiations, Lieutenant Governor Christopher Harrison tried unsuccessfully to take power and remove Jennings from office.

The low-light of Jennings time as governor came in 1820 as the State Bank teetered and eventually collapsed. As historian Dorothy Riker noted, “Jennings was severely criticized for his failure to supervise the Bank and his refusal to instigate and investigation earlier.”

In 1822, with only months left to serve in his second term, Jennings resigned as governor so that he could return to Congress, where he served from 1822-1831. Internal improvements like roads and canals were hallmark pieces of legislation at this time in American history, especially under President John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and his proto-Whig Party (Adams/Anti-Jackson) adherents like Jennings. For Jennings, internal improvements were a way for Indiana to advance, economically by allowing for Indiana’s agricultural goods to make it more easily to markets, and for finished goods to make their way into the state. Good roads and canals would also encourage immigration into the state, especially along the National Road, and would facilitate communication with other parts of the nation. Because of Jennings advocacy of better transportation networks, it is fitting that the Indiana Department of Transportation designated this section of I-65 as the “Governor Jonathan Jennings Memorial Highway.”

Historical marker located in Charlestown, Indiana, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

According to Woollen, Jennings lost his congressional seat in 1830 due, in part, to his drinking problem. He retired to his Charlestown farm, where he died on July 26, 1834. Historians have conflicting views on Jennings legacy. He was not an activist executive, which present-day observers have come to expect when rating their leaders. However, he was an incredibly popular politician. He played important leadership roles in Indiana reaching statehood, including at the Constitutional Convention. As for his role as governor, it is important to think about his service in the context of the time. Hoosiers at the time did not want an aristocratic leader like William Henry Harrison. Rather, Jennings set a precedence as the first governor which sought to honor the autonomy and democratic values of pioneer Hoosiers.

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.