Indiana’s Pearl and Button Boom

Today, we drive over rivers and creeks in a few seconds and barely know their names.  But before modern transportation severed so much of our connection to waterways, human contact with rivers practically defined life in water-rich Indiana.

One lost industry that had a brief “boom and bust” over most of the eastern U.S. a century ago was closely tied to the life of the rivers. If you’re keeping a list of industries (like steel and auto manufacturing) that have declined and even vanished from the Midwest, add one more:  pearl button making.

Consumers today rarely give a thought to where buttons come from.  How synthetic goods are made (i.e., the zippers, plastic buttons, and Velcro that partly replaced shell around 1950) may seem less “romantic” than the work of pearl fishermen hauling shiny treasures out of Midwestern streams in johnboats.  Yet in spite of its nostalgic appeal, the pearl button industry also wreaked havoc on the environment and on workers in factories.


wabash river pearl hunter vincennes indiana circa 1905
(This photo taken on the Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1905 shows a pearl fisherman in his boathouse. He kept a “cooker” on hand to steam the mussel shells open. “The meat was fed to hogs or used as bait.” Shells were sent off to button factories.)

rock river clamming near Beloit WI ca 1911 Lloyd Ballard
(Man on a johnboat on the Rock River outside Beloit, Wisconsin, circa 1911. Mussels would clamp down on hooks and not let go until they were cooked off. The rods were often made out of cast-off gas pipes. Photo by Lloyd Ballard. Beloit College Archives.)

At the time of European settlement, midwestern rivers abounded in mussels.  As many as 400 species probably lived in the Ohio Valley in 1800. The Mound Builder cultures that once occupied the American heartland found many ways to use mussels and left behind enormous refuse piles — what archaeologists call “middens” — in their towns, which almost always sat beside creeks and rivers.  They were large towns, too.  In the year 1200, Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the future site of St. Louis, was bigger than medieval London.


CahokiaMound72diskBeads72sm
(Shell disks from a burial mound at Cahokia, Illinois. St. Louis Community College.)

Among Indiana’s early settlers, “diving” for pearls hidden in freshwater mussels dates back to at least 1846, when farmers at Winamac founded a small stockholders association to try to market shells taken from the Tippecanoe River.  They sent a man to St. Louis and Cincinnati to ask about the value of freshwater pearls.  Prices were low at the time and the “Pulaski County Pearl Diver Association” went bust.

Though a few button factories existed in Indiana before the Civil War — relying on shell, horn, and bone — the American freshwater pearl boom didn’t really gain momentum until 1900.  In that year, a pearl frenzy erupted along the Black and White Rivers near Newport, Arkansas.  Arkansas’ pearl boom had all the hallmarks of an old-time gold rush.  A writer for the Indianapolis Journal reported in 1903:

Within the past three years more than $3,000,000 worth of pearls have been taken from the Mississippi Valley. . .  The excitement spread from the land to the river steamboats.  Their crews deserted them, and sometimes their captains, and the Black River was the scene of the wildest excitement.  New towns were built and old ones were increased to the size of cities.  Streets were laid out, banks and mercantile establishments were started, mortgages were lifted, money was plenty and times were prosperous. . . New York pearl dealers flocked there in great numbers.

The writer tells a story, perhaps exaggerated like much of his account, that an African American family who had lived in poverty made enough money pearling to build a large house and hire white servants.  He also mentions that New York dealers were often ripped off by sellers masquerading Arkansas pearls as Asian.

Arkansas’ rivers were quickly “pearled out,” but the pearl boom spread and reached its peak around 1905-1910. Southwestern Indiana is almost as close to Arkansas as it is to Cincinnati.  When the Southern boom died down,  the hunt for pearls came north.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reported in October 1903 that pearls had been found in the Wabash River at Maunie, Illinois, just south of New Harmony.  “The river is a veritable bee hive and scores are at work securing mussel shells.  The price of shells has risen from $4 to $15 a ton and an experienced man can secure a ton in a day.  Farmers find it difficult to get farm hands.”

“Musselers” found an estimated $7000 worth of pearls in the Wabash in the first week of June 1909.  Charles Williams, a “poor musseler,” found a “perfect specimen of the lustrous black pearl and has sold it for $1250.  Black pearls are seldom found in freshwater shells.”


black pearl


city of idaho at vincennes - mussel shells
(The steamboat City of Idaho docked at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1907. For a few years, a small button factory on Willow Street produced as many as 3,000 buttons a week from mussel shells harvested along the Wabash. When the factory closed, mussel fishermen sent shells by steamboat and train to the large button manufacturers in Muscatine, Iowa.)

Vincennes experienced an explosion of musseling in 1905, as pearl hunters converged on the Wabash River’s shell banks.  Eastern buyers came out to Indiana and frequently offered $500-$1000 for a pearl, which they polished into jewelry in cities like New York.  A thousand dollars was a lot amount of money at a time when factory workers typically made about $8.00 a week.  But with several hundred people eagerly scouring the riverbanks, the best pearls were quickly snatched up.  For about a decade afterwards, “mussel men” and their families focused on providing shells for button manufacturers.

Interestingly, the shell craze caused a squatters’ village to spring up in Vincennes.  A shanty town called Pearl City, made up of shacks and houseboats, sat along the river from 1907 to 1936, when as part of a WPA deal, its residents were resettled in Sunset Court, Vincennes’ first public housing.

At Logansport on the Wabash, patients from the Northern Indiana Insane Hospital spent part of the summer of 1908 hunting for pearl-bearing mussels.  “One old man has been lucky, finding several pearls valued at $200 each.  Local jewelers have tried to buy them but the old man hoards them like a miser does his gold.  He keeps them in a bottle, and his chief delight is to hold the bottle so that he can see his prizes as the sun strikes the gems.” In and around Indianapolis, hunters discovered pearls in Fall Creek and the White River, especially around Waverly, southwest of the city.

Though every fisherman sought to find a high-value pearl and make a tiny fortune, the boom’s more prosaic side — button-making — eventually won out. From the 1890s to the 1940s, hundreds of small factories across the Midwest turned out glossy “mother-of-pearl” buttons.  The industry especially flourished along a stretch of the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, called the “button capital of the world.”  Muscatine’s button industry was founded by John Boepple, a master craftsman from Hamburg, Germany, who immigrated to Iowa around 1887.  Muscatine’s factories turned out a staggering 1.5 billion buttons in 1905 alone.  About 10,000 workers were employed by button factories in the Midwestern states.

John Boepple lived to see the industry’s impact on rivers like the Mississippi.  In 1910, the industrialist turned conservationist began work at a biological station established by Congress at Fairport, Iowa, to help repopulate mussels by reseeding riverbeds.  Congress’ role was simply to preserve the industry, not to save decimated species.   In 1912, the embattled mussels had their revenge:  Boepple cut his foot on a shell and died of a resulting infection.

Although Iowa dominated the American button industry, numerous tiny factories popped up in small Indiana towns, including Mishawaka, Lawrenceburg, Leavenworth, Madison, and Shoals. (Shoals was named for its founder, Frederick Shulz, not for the mussel shoals on the White River.) Taylor Z. Richey, writing from Cannelton, Indiana, described how the work was done along the Ohio River in 1904.  Many factories did not create the actual buttons, merely the “blanks” that were shipped out to Iowa.


Button_cut_shell
Created by Robert Ervin Coker, 1921, courtesy of University of Washington, accessed Wikipedia.

leavenworth button works
(In 1910, three buttonworks in Leavenworth, Indiana, employed twenty-four families — most of the population of the town. This two-story Greek Revival building had once been City Hall. Long chutes connected upper windows to wheelbarrows below. Discarded shells were burned to produce lime. “Old” Leavenworth was permanently wiped out by the 1937 Ohio River Flood. Image courtesy of Crawford County Historical & Genealogical Society.)

button factory at st. mary's west virginia
(Workers at a button factory along the Ohio River at St. Mary’s, West Virginia, circa 1910. The man on the far left, second row, in the black apron is Andrew Jackson Wigner, the great-grandfather of Trisha Johns who submitted the photo, accessed https://www.wvgenweb.org/pleasants/workmen.htm)

Working in the button industry was far from quaint and actually proved a hazardous job.  Exposure to hydrochloric acid and poor ventilation took a big toll on workers.  Author Jeffrey Copeland notes that. there were more cases of pneumonia, typhus and gangrene among button factory laborers than in any other industry.  Children as young as eight worked sixty-hour weeks carrying buckets of shells and acid to soften the material up.  Eye injuries and loss of fingers often occurred as workers “stamped” the buttons out of shells or operated lathes.  Even before the industry reached its turn-of-the-century heyday, gory accidents (such as this one, reported in the Jasper Weekly Courier in 1874) made it into the newspapers:

A French girl, sixteen years old, was caught by her long hair in a revolving shaft at a button factory in Kankakee, Ill., the other day, and the left side of her head was completely scalped.  A severe concussion of the brain was also sustained.  Her condition was considered critical.

Complaints about filth and dust drove Mishawaka’s factory to relocate to St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1917.

Partly under the leadership of a young activist named Pearl McGill, labor unions in Iowa battled it out with factory owners, culminating in Muscatine’s “Button War” of 1911, a fight that involved arson and the killing of police. In Vincennes in 1903, however, the usual pattern of Progressive-era labor politics seemed to go the other way around.  The Indianapolis Journal reported that Eugene Aubrey, owner of a pearl-button factory at Vincennes and allegedly a member of the Socialist Party, fired worker Charles Higginbottom for serving in the militia during Evansville’s bloody July 1903 race riot, when many African Americans were gunned down.  The Journal went on to accuse Aubrey of being a secret anarchist.

In his semi-fictional Tales of Leavenworth, Rush Warren Carter described a small-town Indiana button factory in those years.  A boy named Palmer Dotson quits school at 16 and gets a job working under superintendent “Badeye” Williams.  (Factory workers often lost eyes.)  “Cutting buttons was not a business that developed one’s mind or elevated his thoughts,” Carter wrote.  “The cutting process was a dull routine to a background of everything but enlightened conversation.  Talk about your ladies’ sewing circles.  When it came to gossip, [women] were not in the same league with the men in the button factory, who chewed and rechewed every real or imagined bit of gossip until it had been ground to a fine pulp.”  Dotson died of tuberculosis at 21.  A co-worker decided that opening a saloon would be preferable to stamping buttons.

In 1917, a silent movie based on Virginia Brooks‘ popular novel “Little Lost Sister” was playing at The Auditorium in South Bend.  The plot begins in a sordid rural button factory in “Millville” (probably in Iowa), where the heroine, Elsie Welcome, has big dreams about getting out and going to Chicago.  A classic stand-off with the foreman ensues:

little lost sister
Image courtesy of Google Books.

Although Iowa’s factories were still running in 1946 (the year actor Ronald Reagan chose Muscatine’s Pearl Queen), exhaustion of shell banks all over the Midwest was killing the industry fast.  Japanese innovations increased competition after World War II.  Synthetic plastics — which were cheap and could withstand washing machines better than shell — were pioneered in the 1920s and eventually took over the industry in the mid-1950s.  Instead of smelly buckets of shells, workers handled tubs of polyester syrup.  Then, two snazzy new inventions, zippers and Velcro, even cut into the demand for buttons outright.

Indiana’s factories, which had been shipping blanks to Iowa for years, had all gone out of business by the end of World War II.  The last independent buttonworks in the U.S., the Wilbur E. Boyd Factory at Meredosia  on the Illinois River, closed in 1948.  Iowa’s button industry hung on until the mid-1990s, when Chinese innovations in pearl cultivation finally caused it to collapse.


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Digging into History: Hoosier Archaeologist Glenn A. Black

Glenn Black, 1959. Image courtesy Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology Photographs and the Trustees of Indiana University

Glenn A. Black (1900-1964), native of Indianapolis, became one of Indiana’s leading archaeologists in the midst of the Great Depression. He was essentially self-taught, having only a small amount of formal training with Henry C. Shetrone of the Ohio Historical Society (now Ohio History Connection). Black’s work redefined archaeological field methodology, and brought systematic excavations and innovative technology to the field.

Black began his archaeological career by serving as a guide for Warren K. Moorehead and Eli Lilly Jr. in May 1931. Impressed with Black’s knowledge, they encouraged him to become an archaeologist. Lilly funded Black’s work with his own money initially, and later arranged for him to be paid through the Indiana Historical Society’s archaeological department. Lilly also helped Black with his formal training, sending him to Columbus, Ohio from October 1931 to May 1932 to train with Henry C. Shetrone. During this training, Black married Ida May Hazzard, who joined in his digs. He became especially close with Eli Lilly, forming a bond that would last for the rest of his lifetime.

Lilly and Black on Lilly’s boat on Lake Wawasee in 1951. Photo courtesy Angel Mounds Historic Site

Black and Lilly worked together on many projects, but one of their more controversial projects concerned the Walam Olum, a historically disputed story of the creation of the Delaware tribe. Lilly and Black “had a hunch that the Walam Olum may possibly have in it the key that will open the riddle of the Mound Builders.” In short, they were “trying to connect the prehistoric people who had built the great mounds of the Ohio Valley with the historic Delaware tribe.”

The Walam Olum story was first told by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque in 1836. Rafinesque announced that he had acquired some “tablets” that depicted the “ancient record of the peopling of North America that had been written by the early Lenape (Delaware) Indians and passed down in the tribe for generations.” He had translated the tablets into English, and called it the “Walam Olum” or “painted record” in Lenape. In the years following his death, notable historians, linguists, and ethnologists believed that it “contained crucial evidence for prehistoric Amerindian migrations and the identity of the mysterious Midwestern Mound Builders.” Lilly and Black believed in this theory, and began analyzing the Walam Olum with a team of experts. Their report, published in 1954, claimed “all confidence in the historical value of the Walam Olum.” More recently, historians believe that the Walam Olum was a hoax created by Rafinesque to prove his belief that the Indians came to North America from the Old World.

Nowlin Mound Site, 1935. Image courtesy Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology Photographs and the Trustees of Indiana University

In 1934, Black was asked by the Indiana Historical Society to excavate the Nowlin Mound in Dearborn County. Ida joined him on this dig, as she was “deeply interested in delving into the archaeological as her talented husband.” It was here that his intensely methodical process of excavating is evident. In his report on the mound, he wrote, “If the results of any excavation are to provide an unimpeachable historical record of a prehistoric work, too much stress cannot be placed upon methodical technique and exactness of detail, no matter how trivial the feature may be.” He felt very strongly about following a methodical excavation system, believing that it would lead to improved results and a better historical record.

“if the description of the methods used in staking and surveying the mound seems unnecessarily extensive, it should be remembered that a mound once dug is a mound destroyed; if the story it has to tell be lost on the initial attempt it is lost forever.”

Works Progress Administration (WPA) excavation of Y-7-C at Angel Mounds. Image courtesy Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology Photographs and the Trustees of Indiana University

In 1938, the Indiana Historical Society purchased Angel Mounds with the help of Eli Lilly. Lilly contemplated purchasing the site since 1931, but when the site was in danger of being incorporated by the City of Evansville in 1938, he acted. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) conducted excavations from 1939-1942, and IU’s field program excavated beginning in 1945 (work temporarily ceased during WWII). Black held his students in the field program to very high standards.

In a letter to his students, Black wrote:

You will be living for ten weeks in very close association with your fellow students and you will be expected to get along with one another in an agreeable manner. This is one of the very few field camps which accepts mixed groups. As such we are under constant surveyance by those in this neighborhood and at the University who do not believe in girls attending field schools. I do not subscribe to this thesis but that I may be proved right, and my critics wrong, I am dependent on you. I expect the girls be ladies and the boys gentlemen and all of you to be discreet and orderly at all times. It is requested that you do not wear shorts on the dig—they are neither practical or appropriate.

William S. Merimer, Robert Lorenson, Glenn A. Black, William R. Adams, Vernon Helmen, 1946. Image courtesy Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology Photographs and the Trustees of Indiana University

In the spring of 1939, Black moved to a house on the Angel Mounds site and began supervising the excavations. He and Lilly used the WPA to supply workers to excavate from 1939-1942. Two-hundred and seventy-seven men and 120,000 square feet later, Black and the WPA recovered and processed more than 2.3 million archaeological items. From 1945-1962, students worked at the site in the summer to extend the work of the WPA. The years 1945-1947 were used as “trial runs” of the program, and the first official class began in June 1948. Stemming from this work, an organization was created in 1948 called The Trowel and Brush Society. This society limited membership to students enrolled in the Angel Mounds Field School, but created an honorary category for those who were unable to join formally, but had “contributed to American Archaeology in general and Indiana Archaeology in particular.” The purpose of this society was “to promote good techniques in archaeological research; to maintain contact between students who attend Indiana University’s Archaeological Field School.”

Through his excavations, Black concluded that Angel Mounds existed long before the discovery of America, and was most likely still a “lively community during and after the period of DeSoto,” and does not have evidence to suggest that the site was visited by white men. He believed that Angel Mounds was the site of the “farthest north existence of an agricultural Indian folk who were a part of the long settled tribes of southern and southeastern United States.” An encyclopedia entry about Angel Mounds estimates that the community flourished between AD 1050 and 1450 and that the settlement was geographically and culturally central during Angel Phase, the portion of time from AD 1050-1350 characterized by the Mississippian culture’s use of ceramic, of which there is plenty at Angel Mounds.

Proton Magnetometer, 1959. Image courtesy Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology and the Trustees of Indiana University

Even after concluding this from his excavation, Black said in 1947 that “There’s plenty here to keep me busy the rest of my life.” In 1958, Black became interested in locational devices to detect features of the mounds. He saw that the use of a proton magnetometer was announced in Britain by the Oxford University Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art. Reportedly the device was successful in locating features at Roman sites. Black began looking for one to use at Angel Mounds. In September 1960, the Indiana Historical Society purchased a magnetometer instrument for use at Angel Mounds. The purpose of this project was “to evaluate the application of the proton magnetometer to the problem of locating subsurface features on archaeological sites in this part of the world, and to extend the work begun by the Oxford Group.”

Magnetometry Survey, 1962. Image courtesy Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology and the Trustees of Indiana University

In 1946, the site was transferred to the State of Indiana. After Black’s death in 1964, the Indiana Historical Society and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources transferred the site to Indiana University in an attempt at “making Indiana university the archaeological center of the state” and to use the site as a research and teaching facility. In 1964, Angel Mounds was registered as a national historic landmark. Today, the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites Corporation manages the site.

Black’s other notable achievements included: vice-president and president of the Society for American Archaeology; Archaeology Divisional Chairman for the Indiana Academy of Science; member of the National Research Council; awarded an honorary doctorate by Wabash College.

Glenn Black died September 2, 1964 in Evansville, following a heart attack. Lilly used the Lilly Endowment to create the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology after his friend’s death, dedicating it on April 21, 1971. When Black died, he was almost done with his report on the Angel Site. Former student James A. Kellar and editor Gayle Thornbrough finished it. The Indiana Historical Society published it in 1967 in two volumes, titling it Angel Site: An Archaeological, Historical, and Ethnological Study. The sections that Black completed before his death include the “historical background, chronological account of its excavation, ethnological relationships, and the ecology of the area.” After his death, Kellar wrote the section that dealt with material that had been recovered from the site. Indeed, plenty at Angel Mounds to keep him busy for the rest of his life.

Learn more about Lilly and Black’s investigation into the Walam Olum, see Walam Olum, or Red Score: The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians: A New Translation, Interpreted by Linguistic, Historical, Archaeological, Ethnological, and Physical Anthropological Studies.

Check back for information about IHB’s forthcoming marker dedication ceremony honoring Glenn A. Black.

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

pole house
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.

elm
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.

about removal
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.”

trail map
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.

skellies
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.

Tech marker
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.”

Conner trail (002)
“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.

use
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.