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.


Contact: staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

THH Episode 31: Tenskwatawa: The Rise and Fall of a Nation

Transcript of Tenskwatawa: The Rise and Fall of a Nation

Beckley: I just wanted to drop in here at the top of the episode to give a little bit of a disclaimer. We are currently working from home due to COVID-19, so the sound quality of this episode might be a little bit different from what you’re used to hearing from Talking Hoosier History, since I’m using different equipment than usual. And now, on to the show.

Jump to Show Notes

Written by Lindsey Beckley, produced by Jill Weiss Simins, sound engineering by Justin Clark.

[Flute Music]

Beckley: This is the second of a two-part series covering the life of Indigenous leader Tenskwatawa. If you haven’t listened to the first part, I highly recommend you go do so now and come back after listening. Otherwise, you might be a bit lost coming in at this point in the story.

In “Tenskwatawa: The Making of a Prophet,” we explored the years leading up to and immediately following the birth of Tenskwatawa into the Shawnee tribe. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was a cycle which played out all across North America. Colonial, and later American, settlers invaded Native Land, Native People fought to keep their land, but were forced to settle elsewhere only for white settlers to once again violently invade, restarting the cycle.

We also followed Tenskwatawa’s transformation from a relatively obscure figure into a political and spiritual leader for thousands of Native Peoples. We left off just after Tenskwatawa received his directives in a vision from the Great Spirit – he was to eschew all European customs, not only to return to the old ways, but also to start a new chapter in the Native story, one in which all Native People are united under the teachings of The Prophet.

Tenskwatawa’s village near modern-day Greenville, Ohio, was structured to reflect this idea of a pan-Indian identity, at least ideally. When people came to Greenville, they were to leave behind their tribal affiliations and become part of the greater whole.

And we left off with Tenskwatawa summoning Native People to gather at Greenville to witness a demonstration of his power. He was going to “put out the sun.” When the appointed day came and the sun did indeed disappear from the sky in a total eclipse, the Prophet sat in his tent while his followers observed the fulfillment of his prophesy. When he finally emerged from his tent, he spoke:

Voice actor: “Behold! Did I not prophesy correctly? See, darkness is coming.”

Beckley: With those words, the sun returned, illuminating his wisdom and power.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

From our vantage point, it may be easy to think about the Prophet’s attempt to create an autonomous pan-Indian nation as being doomed to fail.  But putting yourself in the shoes of those living through these events might change how you see them. To Tenskwatawa and his followers, and to the white settlers of the area, the Prophet’s movement looked formidable, because it was. And it was this threat, as well as the unpredictability of settler-Native interactions that intimidated U.S. leaders.

In the early 1800s, Tenskwatawa led the largest population center in the region, and his following was only growing larger. And Native People had governed themselves and the land they lived on for millennia before European contact – why would it seem implausible to think a version of that could be restored?

Today, we look at a moment many historians view as the tipping point of Tenskwatawa’s power –the Battle of Tippecanoe. Before the battle, anything was possible. After it, all was lost. This narrative has been repeated in books and classrooms for decades. But is that really the case? Could it really be that cut and dry? No, of course not. And let’s explore why.

After Tenskwatawa’s prophesy was fulfilled, cementing his followers’ faith in him and lending further credence to his movement, many indigenous people traveled to Greenville. In the months after the eclipse, white settlers from as far away as present-day Wisconsin reported that:

Voice actor: “The Indians are crowding down upon us from the Green Bay on their way as they say to see the Shawonese at Greenville.”

Beckley: With so many Native People on the move, the white authorities of the Northwest began to grow uneasy. They questioned whether the mass of people gathering around Greenville were there just to hear the teachings of the Prophet and, indeed, if those teachings were purely religious in nature.

Playing on rising tensions between England and the United States, conspiracies of an impending British-backed Native assault on nearby American settlers swirled among the white communities, but it never came to fruition. In fact, Tenskwatawa had already received another message from the Great Spirit commanding him to move his followers away from Greenville. So, in the spring of 1808, Tenskwatawa and his people arrived just north of present-day Lafayette, Indiana. This new settlement would be called Prophetstown.

This move, ordained by the Great Spirit, was also quite advantageous to the prophet and to his followers. Prophetstown was situated at the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers – meaning that it could only be approached from two sides. It was also a very fertile area, an important feature, as the Prophet’s followers had nearly starved at Greenville in 1807.

Prophetstown featured European-style houses, wigwams, a large storehouse, a central structure where any visiting Native person could stay called the House of the Stranger, and possibly even a blacksmith shop. All trees around the town were cleared, a strategic move, which stripped the land of any concealment for an oncoming army.

The Prophet had plenty of reason to prepare for that eventuality. Prophetstown was a mere 150 miles from Vincennes, the seat of government in the Northwest Territory. William Henry Harrison, the territorial governor and future U.S. president, was wary of his new neighbors, who numbered somewhere between three and six thousand people. By comparison, Vincennes, the capitol of the territory, had an approximate population of 1,500 around the same time. Harrison was convinced that Prophetstown was more than a holy city – he thought it was a rising political and military threat. And he wasn’t completely mistaken.

While Tenskwatawa was a religious leader, many of his teachings, such as his assertion that all land occupied by Native Peoples was owned collectively and without tribal distinction, as well as his advocacy of a pan-Indian nation, were inherently political. Success in these endeavors would have undercut European power in the area, making it impossible for government officials to exploit tribal differences when conducting negotiations or going to war. Eventually, this could stop the encroachment of white settlers on Indigenous peoples’ lands. Tenskwatawa and his warriors would defend their border, but it’s important to note, he was not intending to launch an offensive attack. In fact, he was offering peace. In a message delivered to Harrison in June 1808, Tenskwatawa said:

Voice actor: “It never was my intention to lift up my hand against the Americans . . . We had determined to follow the advice of the Great Spirit, who has told us that our former conduct is not right: that we ought to live in peace upon the land he has given us.

. . . I am now very much engaged in making my new settlement but as soon as it is completed, I will pay you a visit and hope to remove every bad impression you have received against me.”

Beckley: Harrison accepted the Prophet’s offer of a summit and in August of 1808, Tenskwatawa and William Henry Harrison came face to face for the first time in Vincennes. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, the two kind of hit it off. The Prophet stayed in Vincennes for several weeks and the men spoke of religion and politics. By the end of the visit, Harrison’s fears of an attack from Prophetstown seemed to have been quelled. He wrote to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn:

Voice actor: I am inclined to think that the influence which the Prophet has acquired will prove rather advantageous than otherwise to the United States.”

Beckley: Harrison also agreed to send funds for provisions to Prophetstown – a much needed break for the settlement as drought had destroyed the majority of their crops. Resulting food shortages caused many followers to lose faith and return to their home villages.

The goodwill that resulted from this meeting didn’t last long, however. And it wasn’t enough to dissuade Harrison from his mission of expanding the United States’ land holdings in the Northwest. Just over a year later, Harrison gathered representatives of the Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, Wea, and Kickapoo at Fort Wayne. Conspicuously absent was the leader of the largest population center of the Old Northwest – the Prophet hadn’t even been informed of the proceedings.

Harrison had strategically chosen who to invite to the negotiations – all leaders he thought he could coerce to sign a treaty. And he was right. After days of cajoling, bribing, threatening, and supplying a few hundred gallons of rum, coupled with the ever-present threat of military and economic pressure, the leaders at the summit were compelled to sign the Treaty of Fort Wayne in September of 1809, ceding 300,000 acres of land to the U.S. government.

Tenskwatawa was furious at this perceived betrayal. Although the land didn’t include Prophetstown, he believed that all Nations were one and so no land belonging to any Indigenous group could be sold without the consent of the leader of the pan-Indian nation – him. The Prophet wasn’t the only one upset, either. People flocked to Prophetstown after the news of the treaty spread. They came from many nations – Miami, Wyandot, Sac, Iowa, Winnebego, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Shawnee, Ojibwe, and Ottawa. But once they arrived in Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa declared them one people.

In the aftermath of the Treaty of Fort Wayne, Tenskwatawa’s older brother emerged as the military leader of Prophetstown, while The Prophet continued his role as political and religious leader. Tecumseh, who up to this point had widely been known simply as “The Prophet’s brother,” began to travel to tribes affected by recent white expansion and recruit them to his brother’s cause, with considerable success. In 1810, his diplomatic role expanded when he attended what was supposedly a peace summit with William Henry Harrison. Harrison, however, had already made up his mind – he wanted to eliminate Prophetstown for its resistance to the Treaty of Fort Wayne. Unsurprisingly, the peace summit, which began with threats of a shoot-out, didn’t go well. Relations were, if anything, more strained by the end of the “peace talks.”

Harrison wanted to attack Prophetstown but leaders in Washington declined to give their permission, saying he could only act defensively. So, Harrison did the one thing he knew would provoke Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh into action. He sent surveyors into land which had been ceded to the U.S. government in opposition to Tenskwatawa’s wishes. One day into the mission, the surveyors were kidnapped by members of the Wea tribe, allies of the Prophet. Although the men were released the next day, the damage had been done. Harrison, with this “proof” of aggression from Prophetstown, wrote to the Secretary of War asking for approval of his war plans multiple times in the following months. Finally, he got the answer he wanted – he could attack Prophetstown.

And there was no better time than the present. Tecumseh, the war leader of the settlement, was away on a diplomatic mission, a vulnerability known to Harrison. So, on September 26, 1811, American troops set out from Vincennes in the direction of Prophetstown. In early November, Harrison and his troops arrived just outside of Prophetstown and set up camp.

Tenskwatawa, hoping to avoid battle, asked for peace negotiations. Harrison, although resolute in his decision to attack, accepted. The meeting was set for the following day, November 7, 1811. The meeting would never happen though, and while we know the broad strokes of the events that followed, it’s impossible to know the exact sequence of events leading up to the battle.

Traditionally, historians have relied on a mixture of Harrison’s account of the events and that of Shabonee, a man from the Ottawa tribe who was a follower of Tenskwatawa’s teachings but later allied himself with the Americans.

In this version of events, the request for negotiation was nothing but a ruse by the Prophet, who ordered a sneak attack on Harrison’s camp to be carried out  two hours before sunrise, when Harrison’s men would be blinded by their camp fires. In this account, the Prophet’s forces snuck soundlessly out of the dark to fire upon Harrison’s men.

This narrative is often recited as fact, but historian Adam Jortner raises questions about the veracity of the sources. Harrison had political motivations for casting Tenskwatawa as carrying out a sneak attack after requesting peace under false pretenses. And Shabonee, while he was a follower of Tenskwatawa during the battle, didn’t give his account until decades later, after adopting an accommodationist ideology and while employed by the United States government.

Jortner, along with historian Alfred Cave, propose a different sequence of events, this one based on reports given to American Indian agent Matthew Elliott by an unnamed Kickapoo chief just weeks after the battle. So, not a perfect source as it’s still secondhand and relayed by a white agent, but its proximity in time to the events makes it a little more trustworthy.

In this second version, American sentinels panicked and accidentally shot two Native warriors patrolling in the night. The news spread through Prophetstown and their forces attacked the next morning, either with the reluctant consent of Tenskwatawa or against his wishes entirely.

It’s quite possible that neither version is wholly accurate. And considering that neither of these accounts came directly from Tenskwatawa, and neither are free of a white lens, it’s almost guaranteed they are not completely accurate.  Even if we did have access to an account of events directly from the Prophet, the events probably would have looked different depending on which side you were on, and the search for an “objective truth” is often futile.

What we do know is that fighting broke out and what followed was what we know today as the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison labeled the battle a great victory and used it very successfully to bolster his political reputation, eventually becoming a top U.S. military leader and then president.

As is so often the case, the victor, even if he was but a self-proclaimed one, wrote the story. Shabonee’s and Harrison’s version of the story would be recounted by historians for much of the next 200 years. But were the outcomes of this battle as clear as Harrison led the country to believe? Absolutely not.

Looking at casualty counts alone would suggest Tenskwatawa was the victor. He lost approximately fifty soldiers to Harrison’s 180. However, Tenskwatawa retreated, abandoned Prophetstown to Harrison, and watched as Harrison burned it along with all the crops surrounding it.

This was certainly a blow, but even so, Prophetstown was reconstructed in less than a month. Additionally, an unprovoked American attack earned the Prophetstown movement more followers in the immediate aftermath of the clash, further discounting the assertion that the Battle of Tippecanoe itself was a devastating and ultimately fatal blow to Tenskwatawa’s movement.

Perhaps the most impactful outcome of the battle was actually  Harrison’s portrayal of the battle and its effect in Washington. Members of Congress concluded that the Native Peoples wouldn’t have fought against the Americans, risking annuities provided by the government, simply to preserve their land. No, there had to be more to it. They decided that the only plausible explanation was that Tenskwatawa and his warriors were in league with the British, who were surely promising annuities of their own. There was no evidence to support this besides Governor Harrison’s long-standing accusations that Prophetstown was working for the British.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government held it as a fact. This belief – that the British were conspiring with Native forces to launch attacks on American forts and other holdings – was one in a string of complaints against Britain. The American belief that the British were inciting Native attacks, along with ongoing naval issues regarding freedom of the seas, economic sanctions, and American sovereignty led Congress to declare war on June 18, 1812 against Great Britain. Today, we call this the War of 1812.

During the War of 1812, Tenskwatawa took a back seat to his brother, who was a better warrior with more experience. Just as the war was starting, Tecumseh established an alliance with British forces – an unsurprising move given the prolonged tensions between Prophetstown and the American government. After battling to preserve the land the Prophet had claimed for his people in present-day northern Indiana during the early war, a devastating blow for the movement came when Tecumseh died in battle in October 1813. After that battle, Tenskwatawa fled the pursuing American forces to Upper Canada, where he and a small group of followers stayed for over a decade, well past the 1815 end of the war.

Following these years of exile in Canada, the Prophet returned to the U.S. in 1825 to lead a contingent of Shawnee to Kansas, where he set up the last, much smaller iteration of Prophetstown. He lived there until his death in 1836.

[Music]

Beckley: While his movement ultimately failed, Tenskwatawa and his followers at Prophetstown represent a piece of history often overlooked – organized resistance to white settlement. Many look back at history and see the eventual removal of Native Peoples to the west as an inevitability. However, in the aspirations of Tenskwatawa, we see another possible outcome – one in which an autonomous pan-Indian nation could succeed and coexist adjacent to the United States, something which the Prophet advocated for, saying:

Voice actor: “I hope what I now say will be engraven on your heart. It is my determination to obey the Great Spirit and live in peace with you and your people. . . . This is what the Great Spirit has told us repeatedly. We are all made by him, although we differ a little in colour. We are all his children and should live in peace and friendship with each other.”

Beckley: I want to reiterate the importance of remembering that this outcome – the dwindling of the Prophet’s power – was by no means inevitable. The failure to establish an autonomous pan-Indian nation was also not inevitable. In fact, part of the terms of the wartime alliance between Prophetstown and the British forces was the establishment of a “buffer state” between Canada and the United States. This agreement put the Prophet and his followers in the best position for success and autonomy after the war, as the “buffer state” was to be an independent Indigenous nation, a possibility that remained as feasible, if not likely, right up to the end of the war.

Considering the outcomes of historical events to be pre-ordained – especially when discussing something as complicated as this – erases the agency of the people involved. It erases the fact that these were real people fighting for a real cause with real reason to hope for success. And who are we to take that away?

The story of Prophetstown is not by any means the entire story of Native resistance to white encroachment, and removal and resistance is not the entire story of Native People in the Hoosier state. There are Indigenous people living in and making history in Indiana today. And we at IHB have committed ourselves to preserving this history. If you are an Indigenous person living in Indiana, we want to hear from you. We are looking for the stories that have been left out of the textbooks and have not been commemorated by historical markers. What stories did you grow up hearing? Who did you look up to? We’d love to listen to your recollections and do what we can to help you preserve your history. Email me at lbeckley@library.in.gov with any questions, suggestions, or stories you’d like to share.

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. The music in this episode was written and performed by multi Native American Music Award winner and Indian Summer Music Award winner Golaná from the Echota Cherokee tribe. All tracks used were from the albums “Meditations for Two” and “Path to the Heart.” You can learn more about Golaná’s music and purchase his albums at oginali.com. You can find a link in the show notes. I used the book The Gods of Prophetstown by Adam Jortner as my main secondary source for this episode. If you would like to see all of my sources, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Sound engineering on this episode was by Justin Clark with help from Jill Weiss Simins. Join us in two weeks for the next installment of Giving Voice, where we’ll be talking to Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes. Until then, catch us on social media as Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review wherever you get your podcasts.

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Show Notes for Tenskwatawa: The Rise and Fall of a Nation

Music:

All music in this episode was produced by award-winning Native artist Golaná from the Echota Cherokee tribe. Listen to and purchase Golaná’s music here: oginali.com.

The tracks heard in this episode are from the albums “Meditations for Two” and “Path to the Heart.”

Books:

Calloway, Colin, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016).

Calloway, Collin, The Shawnees and the War for America, (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

Cayton, Andrew, Frontier Indiana, (Bloomington: IU Press, 1998).

Dubar-Ortiz, Roxanne, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014).

Edmunds, David, Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership, (New York: Pearson Longman, 2008).

Edmunds, David, The Shawnee Prophet, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).

Gugin, Linda and St. Clair. James, Indiana’s 200: The People Who Shaped the Hoosier State, (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society), 346-348.

Harrison, William Henry, Messages and Letter of William Henry Harrison, 1773-1841, (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Commission, 1922).

Jortner, Adam, The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Kinietz, Vernon, and Voegelin, Ermine, Shawnese Traditions C.C. Trowbridge’s Account, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1939).

Madison, James, and Sandweiss, Lee Ann, Hoosiers and the American Story, (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2014).

McNemar, Richard, The Kentucky Revival, or, A Short History of the Late Extraordinary Outpouring of the Spirit of God in the Western States of America: Agreeably to Scripture Promises and Prophecies Concerning the Latter Day: with a Brief Account of the Entrance and Progress of What the World Call Shakerism among the Subjects of the Late Revival in Ohio and Kentucky : Presented to the True Zion-traveler as a Memorial of the Wilderness Journey, (New York: Reprinted by Edward O. Jenkins, 1846).

Michigan Historical Commission, Michigan Historical Collections, vol. 40, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2006), 127-133.

Sugden, John, Tecumseh: A Life, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997).

Warren, Stephen, The Shawnees and Their Neighbors, 1795-1870, (Illinois: University of Illinois, 2005).

Websites:

Candey, Robert, and Young, Alex, “Total Solar Eclipse of 1806 June 16,” accessed https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEsearch/SEsearchmap.php?Ecl=18060616.

Academic Journals:

Cave, Alfred, “The Shawnee Prophet, Tecumseh, and Tippecanoe: A Case Study of Historical Myth-Making,” Journal of the Early Republic, 22, no. 4 (Winter, 2002), accessed https://www.jstor.org/stable/3124761?read-now=1&loggedin=true&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

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.

Corn, Tomatoes, & POWs: Hoosier Agriculture During World War II

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Lawn mowing was reportedly one of the most coveted jobs at Camp Atterbury amongst Italian POWs reportedly, which apparently weren’t used much in Italy.  Indianapolis Star, 13 June, 1943, 6, accessed Indiana State Library, Clippings File.

In May 1943, Indiana newspapers advertised a new pool of workers who could alleviate the farm labor crisis caused by World War II. Hoosier farmers just had to provide equipment, tools, materials, and transportation. The only snag? The new laborers were Italian prisoners of war that Allied troops had recently captured in North Africa. These prisoners were currently interned at Camp Atterbury, a military training camp just outside Edinburgh, Indiana.  Would the enemy soon fill Hoosier fields, picking tomatoes and detasseling corn? The Franklin Evening Star speculated

It is entirely likely that more than one farmer will apply for this Italian labor. The farmers are badly behind their work…Industry and the draft have created a serious farm labor shortage at the very time most farmers are trying to increase production…for the food needed for victory.

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The Call-Wood Leader [Elwood, Indiana], 19 May 1943, 1, accessed newspapers.com
Farmers across the nation felt the pressure of wartime demands. In addition to soldiers, an unprecedented number of workers were needed to produce food, clothing, supplies, and munitions for troops. Balancing all these demands proved difficult. The Bureau of Agriculture reported that between April 1940 and July 1942, two million men had left their agricultural jobs for employment in the military or war industries. Reports surfaced of farmers unable to get all their work done without additional help. The Tribune in Seymour Indiana reported that a Maryland farmer, “another victim of the manpower situation,” had to plow under thirty five acres of beans after his call for pickers came up empty.  Hoosier farmers hoped the situation wouldn’t repeat in Indiana.

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OWI Poster No 58, Office of war Information, Washington, DC, 1943, photo courtesy The American Legion.

Meanwhile, the federal government emphasized farmers’ need to produce more, despite the labor shortages, to help win the war. President Roosevelt created Farm Mobilization Day on January 12, 1943. He declared “food is the life line of the forces that fight for freedom.” Soon after, the Office of War Information produced pamphlets, posters, and films filled with catchy slogans like “Food Fights for Freedom!” “Food is a Weapon-don’t waste it!” and “Raising Food is a Real Job!” The government created various labor programs, including the Women’s Land Army and the Bracero Program, to mobilize civilian women and Mexican guest workers respectively to help fill the void on the nation’s farms.

After the US entered the war in 1941, prisoner of war (POW) labor became another possible solution to the labor crisis. The first POW arrived in the country in April 1942 from the Pacific. As the war continued, up to 30,000 POWs arrived in the US each month from battlefields abroad. The War Department decided to utilize this labor force and created camps across the nation to bring POWs work sites across the nation. At the war’s end, nearly 425,000 Japanese, Italian, and German POWs were held in prisoner of war camps across 46 states.

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Map of major POW camps across the nation, accessed HistoryNet.

Hoosier farmers and food processors jumped at the chance to hire the first of many POWs to arrive in Indiana, despite their enemy status. In Johnson County alone, 250 people attended a meeting on May 24, 1943 to discuss the farm labor shortage and to learn how to register for potential POW labor from Camp Atterbury. After POWs filled positions within the camp to keep it running, such as bakers and cooks, launderers, repairmen, and gardeners, the rest could be employed outside the camp at local farms and factories. To the dismay of many farmers, at first the POWs could only work within a 25 mile radius of the camp. They picked apples, beans, and tomatoes, and hoed, detasseled, and picked corn. However, since their labor became so vital, the radius was soon lifted. In the summer of 1943, some Italian POWs also worked in tomato and corn canning plants as far away as Austin and Elwood, Indiana.

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OWI Poster No. 59, Office of War Information, Washington DC, 1943, photo courtesy The American Legion.

POW labor came with stipulations. POWs could not engage in dangerous work or labor that directly benefited the war effort. They could also only be employed in cases where civilian labor could not be found. In addition, farmers paid the US Treasury and the War Department the standard prevailing wage in the area so POWs would not usurp local, civilian labor. In turn, those departments paid the POWs 10 cents an hour, up to 80 cents per day for their labor, which was less than the prevailing wage.

POWs did not receive cash, but scrip they could spend only at their camp’s canteen. The War Department reinvested canteen profits back into the camps, often to buy “extras” to occupy the POWs in their spare time, such as musical instruments, art supplies, sports equipment, and books. In time, the POWs organized their own choral contests, soccer and volleyball leagues, and boccie ball games.

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Italian POWs playing volleyball in their spare time at Camp Atterbury, Indianapolis Star, 14 Jund 1943, 17; accessed Indiana State Library, Clippings File.

 

Canteen profits may have been used to finance construction of a small chapel POWs built at Camp Atterbury in 1943. Most of the POWs at the camp were Catholic and wanted a place of their own to attend daily Mass. Prior to construction, prisoners held mass in their rec room and had an altar in an open field. POWs who were employed as skilled artisans before the war designed and built a new brick and stucco 11’x16’ foot chapel for worship. They also painted frescos inside on the ceiling and walls. The chapel still stands at Camp Atterbury.

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Italian POWs at Camp Atterbury built this chapel, photo accessed AtlasObscura.

Entertainment, rations as large as American enlisted men’s, and payment for labor sprouted media reports accusing the War Department of “coddling” the POWs. However, the War Department had logical reasons for providing proper treatment to the POWs in their care besides abiding by stipulations of the Geneva Convention, which laid out rules for proper POW care. Providing good food, leisure activities, and small payment for their work promoted internal camp security and helped sustain a more productive POW labor force. Leaders also hoped good treatment of POWs at home would encourage similar treatment of American prisoners abroad in enemy hands.

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Italian POWs at Camp Atterbury clearing ground for their own garden, Indianapolis Star, 14 June 1943, 17; accessed Indiana State Library, Clippings File.

Italy’s surrender to Allied forces in the fall of 1943 threatened Hoosier food producers’ new labor supply. In February of 1944, the War Food Administration advised farmers not to count on Italian POW labor during the upcoming summer. After surrender, Italy became a “cobelligerent” nation and joined the Allied forces. The Italians at Camp Atterbury and across the nation were no longer really prisoners of war, but still were not free until the war ended. Italy’s new leader, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, encouraged all former Italian POWs to help the Allied cause and join labor battalions, called Italian Service Units. Italians were still guarded by American soldiers like other POWs, but now could perform labor that directly benefited the war effort and received other benefits, like increased wages. The War Department began to transfer Italians at Camp Atterbury in January 1944 to these units. All were gone by May 4.

Soon after, German POWs arrived and replaced the Italian POWs, just in time to help out in the fields during peak production months in the summer and fall. Several smaller, temporary camps, called “branch camps” were established at Austin, Windfall, Vincennes, Eaton, and Morristown, Indiana to bring some of the Camp Atterbury POWs closer to additional work sites across the state. By October, there were nearly 9,000 POWs in the Camp Atterbury system. Living conditions at the branch camps were less accommodating than Camp Atterbury, which contained proper barracks, a recreation room and a mess hall. Since the branch camps were temporary, POWs often lived in tents close to their work sites. At the Austin camp, prisoners lived in a fenced area behind the Morgan Packing Company where many of them worked. At Windfall, a local farm across from the town’s high school served as the branch camp’s location.

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Entrance to prisoner of war branch camp in Eaton, Indiana. Photo courtesy of indianamilitary.org.

The arrival of POWs made an impact on everyday life in these Indiana towns and influenced Hoosiers’ perception of the war. Windfall only had a population of 835 in 1940. 750 German POWs and 100 American guards arrived in the town on August 24, 1944, doubling the town’s population. The POWs arrived by train late at night. Gretchen Cardwell, Windfall native, remembered nearly everyone in the area came to town to watch the POWs step off the train and march to the camp. As the train whistle sounded, she remembered

“The crowd of onlookers grew silent. It was almost as if everyone held his breath as we awaited the sight of our hated enemies. This group was quite different than we expected.”

Instead of proud, haughty, frightening enemy soldiers Gretchen recalls seeing missing buttons, tears and tatters in their uniforms and slumping shoulders. “It was hard to accept this new vision of the enemy.”

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Stokely Foods, Inc. advertisement for labor, Tipton Daily Tribune, 5 June 1944, accessed newspapers.com.

As the POWs began working in fields and factories in communities across Indiana, native Hoosiers began to identify similarities between them and the enemy. Farmers appreciated the hard work ethic many of the POWs exhibited harvesting tomatoes and detassling corn. At Windfall, POWs worked in 40 food processing plants in the area. In Morristown, 400 POWs worked at 17 canning plants. POWs peeled and packed tomatoes, canned corn and peas. At the Morgan Packing Plant in Austin, POWs stacked cans in the warehouse, cooked tomatoes before they were canned, helped run the labeling machine, and loaded canned tomatoes for shipping. When the German POWs returned to Camp Atterbury in the fall of 1944, locals at Windfall admitted they would miss the POWs, especially “the outdoor concerts of a large chorus of voices” of the prisoners singing as they worked or rested in the evening.

By the end of the war, more than half of all the prisoners of war held in the US during World War II provided essential agricultural manpower. Farmers saw POW labor as so essential, President Truman eventually gave into pressure and kept them in the states to work in farms, canneries, and food processing plants through the fall of 1945 and into 1946 before repatriation. In all, POWs saved hundreds of acres of crops from going to waste, in Indiana and the nation.