I strode up to the log cabin visitor center about the same time that a docent dressed in period clothes unlocked the door and removed the out for lunch sign. What luck!
In addition to the Indiana State Museum in downtown Indianapolis, the museum runs about a dozen historic sites throughout the state. Most buildings administered by the museum in Vincennes—the log cabin visitors center, the Red House, the Jefferson Academy, a replica of the Elihu Stout Print Shop, and Maurice Thompson’s house—are gathered at a single site bordered on the north by Vincennes University. (Other Vincennes State Historic Sites are scattered throughout Vincennes: the Old French House and Indian Museum, the Old State Bank, Fort Knox II, and Sugar Loaf Mounds.)
The log cabin visitors center contains several artifacts from the time period and photos of the buildings through the years. Tours start from here with docents discussing the history of the buildings, Vincennes, and Indiana politics as you wander through the buildings themselves.
The Red House was the unofficial Indiana Territorial Capitol. Sort of. The Red House started out in 1805 as a tailor’s shop and quickly morphed into a tavern. From 1811 (after the Battle of Tippecanoe) to 1813 (when the territorial government moved to Corydon), the Red House was the meeting place of the legislature of the Indiana Territory. Over subsequent years, the Red House has been a boarding house, a Temple of Democracy, and now a historic site.
Docents take you through the building, which is furnished with desks and items from the time period. The seven members of the lower house met downstairs. The five members of the upper house met upstairs. Copies of laws used to circulate through the territory grace the clerk’s desk of the upper house. (Interesting note: one of the laws was signed by G. W. Johnston, a member of the General Assembly and owner of Mary Bateman Clark.)
A one-room cabin housed the Jefferson Academy, the first school of higher learning in Indiana. Territorial Governor Harrison founded the Academy in 1801, whose teachers were the learned people of the area, Catholic priests. Just a few years later, in 1806, the Academy became Vincennes University.
The Jefferson Academy taught Latin, French, and geometry—the first the lingua franca of the religion of the settlers, the second the lingua franca of the settlers, and the third the lingua franca of logical thinking and surveying. A frictional electrical machine, which was popular in studying the natural sciences, sits on a table and appears in the painting of Jefferson in the room.
Side note: Why an emphasis on surveying? Surveying was hugely important during the first several decades of the Indiana Territories, when inhabitants and politicians were obsessed with land acquisition (aka killing and moving Native Americans off of the land) and ownership. Interesting to note the fur traders who moved with the times from the acquisition and selling of furs to the acquisition and selling of land. Think of Michel Brouillet of the Old French House fame or John Conner of Conner Prairie fame.
The next building on the historic site campus is a replica of Elihu Stout’s Printing Shop. Elihu Stout arrived in Vincennes from Kentucky and was commissioned by Territorial Governor Harrison to print the laws of the Indiana territory. (He also printed the laws for the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, which were temporarily under the control of the Indiana Territory.)
The replica printing shop holds an authentic printing press from the early 1800s. Stout not only printed the laws that were distributed in the territory, but started the first newspaper, the Indiana Gazette, which ran for 41 years. Strangely, a first edition of the paper has never been found, but a copy of the second edition exists in the shop. The four-page newspaper was full of laws, ads, news from other papers, poetry, jokes, and literature.
The last building, the home of Maurice Thompson from Fairfield, was not technically open as a part of the museum, but my docent humored me. After a brief re-enactment of Thompson’s most famous novel, Alice of Old Vincennes, on the steps of the house—and mention that the local high school strikes fear in its opponents as the fighting Alices (yes, really), the docent led me into the one-room building to discuss Thompson and the construction of his house.
With the close of the door to Thompson’s house, my tour came to an end. I left much richer in knowledge about Vincennes, early Indiana, and the story behind a school’s mascot. The buildings are but buildings, interesting to see but ultimately is it the docent who makes the places come to life. Stop by the Vincennes State Historic Sites, take a tour, and interact with the docents. I doubt you will be disappointed or walk away without discovering something new.