Immediately next to the central campus of the Vincennes State Historic Sites lies the historic home of William Henry Harrison, the governor of the Indiana Territory from 1800 to 1812. The house is incredibly well-preserved, especially considering what it has been through.
The house was built between 1802 and 1804, just a few years into Harrison’s assignment as territorial governor and just a couple of decades after George Rogers Clark captured Vincennes (1779). In 1812 Harrison left Grouseland and Indiana to fight in the War of 1812.
The 4,000 square feet of Grouseland became a hotel during the days of railroad construction. Then it was used as a barn. (Yes, a barn.) In 1909 the Daughters of the Revolution saved Grouseland from being torn down and began renovations. In 1960 Grouseland was designated a National Historic Landmark.
These days Grouseland is a museum, open for tours. A backroom by the kitchen serves as the gift shop. Adjacent rooms serve as a museum of sorts with exhibits of artifacts and information about Harrison’s life. Docents start the tours in these adjacent rooms and take you through the entire house, upstairs and downstairs, pointing out important pieces of furniture, relating stories, and answering questions.
Grouseland is built of brick and was constructed as a fortress to withstand attacks by Native Americans. (A real issue…the last big skirmish was the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 near Lafayette where Harrison slaughtered Native Americans.)
The front door is separated into panels, which form a cross, with a half window above it, which symbolizes the rising sun and Christ’s resurrection. The door signals to passers-by that Christians dwell within. The staircase in the foyer mirrors one at Mt. Vernon. The foyer contains a painting of Mrs. Harrison—alas, a replica. The original lives in the White House. (When the painting came up in an auction, Barbara Bush outbid the foundation.)
The basement houses a wine cellar (though Harrison didn’t drink.) The warming kitchen is down in the basement. Other exhibits with artifacts—such as looms—fill the rest of the basement.
As territorial governor, Harrison’s main duty was acquiring land for Western expansion. Land acquisition consisted of making treaties with the Native Americans. He elicited the help of former fur traders (such as Michel Brouillet) to interpret during the negotiations and later spy during conflicts with the Native Americas. Harrison also administered the district of Louisiana from the Louisiana Purchase during 1804 and 1805. Unsurprisingly, land speculation was rampant. Harrison paid for Grouseland ($20,000) from land sales he made. (No corruption there!)
Harrison hosted visitors who stayed for extended periods in what is referred to as “the dependency” section of the house. This section was a back addition to the house, made of lathe and plaster, much different from the grander front of the house. (Interestingly, damage still exists in the dependency from the 1811 earthquake.)
Who did Harrison entertain? Aaron Burr, Zachary Taylor, Lewis and Clark. Zachary Taylor was stationed at Fort Knox in Vincennes in 1811 during his time as a captain in the army. Lewis and Clark stopped by in 1806 on their way back to Washington DC after their famous expedition. (They explored the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and the Northwest Territory from 1803 to 1806.)
The dependency was also where the servants worked (not lived). Forty to fifty servants worked at Grouseland. If you are thinking that “servants” is code for “slaves”, I suspect you are probably correct. I questioned this. The docent clearly wanted to portray Harrison in a good light. When Harrison was young, I was told, his sister tried to give him a slave, which he refused.
However, Harrison was actually a slave owner (and possibly fathered children with a slave). In 1803 he lobbied Congress to alter the Northwest Ordinance to allow slavery in the Northwest Territory. (Congress decided to change the Ordinance to allow the territories to decide for themselves whether to admit slaves or not.)
Harrison also succeeded in persuading the territorial legislature to allow indentured servitude and tried to make slavery legal in the Indiana Territory. (He ultimately failed in getting slavery legalized.) By then an abolitionist movement was coalescing, which came to power in the 1809 legislature. The legislature was able to thwart Harrison’s plans to make the Indiana Territory more attractive to settlers and more economically viable by allowing slavery. (It was all about money, not morals, for Harrison.)
After Harrison’s time as territorial governor and then as an officer in the War of 1812, he returned to Ohio. In 1836 he ran for President (against Van Buren) and lost. In 1840 he again ran for President (against Van Buren) and won.
His 1840 campaign is seen as the first modern campaign, when a candidate actually sought the vote and campaigned. He had buttons, coins, and of course a slogan touting his military past: Tippecanoe (as a reference to the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811) and Tyler too (his running mate).
He was depicted as a man of the frontier who had lived in a log cabin. (Grouseland was anything but a log cabin!) He was belittled and called an “imbecile and dotard”. However, he won. To prove his vigor (in his late 60s), he attended his inauguration without a hat or coat…and died 32 days later from pneumonia.
Regardless of Harrison’s politics, a tour of Grouseland is a great way to spend a couple of hours learning about Indiana history before Indiana became a state in 1816. The building is beautiful and the docents extremely knowledgeable. And it is literally a stone’s throw from other historical sites in Vincennes.