Constitution Elm

I knew it wouldn’t be much to look at but I had to see it: the famous elm tree under which 43 territorial delegates of the Indiana Territory met in June 1816 to draft the first Indiana state constitution.

The tree—or what remains of it—sits on a nondescript residential street. It is literally in someone’s front yard near the street.

The Constitution Elm lived until 1925, felled not by an axe but by the dreaded elm disease. In its glory, it was 50 feet high, with a trunk the diameter of five feet and a spread of 132 feet—quite the shade tree under hot June days.

These days only part of the trunk remains, a testament to the tree it once was. In 1937, a protective sandstone structure was erected over it.

Fond farewell, Constitution Elm, I thought as I wandered away. A sad situation, but then I remembered the three young elm trees planted a few years earlier around the tomb of a signer of the constitution in Crown Hill Cemetery. The Constitution Elm lives on in these young trees around the gravesite of Robert Hanna (1786-1858).

Corydon Capitol State Historic Site: Capitol Building

The third building on our tour of the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site was the capitol building itself. This building is a short stroll from the Governor’s Headquarters and the Porter Law Office.

In 1813, the capital of the Indiana Territory moved from Vincennes to Corydon. From 1814 to 1816, stonemason Dennis Pennington, a member of the territorial legislature and later a state senator, built the capitol building in Corydon. The building was supposed to be a temporary state house—the capital was set to move to Indianapolis in ten years—and then a permanent county courthouse (a role it filled until 1927!).

The forty-foot square two-story building consists of a single room downstairs (for the House of Representatives) and two rooms upstairs (one for the Senate and the other for the Supreme Court). Half of the floor on the lower level is comprised of river stones. The walls are double walls of limestone, two and half feet thick with sand in between for insulation. The state tree of poplar was used on the floor and the dual fireplaces. (Poplar, it turns out, is insect resistant.) Having withstood the ages, the building was clearly worth the $3,000 for its initial construction.

The building is pretty darn spartan. A few informational placards exist upstairs, outside of the Senate and Supreme Court chambers. The placards relate some interesting tidbits about census numbers for slaves in the state (190…technically slavery was illegal according to the 1816 constitution) and the State vs. Lasselle case. (In this 1820 case, the court ruled that slavery was illegal in Indiana and freed Polly, who was enslaved by Lasselle.)

Information in the Senate chamber also solved the mystery of Jennings’ resignation as the first governor of Indiana. Jennings’ desire to run for a US Representative seat when he was the Indiana governor precipitated a scandal…and led to the state decision that one cannot be in federal and state office at the same time.

Corydon Capitol State Historic Site: Governor’s Headquarters

I had once buzzed through Corydon, stopping briefly (and I do mean briefly) at the Capitol Building. This time I was going to do it right with a full tour of the historic sites in Corydon.

In 1813, the capital of the Indiana Territory moved from Vincennes to Corydon. From June 10 to June 29, 1816, Corydon hosted Indiana’s first constitutional convention. Following the convention, Corydon became the state capital and remained the capital until 1825, when the seat of state government moved to Indianapolis, a more central spot in the state (as opposed to the location of Corydon on the Ohio River at the far southern end of the state). (Those at the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site like to say that they are maintaining the buildings for when the capital moves back to Corydon.)

The Indiana State Museum oversees the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site, which is a collection of historic buildings: the Governor’s Headquarters, the Porter Law Office next door, and the Capitol Building on the square.

The tour started at the Governor’s Headquarters, a two-story brick building. Davis Floyd, a state legislator, built the house in 1817, but lost it in the Panic of 1819. At that time, the state government bought it. In 1841, Judge William A. Porter acquired the house, which remained in his family until 1979, after which it reverted back to the state.

(Interesting side note about Floyd: in 1805, while he was a territorial legislator—long before building what became the Porter Law Office—he fell into an unsavory situation with Vice President Aaron Burr. In 1807, he was convicted of aiding Burr in what was known as the Burr Conspiracy—an attempt to take territory in the West from the US government. In the end, Floyd was not convicted of treason.)

Why is it called the Governor’s Headquarters? From 1817-1825, this brick building was the home and office of William Hendricks, Indiana’s second elected governor (1822-1825). (Hendricks was actually the third Indiana governor. Jonathan Jennings, the first governor resigned to take office in the US House of Representatives. Ratliff Boon, his lt. governor, replaced him as the second governor.)

Hendricks had quite a role in early Indiana politics. He served in the territorial legislature (1813-1816), as secretary (not delegate) to the Indiana constitutional convention (1816), as a US representative (1816-1822), and after being Indiana governor, as a US senator (1825-1837). (He was also the uncle to Thomas A. Hendricks who later served among other numerous offices as Indiana governor and Vice President to President Cleveland. Now I am curious about what happened to the Hendricks political dynasty, which seems to have died out with Thomas.)

William Hendricks ran unopposed for governor and, um, garnered 100% of the votes (a whopping 18,340). Lucky Hendricks dealt with the remaining debt and deficit caused by the Panic of 1819 by selling public land to raise money. (I felt a bit uneasy by this. Selling public land = land recently taken from the native Americans who were forcibly removed from Indiana.)

Hendricks was also responsible for roadways being built (hmmm…what type, I wonder? Corduroy or plank?). Under him, all residents were required to spend time building roads. (Oooh. Corvée labor. That must have been very popular. Forcing people to work on socialist projects surely wouldn’t fly today.)

Hendricks was also the governor who approved moving the capital to Indianapolis, a move that relegated Corydon to being a trade town on the Ohio River.

His wife pushed for free education, which led to the first state-funded system in the nation. (Sad that Indiana hasn’t led the nation in education in more recent times!) Each township was granted land to build a public school. The state seminary, which became Indiana University, was established in 1816.

The tour consisted of the downstairs only. The house itself is quite a large structure with two front doors, a “normal” front door with foyer and then a second door that opens directly to the governor’s office (which was originally the parlor). (The upstairs, I was told, consists of two bedrooms the same size as the two front rooms on the first floor.)

A kitchen exists directly behind the office/parlor. The kitchen was a later addition to the house, with a brick wall acting as a fire barrier between it and the house proper. (Kitchens were often separate from early houses due in part to being fire hazards.) The brick floors and limestone walls made the kitchen feel instantly cooler as I stepped inside. The large hearth sported a cooking crane, a large metal swinging arm that would allow cooks easy access to pots hanging over the fire.

A quasi-courtyard framed on one side by the kitchen and another side by a high retaining wall includes an herb garden. The garden and retaining wall was built in 1840s by Porter when he acquired the property. The garden is built so that water from rains would drain down to the center of the courtyard. Before this improvement, the house would flood, water pouring down the hill and into the house. Residents would clear the flood water by literally opening the back door and sweeping the water through the house out the front door (!).

The docent pointed out some structures on the hill above the retaining wall: a three-seater outhouse on one side and a chicken coop on the other. (I’m not sure I could picture using a three-seater outhouse sans any privacy barriers. Even trough squat toilets I used in rural China had small dividing walls as a nod to semi-privacy.) The nearby 1848 carriage house serves as the office of the Indiana State Museum.

Interesting given the state’s proximity to the south and influx of southern folks, Hendricks used servants in his headquarters, not slaves (which were technically illegal in the Indiana Territory and state, despite territorial governor Harrison’s attempt to allow slavery). Hendricks apparently was a strong anti-Jacksonian, a quality I smiled approvingly of, particularly in today’s climate.

Jefferson County Historical Society History Center

Madison, Indiana was doubly blessed with the Ohio River and the nascent railroad. Traffic still flows on the Ohio River (though probably not to the extent of Madison’s heydays.) The railroad that ran through Madison is long gone—its tracks either turned into a walking trail or left to decay—but the heritage remains.

As the county seat, Madison is home to a county museum that showcases its history and all the industries that rose and fell here. A modern building housing the main collection sits behind an octagonal historic building, which was the old train depot.

The museum’s collection starts with the beginning of Native American settlement in the area and meanders chronologically through industry, notable events, and important people.

The area that became Indiana was first part of the Northwest Territory, which was formed by an act of Congress in 1787. In 1800, part of the Northwest Territory became the Indiana Territory. In 1805, the indigenous people of the area, mostly Shawnee, ceded their right to the land. And in 1816, the state of Indiana was born.

As I wandered around the center, I learned about the important technologies, stores, and industries in 19th and 20th century Madison and environs: horse and buggies, drug stores, grocery stores, mills, and iron foundries. A small corner of the museum is dedicated to William McKendree Snyder (1849-1930), the local artist that a docent at the Dr. William Hutchings’ Office and Museum was shocked to learn that I didn’t know. Other exhibits cover schools, including Hanover College, farms, shipyards, bridges, and streetcars (which ended in Madison in 1929). A common theme through most of the exhibits is transportation or transportation infrastructure.

A rather large exhibit is devoted to the Jefferson Proving Grounds, an inhabited area that the government commandeered. The area was cleared of people and from 1941 to 1995 was dedicated solely to the testing of weapons. How sad, I thought, that this area could never be returned to human habitation. The danger of chemicals and unexploded munitions is too great, though flora and fauna has reclaimed the area.

Other exhibits walk visitors through various early technologies. One shows the progression of materials used for roads, from corduroy (tree trunks) to plank to gravel and macadam (crushed stones and tar). (I cannot begin to imagine traveling on a road made of tree trunks.)

Another extensive exhibit illustrates different 19th century antecedents to modern photography: carte de visite (calling cards with a photo), daguerro-type photographs (1839-late 1850s), ambro-type photographs (1850s-1860), and tin-type photographs (1860s-1900). (I don’t believe I have ever seen the different types together in a single collection before.)

To top it off are stereoscopes (1840s-1930s), devices that show 3D presentation of images. (I seemed to encounter them in one historical home after another that I visited this year.) The stereoscope, I learned, debuted in 1851 at the Great Exhibition (aka the Crystal Palace Exhibition) in London, where Queen Victoria first encountered it.

Another non-transportation related exhibit features a local boy/national hero: Sam Woodfill. He fought in three wars (Philippine-American War, WWI, WWII), and received the Medal of Honor for his bravery in WWI. Ultimately, he just wanted to be left alone by the publicity circus.

After perusing the History Center, I meandered across the lawn to the small octagonal structure—the 1895 train depot. The train in Madison originally ran parallel to the Ohio River but jogged up a block to the depot before heading back down to run parallel to the river and then quickly taking a 90 degree turn north up the steep Madison incline.

Railroads in Madison actually began in the 1830s (but apparently a depot for passengers was not needed until 1895?). James Lanier (of the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site) made some of his fortune investing in the Madison-Indianapolis line. After regular passenger service ended in 1931, the depot endured various metamorphoses.

In 1934, the depot was used as a Community Center. During the 1937 flood, the building was almost entirely underwater. I glanced down the street at the Lanier Mansion, which is at about the same latitude as the depot. The docent at the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site mentioned that during the 1937 flood, only the basement flooded. Hmmm. Seems strange that the depot would completely flood but the Lanier Mansion wouldn’t.

In 1961, the Wilson brothers bought the depot and used it as an electrical supplies warehouse (!). In 1986, the Historical Society gained possession of it and set about restoring it back to its inaugural year of 1895. In 1995, after nine years of work, restoration was complete.

The depot is neat just for its octagonal shape, but it is also a mini-museum. Exhibit cases show artifacts from the time period such as serving plates used on the train (back when trains had dining cars). One room is staged as a train station/telegraph office. And there are lots of pictures and explanations about train-related and Madison train-related details.

An exhibit about time explains the role of the railroads in creating a standard time in the US. How can you schedule train arrivals and departures if the areas that the train travels through do not agree on a common time? In 1883, the railroad tried to rectify that by implementing time zones. On November 18, 1883—The Day of Two Noons—railroad stations reset their clocks to a standard time based on five time zones: Intercolonial, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. In 1918, the US government caught up with the railroads with the Standard Time Act that, as the name implies, standardized time across the country.

Another key exhibit covers the Madison incline. The railroad tracks head north up a 5.89 percent grade incline, the steepest in the country. Originally horses (!) pulled trains up the incline. Around 1848, cogwheel trains with special engines relieved the horses of this task. In 1868, cogwheel trains were replaced with the Reuben Wells, a heavy locomotive that was powerful enough to haul trains up the incline.

The Reuben Wells, named for its maker, was only used on the incline. It was specially designed with a boiler that tilted forward so that the water level in the boiler remained flat on the incline. The Reuben Wells ran from 1868 to 1905 (or 1898 by other accounts), was retired, stored in Pennsylvania rail yards, and taken out for special events. In 1976, the Reuben Wells received a permanent home in the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. (Unfortunately, you cannot tour the inside of the locomotive to see the tilted boiler.)

The last train on the incline ran in 1992. For the most part, the train tracks running parallel to the river are gone. In 2014, some of the tracks were converted into walking trails. The railroad, like many throughout Indiana, is just a memory now. The Jefferson County Historical Society History Center offers as unique glimpse into its past.

TV movie review: Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana–Birth of a State

Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana is a PBS documentary series based on the book of the same name by Indiana historian James H. Madison. The documentary series is split into four parts: Birth of a State, Split Rails to Steel Rails, The 20th Century, and The Next Indiana.

Birth of a State covers the period of time from when Indiana lobbied for statehood to just before the Civil War. The documentary is narrated by Madison and includes interviews with various people, like the President of the Levi Coffin House Association (Janice McGuire, who was my docent when I visited the historical site—by the way, she is outstanding!), the Director of Historic New Harmony (Connie Weinzapfel), and a retired Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court (Randall J. Shepherd).

Indiana was originally part of the Indiana Territory, which included Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and eastern Minnesota. The capital of the territory was Vincennes. (You can visit many historic sites there.) The Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison was pro-large landholdings and pro-slavery—positions that didn’t sit well with others in southern Indiana.

In 1813, a vote moved the capital east to Corydon on the Ohio River (and away from Harrison’s nexus of power, I’d argue). In 1816, 43 delegates met in the new courthouse in Corydon for a Congressional Convention. In December 1816, Congress recognized Indiana as a state. (Side note: You can visit the grave of Robert Hanna, one of the delegates and signers of the state constitution, in Crown Hill Cemetery.)

At the time, Indiana was home to numerous Indian tribes: Potawatomi, Wea, Miami, Delaware, Kaskaskia, Shawnee, Piankashaw, Huron, Wyandot, Ottawa, Seneca, Kickapoo. Eventually the Indians were either removed from the land or killed. Probably the most famous violent confrontation is the Battle of Tippecanoe of 1811, when Harrison decimated the Indians led by Tecumseh and the Prophet.

But also instructive is the 1824 Fall Creek Massacre of nine Indians that shockingly led to the trial of the white perpetrators and the execution of three of them. Unfortunately, this trial and conviction of white violence on non-whites didn’t set a legal precedent.

The documentary weaves a history through key places, people, and events throughout Indiana, mostly focused on southern Indiana as that was the first part of the state to be settled. Originally the inhabitants were Native Americans and French trappers and fur traders. Whites and blacks moved into Indiana from Kentucky and North Carolina—both slave states. However, the migrants from North Carolina were Quakers from Guilford County who left North Carolina due to slavery. The Underground Railroad thrived in Indiana.

The documentary discusses important early settlements like Vincennes (as the territorial capital) or Madison (as an international commerce hotspot on the Ohio River) or New Harmony (as the location of utopian societies: first German millennialism and then utopian socialism) or black settlements (Beech Settlement, Walnut Ridge, Corydon).

People, some well-known, some not, are discussed as being influential to Indiana history. William Conner, whose homestead exists as an historical park, went native, marrying a Native American woman. Later, he helped negotiate deals with the Native Americans that led to their removal (along with his wife and child) to Oklahoma. He then married a white woman and became a respectable businessman, clearly riding the wave of commerce moving from trapping and trade with the Native Americans to commerce with white settlers and landownership.

Lincoln, regularly touted as hailing from Illinois, lived his formative years (ages 6 to 21) in southern Indiana. Sophia Ramsdell Fuller left a detailed diary of her pioneer life in Vigo County. Mary Bateman Clark had a profound effect on the lives of slaves and former slaves in Indiana, setting a legal precedent about indentured servitude.

The Ohio River was key to the early settlement of southern Indiana—rivers being an important mode of transport for people and goods. The rivers allowed commerce and prosperity (for some). Canals, like the Wabash and Erie, were created for the same economic and commercial purpose. The financial woes brought on by the canal led to a revised constitution.

The original constitution borrowed language from the Ohio and Kentucky constitutions. The Indiana version became a model for later state constitutions. The 1816 constitution stressed the importance of education, legally proclaimed Indiana as a free state (though not always in practice), and gave all white men the vote regardless if they were landowners.

The constitution revised in 1851 prohibited debt (being debt-free even if that means not investing in the future seems to be a long-standing source of pride in Indiana), granted free education, and prohibited African-Americans from moving into the state (!). African-Americans already living in Indiana were required to register—a horrible idea but a fascinating source of historical information about African-Americans living in the state.

The documentary continues with a second part that looks at Indiana from the Civil War to World War I.