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.

Carnegie Center for Art and History

After stopping by the Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site in New Albany, Indiana, I wandered down the road, closer to the center of town. I was looking for the Carnegie Center for Art and History.

New Albany was one of those towns in the US that was the recipient of Andrew Carnegie’s largesse. As is often the case (but not always), Americans particularly in the late 19th century who made ungodly amounts of money on the backs of fellow Americans often became philanthropists (to assuage their guilt? to refurbish their reputations?). Out of the 2,509 Carnegie libraries built throughout the world, 164 were in Indiana.

The Carnegie library in New Albany served as the city library until 1969 and then as a local museum. Finally in 1998, the building morphed into its present incarnation as a center for art and history.

As I entered the building, I saw people hard at work revamping the two front galleries for upcoming exhibits. Never fear. All was not lost. The galleries may have been between exhibitions but the permanent exhibitions were still around…quite detailed and well done.

The first permanent exhibition I saw was Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage: Men & Women of the Underground Railroad. The exhibition brings together statistics and human faces with bios, newspaper articles, quotes, and stories. At the end is an interactive display where you can dive deeper into certain topics. I could have easily spent an hour digesting all of the information on the interactive display.

As much as you think you know about the slave trade, the struggle of abolition, or the Underground Railroad, this exhibition will disabuse you of that notion.

The exhibition starts with a chronology of events and laws, a very sobering reminder of how the country was founded on slavery and how profoundly the rule of law upheld this “peculiar institution”. A Dutch trader, who robbed a Spanish ship of its human cargo in 1619, was the first to bring Africans to what would become the US. These kidnapped Africans would first be indentured, but by the 1660s, laws existed that defined slavery.

Jefferson’s famous Declaration of Independence in 1776 called out King George for “exciting domestic insurrection”. I never really thought about what “exciting domestic insurrection” meant. King George, Jefferson and our political forefathers argued, was encouraging slaves and free blacks to rise up and fight on the side of the British against their American masters.

In 1787, the Constitution contained three provisions that established the legal framework for the protection of the institution of slavery. In the same year, the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery north and west of the Ohio River. And the race to our collective schizophrenia about slavery was on.

The 1793 Federal Fugitive Slave Law made it a crime to aid or harbor slaves and it allowed owners or agents to apprehend runaway slaves. In 1843, Prigg vs. Pennsylvania weakened this law. The courts ruled that law enforcement officers could not be punished if they refused to help apprehend runaway slaves. (Anyone hearing echoes of our current situation about the federal government trying to force local and state authorities to aid in the apprehending of illegal immigrants?) In 1850, Congress reacted to this judgment with the notorious Fugitive Slave Law, which overturned a 1842 law; law officials MUST help apprehend runaway slaves.

Indiana was equally schizophrenic. Although slaves existed in the Northwest Territory as people moved to the area (even though the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery), Indiana’s first constitution in 1816 prohibited slavery. The territorial governor Harrison argued for slavery (he owned some), but others in southern Indiana who were advocating for statehood were opposed to slavery. Blacks though were by no means welcome in the state. Article 13 of the 1851 state constitution prohibited blacks in Indiana.

The exhibition quotes and highlights numerous people important in the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad in southern Indiana, focusing on the New Albany area. New Albany is situated on the banks of the Ohio River, ground zero for slaves escaping the south. Even though Indiana was technically a free state, inhabitants on the banks of the Ohio River were vehemently divided on the issue of slavery. And slaves were not free or out of danger once they reached the Hoosier side of the river. The Underground Railroad snaked through Indiana, taking escaping slaves to places further north and into Canada.

Although I knew of Levi Coffin, the President of the Underground Railroad, who was situated on the Eastern border with Ohio mid-way up the state, I was not familiar with names of people involved in the slavery debate (pro or anti), or of escaped slaves, along the Ohio River. The names of people in the exhibition were unknown to me.

The peak of the Underground Railroad ran from 1850 to 1865, the end of the Civil War. The exhibition covers the Civil War era and immediate aftermath, listing the immediate post-Civil War amendments that gave African Americans rights (in theory) equal to whites: the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. (One slight error, which irked me: the exhibit explained that the 15th amendment gave blacks the right to vote. It actually gave black MEN the right to vote.)

Next to this exhibition was a related one: Remembered: The Life of Lucy Higgs Nichols. This was a fascinating look into the life of one African American woman during the Civil War. Lucy was uniquely positioned; she was a slave with medical training, invaluable skills to have during a war.

Lucy attached herself to the 23rd Indiana Volunteers Infantry Regiment, originally cooking and doing laundry for them, and eventually using her medical training. Her invaluable help in saving their lives endeared her to the troops. She was one of them, included in reunions and made a member of GAR (Grand Army of the Republic). After her death on January 15, 2015, she was buried with military honors.

Unfortunately, she was originally denied a military pension. The 23rd Indiana fought for years to get her a military pension. The ironic situation was that she needed to have paperwork proving that she had worked as a nurse, but of course, in the situation of the time, there was no paperwork. The exhibition chronicles the years of letter writing by important people attempting to secure a pension for her.

It took an act of Congress decades after the Civil War to get her a petition. HR 4741, signed by President McKinley (1897-1901!), legislated that she was to receive $12 a month (= $325 in today’s dollars).

The Carnegie Art and History Center website includes a short video about Lucy on their website: http://www.carnegiecenter.org/remembered-life-lucy-higgs-nichols/

The third permanent exhibition was a small gallery of portraits by George Morrison (1820-1893). Morrison was the portrait artist of Indiana governors and a leading portrait painter in New Albany and the environs.

The Carnegie Art and History Center is a wonderful gem nestled in New Albany, Indiana. I expected art on my visit but not the rich historical exhibitions about slavery, the Underground Railroad in the area, or the experiences of a African American nurse in an Indiana regiment.

Jeremiah Sullivan House

I realized at the Jeremiah Sullivan House that I really do not know the movers and shakers in early Indiana. I walked into the Jeremiah Sullivan House blissfully unaware of Jeremiah Sullivan (1794-1870) (and pretty much walked out still ignorant of his importance).

Sullivan was a Virginia lawyer moving west as the country expanded. On his way to Louisville, someone persuaded him that he wanted to go to Madison instead of Louisville. At the time, Madison was devoid of lawyers. Perfect for a lawyer wanting to hang out a shingle.

Sullivan settled in Madison and went on to become a state legislator, an Indiana Supreme Court Justice (1836-1846), and a Jefferson County judge (1869-1870). He also helped found Hanover College and the Indiana Historical Society.

His 1818 Federal-style home was the first brick mansion built in the Northwest Territory. It isn’t clear to me what happened to the house after his death in 1870. At one point, it was a bed and breakfast. In the 1960s, it became a museum. (Our docent talked about accompanying her mom as a child when her mom was a docent at the house.)

The house is in decent shape but given that the building changed hands, little of the furniture is original to Sullivan.

The house consists of three floors and a basement. The first floor includes a front parlor, an office behind it, a dining room to the side, and a kitchen behind it. The docent pointed out a few items that Jeremiah’s son Algernon presumably sent from New York.

The office contains a curious bookshelf with glass doors. Noting that lawyers couldn’t always rely on courthouses to have the books they needed for a case, our docent mentioned that lawyers had to take their own books. She pointed to the handles on either side of each shelf of the bookshelf. You could literally remove a shelf of books and haul the entire shelf to court with you. (Seems like there had to be an easier way to haul books to court.)

In the dining room, the docent pointed out the dishes in the cabinet—Sullivan’s dishware from the Indiana State Museum. She also noted the silver on the sideboard—a gift from Governor Hendricks. I was confused. (The only Governor Hendricks I knew was Thomas Hendricks who was governor 1873-1877. Later I learned that his uncle, William Hendricks, was the third governor of Indiana from 1822-1825. Witness my ignorance of early Indiana history!)

More confusing is the placard in the room that indicated the silver was a gift of Frances Hendricks Ketcham, a descendent of Hendricks. So…was the silver gifted long after Sullivan was dead by either Governor Thomas Hendricks or his descendent Frances Hendricks Ketcham? Or was it a gift from Governor William Hendricks, a contemporary of Sullivan’s?

The kitchen is, well, not the real kitchen. (What?) It was a serving kitchen, where food was brought before being served. Oh, kind of like a staging area or a butler pantry. Interesting. And totally believable given the small hearth.

The docent pointed out a few items. A wooden contraption by the window was a lunchbox from the 1800s. And on a water bench sat the strangest looking homemade device—three square blocks of wood that could be lifted. Any ideas, she asked us? Nope. It was three connected mouse traps. The little rodents would unsuspectingly enter the wood box and trigger the blocks of wood to fall on them, crushing them. (At this point, I am wondering why they didn’t just get some cats.)

The Sullivans used indentured servants. I winced. Indentured servants in early Indiana were just another form of slavery. (Slavery was illegal according to the 1816 Indiana Constitution. However, people got around that legal technicality by forcing slaves to sign lengthy contracts of indentured servitude. In 1821, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled against the indentured servitude of Mary Clark, which helped contribute to the end of indentured servitude in Indiana.)

No, no. The docent insisted it wasn’t slavery. The indentured servants that Sullivan used were apprentices. When they were freed, they were given two sets of clothes, money, and references. (I heard similar stories at other historical sites.)

Well, I thought, indentured servitude did exist as separate from slavery (witness early immigrants who paid for their passage to the New World with servitude limited to a certain number of years). Given some southern Indiana support for slavery and the use of forced indentured servitude as slavery under a new name, it is really hard to know if the Sullivan servants were servants or slaves.

The docent then sent us downstairs to look around. (She doesn’t do stairs.) Two rooms are open: the actual kitchen (with a larger hearth) and a storeroom full of every sort of implement you can imagine. We walked through the storeroom trying to determine what different items were.

The house consists of two other floors. The second floor has only three bedrooms: the master bedroom, one for Jeremiah’s parents, and one for the children.

The third floor is set up as an exhibit area with some information about the family. One woman on the tour discovered an oddity in the family tree. The daughter Charlotte was married to a man with the same last name. (How convenient! She didn’t have to change her name.) Was it just a coincidence or were they distantly related?

In the information about the family, I learned—though it shouldn’t have been a surprise—that the son Algernon fought for the South. (Note: I have found no evidence of this; Algernon did defend Confederates as a lawyer in New York. He was a southern sympathizer and was married to a southerner.) One of his other brothers fought for the Union.

In 1988, Historic Madison Inc., which owns the house, created replicas of the smoke house and bake house that existed out back. A little square brick-lined area in the ground near the house is where milk could be stored to keep it cool.

If you go, be sure to stand next to the stairwell and look up. You’ll get a really cool view of the three stories of stairs.

General Assembly money woes

Excuse me? The legislature of the Indiana Territory was kicked out of the county courthouse because it was delinquent on rent payments? (Incidentally, the General Assembly settled its accounts with the county in 1812.)

During a recent visit to Vincennes, I was surprised to hear that the legislature of the Indiana Territory did not have a set meeting spot. The Red House at the Vincennes State Historic Sites is touted as the capitol of the General Assembly, but that is not the full story. (Nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems.)

In 1800, the Indiana Territories came into being, created by Congress from the lands of the Northwest Territory and signed into existence by President John Adams. In 1805, the Indiana Territory “elected” its own representatives for its bicameral legislature. (Technically, President Jefferson was responsible for appointing the members of the upper house, but since he knew none of the men, he deferred to Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison  to select its members.)

The General Assembly had no set meeting place but met in different private houses, the courthouse, and taverns. (Yes, taverns.)

  • 1805: the General Assembly met in the private house of Antoine Marchal.
  • 1806: Knox County leased Marchal’s house for use as a courthouse. The General Assembly subleased the courthouse.
  • 1807: the General Assembly subleased the courthouse.
  • 1808: the General Assembly subleased the courthouse.
  • 1809: no meeting of the General Assembly due to confusion caused by the separation of Illinois Territory
  • 1810: the General Assembly subleased the courthouse.
  • 1811: the General Assembly met in Marchal’s house and then in a red house (the Red House of present fame).
  • 1812: no meeting of the General Assembly. (The War of 1812 was in full swing.)
  • 1813: the General Assembly met at Mark Barnett’s tavern.

Out of all these buildings, the only one that remains standing is the Red House as part of the Vincennes State Historic Sites.

For years, the General Assembly lobbied to move the capital but were thwarted by the governor. After the War of 1812, William Henry Harrison did not return to Indiana to continue as the territorial governor. With him out of the way, any impediment to the legislature moving the territorial capital to Corydon was gone. In 1813, the General Assembly met for the last time in Vincennes.

For more details about the early capital of Vincennes and the meeting places of the General Assembly, check out CAPITAL OF INDIANA TERRITORY BY RICHARD DAY. (Incidentally, Richard Day is an outstanding docent at the Vincennes State Historic Sites and was a torchbearer for the Indiana bicentennial.) Or visit the Vincennes State Historic Sites and hear about it directly from Richard Day.

First Indiana teachers

The first teachers in Indiana appear in Vincennes, the oldest community in the southwest corner of the state on the Wabash River. I had never thought about teachers in Indiana before Indiana was a state (1816) or even a territory (1800). I just imposed the Little House on the Prairie narrative on the Indiana Territory: young, unmarried women were the schoolteachers. But who were the teachers before there were young, unmarried frontier women?

Priests. Priests and ministers had the training and knowledge to be educators.

Vincennes was a French trading post established in 1732. Jesuit priests began arriving not long afterward and a church was established by 1749. In 1779 George Rogers Clark took Vincennes from the British, who retreated to Fort Detroit.

Through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Congress of the Confederation (which preceded the Congress of the United States) established the Northwest Territory, which included present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the eastern part of Minnesota. The west was opening up for white settlers.

The Northwest Ordinance stressed the importance of education. Article 3: “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

In 1792, Fr. Benedict Joseph Flaget, at the St. Francis Xavier parish in Vincennes, set up a school in Vincennes. He was succeeded at the parish by Fr. John Francis Rivet.

In 1800 in anticipation of the modern-day Ohio portion of the Northwest Territory becoming a state, the Indiana Territory was formed. Vincennes became its capital and William Henry Harrison its governor. In 1801, Harrison reached out to Fr. Rivet, asking him to set up a public school, the Jefferson Academy.

Flaget is considered the first parochial school teacher of Indiana and Rivet the first public school teacher in Indiana. Thus, education—with an emphasis on Latin and French—in what would become Indiana first developed thanks to French Catholic priests—a far cry from the Little House on the Prairie narrative of female schoolmarms.