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.

Wabash and Erie Canal

Canals in Indiana? Hmmm….Another one of those early over engineering mistakes made to the Indiana landscape (like straightening the Kankakee River, which destroyed the Grand Kankakee Marsh area)? Maybe.

When I hear Erie Canal, I think of New York and that song from my childhood (“I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal…”). So what’s a canal named Wabash and Erie Canal doing in Indiana?

Back in the early 1800s, it seemed like a good idea to have canals in Indiana linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. Construction started in Fort Wayne in 1832 and spread out in both directions: north to Toledo, OH and south to Evansville, IN. The portion of the canal to Toledo was finished in 1843 and to Evansville in 1854—creating a 468-mile canal.

In Indiana alone, the Wabash and Erie Canal had 73 locks and 18 aqueducts. However, the use of the canal was ultimately short-lived. Railroads came to Indiana in the late 1830s. Decades of work on the canal quickly came to naught.

Finished in 1843, determined to not be economically viable ten years later, canal traffic ceased operation in 1874. All that work and money produced canals that were mosquito-prone and in constant need of dredging due to collapsing banks. Maybe not the best engineering endeavor. (I’m sensing a pattern here, re: damage done to the Kankakee River).

Ultimately, the financing of the canal led to the state of Indiana declaring bankruptcy. In 1851, the Indiana state constitution was changed to restrict the accumulation of debt—and, I muse, contributed to the modern-day dislike of Hoosiers to invest in infrastructure and its citizens if it means not staying in the black.

I recently visited the bit of the canal constructed in Delphi, IN, which was completed in 1840. Historically an eyesore for this small Indiana town, the canal had been cleaned up in recent decades. In 1986, a park and interpretive center were opened to celebrate the canal. Historic buildings from the 1800s have been gathered into a pioneer village of sorts. Only one of the buildings is open for a tour—the Reed Case house.

Reed Case managed the creation of the canal in Delphi. He was a businessman who dabbled in many different areas. A quick tour of his house led by a docent left me with two takeaways.

The man was a cheapskate—or as the docent preferred to see it, sensible and frugal with his money. His house was constructed to look as though it used expensive materials but didn’t. The marble-look alike foyer was meant to impress but was, um, fake. The wood and materials used to build the house were cheap but finished to look as though they were more expensive materials.

I was also struck by paintings by George Winter hanging in the house. None of the paintings impressed me as being high quality and if I hadn’t been told that they were by George Winter, I would never have known. (George Winter was an important painter who made the Wabash area his home. He is included in a special exhibit of 19 influential Hoosier artists at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.)

The park also includes an interpretive center that is very informative and well done. The center walks you through the history of Indiana and the canal, explaining the whys and the hows and showing how life would have been in the camps of workers digging the canal.

The third draw to the park is a ride on a small replica of a canal boat. The boat is run by volunteers. The volunteers offer the riders tidbits of information as they float down one small section of the canal.

Trails also exist along the canal that go by markers of important sites such as where the worker’s camp was or where the lock keeper’s house stood. Most of the canal along this trail is more of a ditch than a canal, long filled in by sediment and downed trees and fallen branches.

The park is good to visit for learning about a slice of Indiana history. Despite what the signs say at the ticket booth, $10 (not $12) will get you a ticket to all three attractions: the Reed Case house, the interpretive center, a canal boat ride. Ultimately, I was left with the feeling that the canal was yet another Hoosier folly.