Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

Our State Capitol

(from the Feb. 24, 1998, Lowell Tribune, page 18)

This month the writer has strayed away from Lake County to tell the story about our State Capitol at Indianapolis as well as the first seat of the state government at Corydon.

By a Federal Ordinance of 1787, the land that was to become our state became a part of the Northwest Territory, when the Territorial Capitol was at Vincennnes. In 1800 the area was included in the Indiana Territory, which also took in the present states of Illinois and Michigan.

When over 60,000 people settled within the boundaries of the state, the area was taken into the Union as the State of Indiana in 1816. Corydon, a small town near the Kentucky border, was chosen as the capitol of the new state. It had been the capitol of the Indiana Territory from 1813 to 1816 and was the site of the only Civil War battle fought in Indiana.

The state legislature acted to find a more suitable and central place for a new capitol in January 1820, and a site was selected by May 1820, with a final report made to the General Assembly in November of the same year.

By Jan. 6, 1821, three commissioners were appointed to plat the town (one square mile) and to authorize land sales. Proposals had been sent to the federal government to route the new east-west National Road through the site of the new capitol (now U.S. 40), and hopes were high for a huge sale.

At the time, the new town was named after the state, with "polis," meaning "city" in Greek, added to the end.

The three commissioners appointed were James W. Jones, Samuel P. Booker and Christopher Harrison. In April 1821, when the other two commissioners failed to appear for a planned meeting, Christopher Harrison, who was a storekeeper at Salem, took over and hired Elias Fordham and Alexander Ralston to survey and plat the site that was to become the second state seat.

Ralston seemed to be well qualified for the job, for he had assisted Major L'Enfant with the survey of Washington, D.C., and some elements of the Washington plat were used at Indianapolis. He later became the surveyor of Marion County.

Handbills were printed as early as June as plans were being finalized for the big land sale. Christopher Harrison was rooming at the log home of Matthias Nowland, which was among a few cabins scattered around the area which is now Washington Street. General John Carr was appointed sales agent.

On Oct. 8, 1821, the area was overflowing with a large crowd on a cold and windy day, the four taverns were completely filled, many homes had boarders, and others camped out in tents nearby, all waiting for the beginning of the sale.

Major Thomas Carter, auctioneer, assisted by his clerk, James M. Ray, soon began the sale, with the first purchase made by Jesse McKay, who paid just over $152 for lot 12 in square 557, a corner lot at Delaware and Washington Streets, a block east of the circle.

In all, 314 lots were sold for a total of $35,596, while land continued to be sold in those original plats up until 1871. The total amount paid for the entire square mile was less than $125,000! Money taken in for the sale was specified to be used for the erection of public buildings, including a Clerk's Office, Treasurer's Office, Governor's Mansion, and the first state prison, at Jeffersonville.

Among the crowd which gathered at bricklayer Nowland's cabin were many of the residents of the early community of Fall Creek, with varied occupations: John McCormick, tavern keeper; Fabius Finch, lawyer; Robert Harding, lawyer; Jeremiah Johnson, farmer; Henry Davis, furniture maker; Andrew Byrne, tailor; Isaac Wilson, miller; Kenneth Scudder, druggist; Tom Anderson, wagon maker; Conrad Brussel, baker; James Hall, carpenter; Michael Ingals, teamster; Milo Davis, plasterer; James Kittleman, shoemaker and Dr. Isaac Cue, M.D.

A few years before the actual transfer of the state government took place, on a pretty day in October 1824, the move began. State Treasurer Samuel Merrill was in charge of the move from Corydon to the new buildings at Indianapolis.

The small wagon train started out with a large covered wagon loaded down with state documents and records and with a strong box containing $25,000. The big prairie schooner, driven by a Mr. Seibert, was drawn by five powerful horses, and was followed by another smaller wagon drawn by two horses, containing the family of John Douglass, the state printer, with a cow tied behind and also a fine saddle horse.

The road between the two capitols was so bad that the men had to chop their way around big mud holes, with the printer's wagon mired in mud so deep that it took all available help to get it out.

They traveled about 150 miles on that moving expedition, which took them 10 days through rough and hilly country. The final cost of the move was noted to be about $65.00, which included the hiring of two teamsters.

The Capitol at Indianapolis and the County of Marion were both planned and occupied many years before land in the northern part of Indiana was purchased from Native Americans in 1832.

Information was gathered from the manuscript Two of Indiana's Capitols by Col. Samuel Merrill, son of Sec. of State Merrill; from Greater Indianapolis by Dunn; Laws of Indiana by Nowland; and from Directory of American Congress, U.S. government.

Last updated on March 4, 2002.

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