In a past column, I featured the buildings in Corydon that Indiana utilized while it was both the territorial and state capital. Most of the early settlement of Indiana had been in the southern one-third of Hoosierland. After the War of 1812, settlers had started moving north into former Indian lands that the Native Americans had been forced to vacate, often at the point of a bayonet.
In January of 1820 the legislature at Corydon picked 10 commissioners to look north for a location to build a new capital and it would need to be as near to the center of the state as possible. The commissioners decided on a location near a stream known as Fall Creek. It was decided to name this new capital Indianapolis, Indiana plus polis which is German for city. There were only two families living near the area where Fall Creek and the west fork of the White River had their confluence, so it was still really wild country.
These two families were those of George Pogue and John McCormick, who had only recently settled in the area. The two men had built their cabins a mile apart, Pogue’s on high ground and McCormick’s near the White River. To be truthful it was not really a good location to build a new city. Most of the land along the river and creek was swampy and the uplands were laced with ravines. In addition, there was a lot of stagnant water in sloughs along the river and was a perfect place for mosquitos to breed.
By the summer of 1821, when more people had moved into the region, nearly all of them came down with malaria, not a good way to start a new state capital. Not all the state legislature believed Indianapolis was a proper name for this new settlement. Some believed Tecumseh, the great Shawnee war chief, was a better choice for the name of our capital. He was one of the most famous Native Americans in the history of the U.S. and had much to do with our early relationship between the white and red races. It had only been a few years since he had been killed in the Battle of the Thames. Most people at the time still were prejudiced about someone of a different color, so Tecumseh was not chosen.
In addition, the site of the new capital was far from most other settlements, and while it was on a navigable river, in the summer the water in the White River became so low that only flatboats and keelboats could make the voyage upstream as far as Indianapolis. By the time the population became large enough to need more necessities a better way to reach this still rather remote village became apparent. It was decided to offer a $200 reward to the first captain to bring a steamboat as far upstream as Indianapolis. No one ever collected the reward. Later one steamboat, the Robert Hanna, did reach Indianapolis in 1831. On the way back downstream the Hanna got stuck in a sandbar in the Martinsville area and it took six weeks to get it off and on its way back downstream.
Samuel Merrill was picked to move the state’s properties from Corydon to Indianapolis in 1824. It was 125 miles from Corydon to the new capital and the roads were bad in a number of places. There were hills to climb for the wagons that were used for transport the various things the state had accumulated over the years. As what roads did lead from Corydon northwards were slow going, especially the steep hills in the Martinsville area. After 10 days Merrill and his men finally reached their goal and found it rather disappointing. While around 100 families had moved into the new village by 1824, it was not much to look at.
The physical appearance of the new town hardly looked like a place where a new state capital should have been located. A young man named Hugh McCullock, who would in the future become a permanent Hoosier, is said to have called the new town utterly forlorn and not fit to be the capital of a state. More on Indianapolis in a future column.