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eBay Find: Nathaniel West and the Purchase of Land in Indianapolis

As in a few past posts, this one features a historical document related to the history of Indianapolis which I found on eBay earlier this year. Past posts include a document related to the dower of Elizabeth Martindale and a deposition of Thomas A. Morris. This one caught my attention because of the names of Merrill and Yandes on the document, and it appeared to include the signatures of Samuel and Jane Merrill and Daniel and Ann Yandes. Both families were prominent in the early history of Indianapolis. Samuel Merrill was the state treasurer responsible for moving most of the property of state government to Indianapolis after it became the seat of government. Daniel Yandes was an early resident of the new town of Indianapolis, and was involved in numerous business endeavors in addition to serving as a canal commissioner.

The document itself is a deed covering five pages, and memorializes the transfer of a piece of property in which Yandes and Merrill both had a stake (both men were business partners on a number of projects), to a Nathaniel West, of Salem, Massachusetts. However, I discovered after receiving the document that this is not the original version of the deed. As noted on the first page, and in an entry on the last page, this is a 1847 copy of the deed first executed in 1835. The 1835 document was prepared on June 30th, 1835, and witnessed by Caleb Scudder, the justice of the peace for Indianapolis at the time. The document was then recorded with the Marion County Clerk on July 11 of that year. The copy in my possession was filed on November 4, 1847, with R.B. Duncan, clerk of Marion County, while the copy itself was made in February of 1845. The reasons for this copy being made will be discussed below.

The cover of the document is the typical legal caption used during this time period, and is similar to that seen in the other posts about old documents, although as noted, this page has "Copy" at the top. At the bottom of the cover page is a note from the transcriber, recorder of Marion County Lewis Lewis, which indicates that he charged $1.25 to copy the document. The document is also labeled as Exhibit K. The first full page of the document has standard recitals about the parties, and a description of the property. This description continues into the second page, and includes land in Sections 35, 36, and 26 in Town 16 Range 3 (highlighted below). The land is located along 16th Street and MLK Drive, and includes the Methodist Hospital campus, the Citizens Energy White River station, the northern part of Ransom Place, and the southern portion of the North Indianapolis neighborhood.

This area is also crossed by Fall Creek and the Central Canal. The description given in the deed is quite complicated, and is not limited to exact portions within the Sections noted above. Instead, detailed measurements using rod and link measurements, the section lines, the White River, Fall Creek, and the Michigan Road (now known as MLK Drive), used as references is provided. A total of 42 acres is included, as well as several acres from Outlot 163, which was on the very north edge of the city, in the area of 10th Street in the map above. The Condit map of Indianapolis from 1855 (below) still shows the remains of some of the West property, highlighted in yellow at the top of the map. The red line is present day 16th Street.

Indianapolis history map 1855 Condit

The price of the land being conveyed was recorded to be be $74,000, an enormous sum in those days, equal to over $2.3 million in present day value (per My first thought was that there was some kind of error in the drafting or copying of the document. However, this may be the correct sum, when the totality of the circumstances present in Indianapolis, and with the property itself, are taken into consideration.

First, the deed was executed in the summer of 1835. During this time, surveyors were crisscrossing the state conducting surveys for potential internal improvements (railroads, canals, roadways) which would later become part of the internal improvements act passed into law in January 1836. Included in this were surveys of the line for the Central Canal which would be routed through the middle of the seat of government. Merrill and Yandes, who were both involved in state government (Yandes would become a canal commissioner) would likely be aware of the routes being explored. With the prospect of future prosperity related to the canal, land values along the proposed routes were already increasing, as was the demand for land adjacent to the canal route.

Secondly, the conveyance included a mill site, and the rights for the construction of a dam on Fall Creek. As stated in the deed, Yandes was "the owner of the undivided half of the mill tract and mill privileges, including the right to make a dam and back the water in Fall Creek granted by Richard Miller to said Merrill, and by him aforesaid to said Yandes which said mill tract contains forty one acres...." The potential income from the mill tract likely factored into the price as well.

The purchaser, Nathaniel West, was an interesting early personality in Indianapolis. He was the member of a prominent family from Salem, Massachusetts known for their history as mariners, and their shipping interests. While his father, also named Nathaniel, continued this tradition, the Mr. West at issue here chose to go as far from the ocean as he could in the United States. A blog dedicated to the West family notes that Nathaniel (who apparently was a junior), moved to Indianapolis in 1836 to purchase land, and was a " lawyer, merchant, farmer and manufacturer." The 1836 date doesn't square with the date of this deed, although it could be possible that West visited Indianapolis to obtain land prior to formally relocating to the town.

Indianapolis democrat newspaper history Fall Creek Mills
Indianapolis Democrat, April 30, 1841

West was involved in early milling and other business operations in the city. Several sources, including Sulgrove’s History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana, and Dunn’s Greater Indianapolis, note that West built a grist and cotton mill on Fall Creek northwest of the city, adjacent to where the Central Canal crossed Michigan Road, and north of the present day 16th Street. This led to the area around 16th and the Canal, especially northwest of that intersection, being known as “Cottontown" or "Cottonville.” In fact, the above conveyance of land from Merrill/Yandes is likely for the land which would be used for these milling operations, and for the future “Cottontown.” Sulgrove notes that Cottontown was established in 1839, although a reference in an advertisement for the sale of another piece of land (located east of the land at issue in this deed) appeared in the Indianapolis Journal in August 1835, and referred to a mill operated by Yandes and Merrill in this same area. It seems that there were already mills operating on the land purchased by West, although it appears he expanded these operations. The story "Excursion on the Canal," referenced in a post last month about boating on the canal, confirms the 1839 year, and mentions that the boat trip discussed in that story passed West's mill operations:

"We left the lock at 8 a.m., being about thirty in number and soon passed Cottonville, the seat of the enterprising Mr. West. Here is one of the most delightful residences near the city, and highly improved; also one of the best mills (grist) and also a cotton spinning establishment in full and beautiful condition. "

This is one of the few references to this area of the city being called "Cottonville" versus the more common Cottontown. Either way, the area and its early manufacturing concerns had West at the center.

Indianapolis history newspaper Nathaniel West
Indianapolis Journal, Sept. 17, 1841

A Democrat, West ran for public office on a few occasions, usually being unsuccessful, although he was elected to fill out a Senate term of a member who stepped down in 1841. Being active in local politics, and business, he was the target of frequent attacks from the Indianapolis Journal, the Whig leaning paper in the city. At various times the Journal referred to West in negative terms including "as great a bore as ever infested the lobbies of this Hall or the chamber of the Senate." During his campaign for Senate referenced above, the Journal on September 17, 1841 (excerpt to the left), referred to him as "self-conceived, pompous, overbearing," and spoke derisively of his very recent move to Indianapolis, and his immediate involvement in local politics.

West also butted heads with Calvin Fletcher. In 1836, Fletcher was reelected to his position on the State Bank Board, overcoming a challenge from West. Later, Fletcher who was still working with the State Bank, reported in his diary that in March 1841 he denied West a discount from the State Bank to assist with the operation of his his wool factory: "I this day had a conversation with Nathaniel West who has been applying for a discount out of the Branch Bank for the purpose of aiding him in carrying on his new woolen factory." Fletcher reported the discount was refused "upon the principle of refusing several others."

In April of 1843, West gave a speech at a Democratic gathering criticizing Fletcher (who he referred to as a "well known money lender") for his decision to follow a United State Supreme Court decision holding state based debt relief laws unconstitutional (Fletcher, along with law partners Ovid Butler and Simon Yandes, were heavily involved in collection cases at this time). Fletcher recorded in his diary that some of his friends expressed concern for Fletcher's safety due to his following of the Supreme Court ruling, and West speaking out against him.

As noted in the deed, West was a native of Salem, Massachusetts, and at some point in 1842 he became ill and eventually returned to Salem in the middle of 1843, where he died in September of that year. The notice below is the text announcing his death originally published in the Indiana State Sentential, and republished by the Wabash Courier on September 23, 1843.

While he died in Salem, his will was submitted to probate in Marion County in November of 1843. The date the will was drafted is not listed, although it was when his health was failing, and West stated in the will that "being now infirm in health but of sound and (illegilble) mind and memory..." His estate was left to his wife, with his sons and daughters receiving smaller bequests. The daughters each received 50 shares of stock in the State Bank of Indiana's Richmond branch.

Going back to the deed, an interesting component is the discussion of the interest of Ann Yandes and Jane Merrill at the end of page 4, and the top of page 5. Justice of the Peace Scudder described confirming that both Ann and Jane agreed with the transfer (presumably since they would have a dower interest in any land in the event one of their husbands would die). He wrote that "Jane Merrill wife of said Samuel Merrill and Ann Yandes, wife of the said Daniel Yandes, each being separately examined apart from their said husbands and the full contents and purport of the written deed, being made known to them they did declare that they did voluntarily and of their own free will and accord and as their act and deed, seal and deliver the said deed of conveyance without any coercions or compulsions from their said husbands."

The last thing to discuss about this deed is the reason a copy of the deed was being utilized in November of 1847, four years after West's death. Since the deed is Exhibit K, it is likely part of a larger case file addressing some issue with the land. The only clue I located is a notice which was published for several weeks in the Indianapolis Journal announcing the sale of Sinking Fund lands. Simply put, a sinking fund consists of money set aside from a revenue stream to fund some future project, or to pay off debt or a bond. I've run across numerous references to the state's Sinking Fund in operation in the 1830's and 1840's, although I'm not familiar with the details of its management. Based on the below excerpt from the October 16, 1848 edition of the Journal, it appears land was being mortgaged to the state in return for loans from the Sinking Fund. When interest could not be paid on those loans, the mortgaged land was sold.

Indiana sinking fund Indianapolis History

In the listing of the lands being sold, under Marion County is a notice of land being sold along Fall Creek, which had been mortgaged by Nathaniel West.

Indiana sinking fund Indianapolis History

This part of Section 26 was included in the land deeded above. While West had died a few years before, it is possible his lands were heavily mortgaged and otherwise encumbered, a common situation following the Panic of 1837, and the resulting depression. Heavy land speculation was a symptoms of this collapse, and the forfeiting and sale of land throughout the 1840's was common for individuals whose financial positions were ruined by the depression. The copy of the deed described above may have been related to the lands formerly owned by West, and now in the hands of his heirs, being sold to cover the estate's obligations.


Sulgrove, B. R, & Lilly, J. Kirby. (1884). History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co.

Dunn, J. Piatt. (1977). Greater Indianapolis : the history, the industries, the institutions, and the people of a city of homes. Evansville, Ind.: Unigraphic.

The Wabash Courier, Volume 12, Number 3,Terre Haute, Vigo County, 23 September 1843

Record of Wills, 1824-1939; Author: Marion County (Indiana). Circuit Court Clerk; Probate Place: Marion, Indiana

Indianapolis Journal: July 17, 1835, August 21, 1835, December 23, 1836, September 17, 1841, January 16, 1843, October 16, 1848

Indianapolis Indiana Democrat: April 30, 1841

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