Indianapolis Squirrel Wars

Updated: Feb 26, 2019


This story has been told before, but it is still one of my favorites in early Indianapolis history. To set the scene, imagine it is 1822, and the newly minted town of Indianapolis is still in its infancy. The downtown mile square was laid out in a small chunk of the vast wilderness which still covered most of the state. Aside from the last groups of Native Americans leaving the area in accordance with 1818 Treaty of St. Mary's, the area around Indianapolis sparsely populated. The early settlement sprang up along what is today Washington St., while settlers outside of the "downtown" cleared small patches of forest to plant crops.


But a scourge was on the horizon. The forests surrounding the new capitol hosted a variety of wildlife, including deer, beavers, bears, and the occasional panther. And squirrels.


In the fall of 1822 a squirrel migration swept across Indianapolis, consuming and destroying crops which lay before them. Calvin Fletcher, newly emigrated to the soon to be new capital of Indiana, described the scene in a letter to his brother Michael in early 1823, which is now included in his diary: "The corn this year was literally destroyed, unless in the prairies by grey and black squirrel. Sir, there was by one man killed round one corn field 248 in 3 days in about 4 miles of this place. Many people lost who cornfields-12 [squirrels] were supposed to destroy as much corn as one hog."  


Fletcher continued, noting that "[t]he squirrel appeared to be emigrating towards the S.W. instead of the E. as he has always done heretofore. The reason of his emigration this year was this-our woods or wilderness it scarce ever fails to produce a sufficient quantity of mast to support such vermin but this year they entirely fail'd…" The 'mast' Fletcher refers to is basically nuts and other items produced by trees in the forest, and which the squirrels consumed.


Possibly romanticized view of Washington Street in downtown Indianapolis. Who knows whether it is accurate, but it demonstrates the still heavily forested nature of the state capitol in the 1820's. Credit: Indiana Historical Society

But this wouldn't be the final squirrel offensive. In the seminal work History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana (1884), Berry Sulgrove wrote about the initial fall offensive in 1822, noting like Fletcher that the invasion progressed generally east to west, and that the squirrels were "liberally killed, but the massacre made no impression on their countless numbers." Sulgrove also detailed a smaller invasion in 1845. Calvin Fletcher was silent on this second offensive. However, another Indianapolis pioneer may have provided an account of the squirrels: Oliver Johnson


Johnson was born in 1821, shortly before his family came to the Marion County, settling just north of Indianapolis, at the site of the present day State Fair grounds. Today, Johnson is probably best remembered for the neighborhood bearing his name, Oliver Johnson's Woods, centered around Central Ave. and College, and 44th and 46th streets.


At the time of the 1822 invasion, Johnson was only an infant. However, in "A Home in the Woods; Oliver Johnson's reminiscences of early Marion County," a book detailing his memories of early Indianapolis as told to his grandson, Howard, Oliver Johnson discusses the squirrel rampages and recollected migrations of squirrels through Indianapolis and its environs each fall. "In the fall we nearly always had a spell of travelin' squirrels. We supposed that the mast and nuts that they fed on was scarce in some sections and caused them to move on to other places where they could find somethin to eat."

Johnson also noted a larger invasion, although he does not identify the year: "One fall there were so many passin through they became a pest, makin raids on the corn fields. They come by the thousands for several days. They was so starved and footsore from travelin that they wasn't fit to eat." Johnson's father had him patrol the family's fields with his uncle to keep the squirrels at bay. At night, they would mold new rifle shot to ensure they had enough for the next day's patrol. "We saved most of our corn that fall, but some neighbors who didn't patrol their fields had their corn eat up so bad it didn't pay to gather it."


Another early Indianapolis resident George Pitts, also recollected the squirrel rampage in 1845, and the "scores and scores of thousands" of squirrels. "I have seen them swimming the river in great droves, and stood on the bank with a club and killed them." Like Johnson, Pitts also noticed their degraded condition from travel, and that they appeared "very lean and seemed to have been starved out." 


The impact on the corn crop was serious, since corn meal was a staple of life for early settlers of Indianapolis. The destruction of a corn crop could put a family in danger and Johnson noted the importance of corn meal for the early inhabitants of Marion County. Per Johnson, "[w]e wouldn't a last long without cornmeal. Corn bread was our staff of life. For several years we had it in some form for breakfast. dinner, and supper, never tirin of it." The idea of waves of squirrels running wild across the city is entertaining, but they had real life implications for the survival of the city's early in habitants.



References


Diary of Calvin Fletcher, Gayle Thornbrough, editor, 1972


History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Berry R. Sulgrove, 1884


A Home in the Woods; Oliver Johnson's reminiscences of early Marion County, Howard Johnson, 1951


Greater Indianapolis: The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City of Home, Jacob Piatt Dunn, 1910


Indianapolis in 1825, Indiana Historical Society, http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/dc035/id/145/rec/497



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