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July 4th in the Circle City: Celebrating Independence in Indianapolis in 1822, 1876, and 1976

Independence Day is coming up this weekend, and with it 200 years of the Fourth of July being celebrated in Indianapolis. The holiday has changed in its scope over the years as the city has grown, but the sentimentalities of the holiday still remain. For this post, I’ve selected three newspapers from different points in the city’s history to explore how Fourth of July was viewed and celebrated by the residents of Indianapolis at the time each paper was published.

Indianapolis Gazette, July 6, 1822

The Indianapolis Bicentennial has been celebrated over the course of 2020 and 2021, due to the debate as to when the city was actually founded. That debate is best left for a more spirited discussion at a local brewery, and will not be addressed here. However, the July 6, 1822 Indianapolis Gazette is one of the earliest mentions of a Fourth of July celebration in the still young town of Indianapolis.

Indianapolis history Fourth of July bicentennial #indyturns200
Indianapolis Gazette, July 6, 1822

According to the Gazette, which was published weekly, a “very respectable assembly of both sexes” gathered on the morning of July 4th to commemorate the “45th return of the day on which the congress of the United States declared our National Independence.” Events of the day included the singing of songs, prayers, and a sermon from a local minister.

The sermon was followed by speeches. Judge William Wick, the lead judge of the first circuit court based in Marion County, recited the Declaration of Independence, and gave a patriotic speech about the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War. Obed Foote, one of the first lawyers in Indianapolis, followed Judge Wick and read George Washington’s inaugural address, and also provided patriotic comments in line with those from Wick. Another speaker read Washington’s Farewell address and discussed the history of the first president’s administration. Finally, the festivities ended with a prayer from a Mr. Benton. The Gazette noted that “his voice and eye and his language evinced the strong feeling of his heart….”

Afterwards, many of those in attendance traveled to the “lower end of Washington Street” (the west end, towards the White River) and a dinner was prepared. Per the Gazette “[a] large deer was barbecued while and among many other things, placed upon the table, as an emblem of the recent settlement of our country.” Additional speeches were made and toasts were presented. To conclude the day, at 4 pm J.R. Crumbaugh hosted a party in his ballroom where attendees “spent the evening in hilarity and mirth.”

Sarah Fletcher, the wife of Calvin Fletcher, recorded in her diary that her husband on July 3 was “ingagued in writing toasts for the forth of July,” and also recounted the events detailed by the Gazette: “The men had a barbacu & dined inder the green sugar trees at the West end of Washington St. The Evening of the same day Mr. Crumbaugh had a large part held at his dwelling.” The footnotes to Mrs. Fletcher’s diary entries note that Crumbaugh owned a tavern at the corner of Missouri and Market Streets, where the Indiana government center sits today. Of note, no recounts are provided by Calvin Fletcher, as the holiday fell during a period when he was not keeping up with his long running diary. However, the same issue of the Gazette did include an announcement that he was commencing his law practice in Indianapolis. Regrettably, Sarah Fletcher only kept her diary for a short period of time in the 1820’s. Having her thoughts on her life in early Indianapolis would have been immensely informative.

Indianapolis News, July 3 and 5, 1876

This edition of the Indianapolis News covers Independence Day in the city during the United States Centennial celebrations, coming only a decade after the end of the Civil War, and in the midst of an economic crisis, although there is only a hint of the latter in the News' coverage. The News is unique amongst the three papers featured in this post since it is the only daily. However, it was not published on July 4, 1876, so the editions of the paper from July 3 and July 5 are examined. Leading into the 4th, the News featured a few mentions of the centennial, including a poem about Independence Day on the front page.

Indianapolis history centennial celebration #indyturns200
Indianapolis News, July 3, 1876

The largest recognition of the upcoming holiday is an ad which spans two columns and runs the length of the paper (excerpt to the right), detailing the grand spectacle to celebrate the centennial Fourth of July at the state exposition grounds, i.e. State Fair Grounds, which at that time were located in the present day Herron Morton neighborhood, on the grounds of the Civil War prisoner of war camp. In addition to fireworks in the evening, the event was to feature “fifteen magnificent mammoth balloon ascensions” along with a “centennial balloon wedding,” which would take place on one of the balloons. Admission to this spectacle was 50 cents.

The celebration from the state and local authorities was detailed on page 4, and include a myriad of patriotic events, described by the News as an occurrence that will “prove an epoch in the history of this city.” The day was planned to start with a 160 gun salute at dawn. A parade would commence soon thereafter, with various ‘divisions’, consisting of local societies and organizations, forming around downtown and then joining the parade. The route was to go around the downtown Mile Square, including a lap around the Circle (construction on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was still 12 years away) and eventually ending at the State House (old State House, since construction on the current statehouse was still two years away at this point, and 15 years from completion).

Participant groups in the parade included bands, military organizations, social groups, such as the Untied Irish Benevolent Society and the Cadets of Temperance (who I feel faced a difficult task in asserting their goal during the Centennial celebrations), the Beer Brewers Association, Gardener’s Association, and, randomly enough, “orphans in wagons.”

At the statehouse, remarks were to be given by various individuals, including Governor Thomas A. Hendricks and a historical address by John B. Dillon. Music and prayer also figured prominently in the state house events.

The July 5 edition of the News provided a recap of the Centennial festivities, accompanied by a sub-headline describing the holiday as “Fun and Frolic-Few Accidents but Plenty of Incidents. No Fire.” The News immediately reported that the “foreign element of the city cut loose in grand and imposing parade, leaving the native born to furnish grand marshals and orators.” Considering the News makes several references to the German population in the city, and their celebrations, the “foreign element” likely refers German immigrants.

While the News noted the program of events, discussed above, apparently this was only followed in abstract, and even the cannon firing was limited and not “proper,” which was attributed to a want of funding, possibly a nod to the Panic of 1873, which resulted in a depression that lasted until 1879. Residences around the city were decked out for the holiday in a “decorative fever,” with particular attention given to the homes along north Meridian Street which was along the parade route. The News provided a detailed description of the parade and some of the later speeches, both of which were delayed due to rain and storms during the morning. The governor's comments were not provided verbatim, but the speech given by historian Dillon was printed. In that speech, Dillon gave an exhaustive summary of the history of the country and Indiana, which spanned several columns within the News. Dillion concluded his speech with patriotic fervor by declaring that the United States was "great among the nations of the earth," and our form of government would not survive "if a majority of the citizens shall become indifferent about the great interests of Christianity, civil and religious liberty, good morals, patriotism, popular education, and an honest administration of the affairs of the national and state governments."

Coverage was also given to the much advertised balloon ascension, which caused a "rush" from the city's official events up to the exposition grounds in time for the planned 1 pm start. Two gas balloons along with several hot air balloons were to be launched. However, the rain and storms earlier in day delayed the launch to 5 pm. The first hot air balloon to launch clawed for altitude, only making one hundred feet before collapsing back to the exposition grounds. A few other hot air attempts rose to 1500 feet, before coming down a half mile away.

The larger gas balloon was then attempted, with the bride and groom, a minister, a reporter from the Indianapolis Sentinel, and William Shotts, the "aeronaut" who managed the balloon, all aboard for the nuptials. Due to the weight on the balloon from the wedding participants it managed only 200 feet, and drifted up and down throughout the ceremony. The News reported that the minister had a "clear case of sea sickness," but the others were unaffected by the flight. After the wedding was completed the balloon was launched again, and without the weight of the wedding party it reached a claimed height of 1 mile, and drifted eastward, before landing one hour later at a farm near Greenfield.

A second airship, called the Indiana, was launched later as darkness was falling. Due to the "wretched condition" of the balloon (patches covered the balloon and a tear developed during the inflation), the balloon was launched at twilight, later landing near New Palestine. Other advertised events, like various games and races, were supposed to have been available during the ascensions, but few of these occurred. The promised firework display did occur, in front of an estimated several thousand attendees. The News stated that the "people present were gratified by a sight rarely excelled in beauty."

Indianapolis Recorder, July 3, 1976

The Indianapolis Recorder has been the preeminent newspaper dedicated to the African American community in Indianapolis for well over 100 years. In July of 1976, the Recorder was (and still is) a weekly paper, and was published every Saturday. The July 4 holiday fell on a Sunday that year, so the July 3 edition of the Recorder covered Independence Day related content, which ranged from a retrospective article on the status of racial justice on the country’s 200th birthday, to coverage of the events being planned in the city for the holiday.

The front page of the Recorder featured an editorial under the headline “Blacks’ struggle for independence at turning point,” with no byline, which noted a quote from Fredrick Douglass that “[t]he Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Douglass’ statement is not dated in the article, but the speech was given in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852. The speech is a powerful one, as would be expected from an orator like Douglass, and its full text can be read here, along with an interesting NPR story about the speech which can be accessed here.

The Recorder column asked rhetorically whether Douglass would have foreseen the problems faced by the country in 1976, problems which placed a heavier burden on African American and “affected class” people. The Recorder lists several of these problems, including unemployment, inflation, decline of social programs, racial violence, and the general unequitable treatment by the US Government. It also noted that the bicentennial year was marred by “the shameful exit of a scandalized president,” the involvement in the Vietnam War, and presidential candidates “who openly woo the populations bigoted element?” The Recorder worried about the future of the country, that it had reached a turning point, and would be doomed if the next 200 years would be as “bitter” as the first two centuries. The column encouraged readers to move towards independence, economically and politically, for African Americans, and concluded with a powerful call to action for its constitutionals:

“Celebrate if you want, you and your ancestors earned the right with blood, sweat and other sacrifices, but resolve that black independence will be a reality buy the time American is 400 years old.”

The Editorial page for the Recorder contained additional pieces addressing the Bicentennial. Vernon Jordan, in a syndicated piece, began by noting that July 4 had arrived, a “culmination of the moths-old Bicentennial build-up largely devoid of content.” He continued, arguing that a proper observance of July 4th and the Bicentennial should “re-examine the ideals that led to the founding of this nation and the gap between those ideals and the reality of today.”

The successor to the “Voice from the Gallery” column, written for many years by Andrew Ramsey, followed similar themes to the other articles in the Recorder, noting “a long way to go” even after 200 years. The column, written by Robert DeFrantz, was titled “Dear Andrew,” and styled as a conversation with Ramsey who had died in 1973. DeFrantz referenced the celebrations around the Bicentennial, while noting the injustice that African Americans still dealt with daily, despite the grand concepts on which the country was founded. He implored the reader, or Ramsey to whom he was writing, to “[p]ause and celebrate America, but realistically look at yourself, then within your own heart, and mind, let all those glorious concepts be for all the citizens here within our borders.”

Indianapolis recorder newspaper bicentennial #indyturns200 Indianapolis history
Excerpt of the 'Dear Andrew' column, July 3, 1976, Ind. Recorder

Other mentions of the Fourth of July in this edition of the Recorder included the standard article summarizing the events of the holiday, with a highlight being the carving of a giant cake on the south lawn of the statehouse at 1 pm, which would coincide with the ringing of a replica of the liberty bell, in unison with similar bells around the country. Tours of the statehouse by costumed guides would be given all day, while the Governor’s Boy Scout Honor Guard, a tradition which is apparently no more, would also stage a drill on the statehouse lawn. Fireworks are only mentioned in conjunction with an Indianapolis Indians doubleheader on July 3 against the Evansville Triplets, which would feature a 30 minute fireworks display along with the baseball action. The city's firework display off of the Bank One building was not mentioned, but it did occur that year. Lastly, a Kroger advertisement on page 9 loudly proclaimed that “Kroger celebrates America,” by offering eight 16 oz. bottles of Coca Cola for 88 cents, plus deposit.

So here we have three 4th of July’s, and three different views of the nation by the people of Indianapolis, ranging from hope for the future of the new settlement, to excitement at the Centennial of our country, and finally, the desire for racial justice and independence for African Americans in a country whose promises excluded them for 200 years. The three selected newspapers are separated by large spans of time, but they still contain an underlying expectation for a better future, while also evidencing problems which have plagued our city, and country, for generations, and continue to do so as we move beyond the city's own bicentennial.


Indianapolis Recorder: July 3, 1976, pp. 1, 9, 13, 15-16

Indianapolis News: July 3, 1876, pp. 3-4, July 5, 1876, pp. 2-3

Indianapolis Gazette: July 6, 1823

Gayle Thornbrough, ed., The Diary of Calvin Fletcher (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1972), vol. 1, p. 66

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