Selecting the Seat of Government: The Expedition to Locate the Site of Indianapolis

2020 and 2021 are being celebrated at the bicentennial of the founding of Indianapolis. The two year time period for this celebration is because of a somewhat phased founding. On January 11, 1820, the Indiana legislature, based at the time in the first state capitol in Corydon, approved the appointment of a commission to locate and select a location for the permanent seat of government. Later in 1820, the Commissioners actually selected the site, and in 1821, the legislature ratified and approved of the selection of that site as the future state capitol of Indianapolis. The transfer of the location from Corydon to Indianapolis would occur in 1825. The history blog IndyPolitan, authored by local historian Libby Cierzniak, has a great post detailing the multiple dates for the founding of Indianapolis, which can be read here.


The focus of this post are the efforts of the Commissioners charged with selecting the site of the future capitol, during the late spring of 1820. With this post will be a degree of “what if,” since the decision for the site of the seat of government came down to two locations which were under serious consideration by the Commissioners: a site near the confluence of Fall Creek and the White River in Marion County, and at the Bluffs of the White River in present day northeastern Morgan County.


As anyone who attended 4th grade in Indiana learned, the first state capital for the state was Corydon in Harrison County. When Indiana was admitted to the Union in 1816 the population was centered in the southern part of the state, along the Ohio River, and in the southeastern corner of the state along the Whitewater River valley. However, Native American removal policies utilized by state and federal officials would ensure that lands to the north of the Corydon would be opened for sale and settlement by Euro-American settlers in the next few years. Part of Indiana becoming a state included the "donation" of a piece of land, specifically four sections, from the Federal government to the state for use as a permanent seat of government.


The expedition to select the permanent seat of government really had its beginnings in the original 1816 constitution, which decreed that Corydon would remain the capital until 1825. Even in the few years after Indiana became a state, there was an expectation that the future seat of government would likely be located along the banks of the West Branch of the White River, perhaps due to its central location, flowing through the middle of the state. In late December 1818, Governor Jonathon Jennings wrote a rather heated letter to Joseph Megis, the head of the General Land Office in Washington City (D.C.) regarding a recent survey which due to a mistake, would have allowed the bed of the White River to be sold to private individuals, thus hindering navigation on the river. The letter reads as follows:

Indianapolis history Jonathan Jennings

Jennings noted in regard to the White River that "it is not unlikely that our permanent seat of Government will be situated ere long on this stream." A year later, on December 7, 1819, at the commencement of the fourth session of the Indiana General Assembly in Corydon, Governor Jennings announced his intent to move forward with the selection of a “permanent” seat of government:

"The late extinguishment of Indian title to lands within our state, and the progress of the United States' surveys, require that provisions should be made to select and locate scite[sic] for the permanent Seat of Government; and the manner in which such location shall be effected, as well as the number of persons to be employed in the election, should devolve on the General Assembly during the present Session."

The “extinguishment” of the Native American title referenced by Jennings was the October 1818 Treaty of St. Mary’s, which resulted in massive land concessions by various indigenous groups in Indiana, and which opened a large portion of central Indiana to Euro-American settlement. With this charge from the governor, both the House of Representatives (on January 1, 1820, below) and the Senate passed legislation, which was finalized on January 11, 1820, approving of the formation of the commission to select the new seat of government.

The Commissioners chosen for this task represented several of the then existing counties or were prominent citizens of the relatively new state. Among their ranks was John Tipton (photo below), John Conner (brother of William Conner of Conner’s Prairie), and Joseph Bartholomew, a soldier who had been wounded at the Battle of Tippecanoe and had served with Tipton in the militia, among others.


Records of the expedition of the Commissioners are scarce, and the most detailed account of those proceedings comes from the journals of John Tipton. These same journals played an important role in a previous post about Native Americans in the Indianapolis area when it was selected as the site of the capital. Other sources are thinner, including the reports from the General Assembly, and newspapers. Other secondary sources and histories of the state and the city make general descriptions of the proceedings.

Indianapolis history john tipton
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

Returning to the expedition, as recounted by Tipton, he set off on May 17, 1820, from Corydon to meet with the other commissioners to determine the location of the permanent site of government for Indiana. He was accompanied by Governor Jonathan Jennings (who was not a Commissioner, but was attending the expedition), and an African American named Bill. Bill is often referred to as a servant in the footnotes and index of the Tipton journal, while Tipton referred to him as "William," or "Bill," and sometimes his "boy." Bill's status is unclear although Tipton's ledgers do indicate Bill was receiving payment for his services, and that Tipton had hired him on a yearly basis to assist during his travels. Bill accompanied Tipton and the other Commissioners during their efforts to locate the seat of government.


Tipton’s progress northward is detailed in his journal, including references to expenses and what the party had for their meals, including numerous mentions of “coffy.” On May 18th he and his party were joined Jesse Durham and Joseph Bartholomew, both Commissioners, and continued together on their journey. On May 19th the party stayed in Brownstown and on the 20th the party came to the upper rapids of the “Drift,” possibly the Driftwood River. On Monday, May 22, Tipton and his companions crossed Fall Creek in Marion County at a “ripple,” or a shallow rocky or rapid area of the creek, and then stopped to bathe and put on clean clothes. Afterwards they proceeded on to William Conner’s home, the designated meeting place for the Commissioners. Most of the Commissioners were there, except two. The group was sworn to their responsibilities as Commissioners and adjourned for the evening. The next day, an additional Commissioner arrived (the remaining Commissioner never showed, leaving nine total), and the group set off for the mouth of Fall Creek to the south to assess that site.


On the afternoon of May 23, Tipton and a few other Commissioners were on their way to the Bluffs when the weather turned foul, with rain and wind. Tipton recounted that the lowlands next to the river were flooded, and their path took them through a swamp, which made travel more difficult. Tipton and his party stopped at 4:30 pm at a Native American camp between Fall Creek and the Bluffs and stayed the night. The next morning the party continued south, along the way meeting a group of Commissioners who had visited the Bluffs the day before.


The Bluffs of the White River is a landmark located on the White River about 15 miles south of Fall Creek. As the name suggests, the geographic feature is a large bluff, or hill, along the White River which abruptly rises from the surrounding territory just north of present-day Waverly and the Highway 144 bridge over the White River. The location was reputed to be the location of an old French trapping post but was apparently a known waypoint and meeting place for Native Americans in the area, as well as early Euro-American settlers. Tipton reported that the Bluffs were 150 feet above the river, but uneven. He noted in his journal that the Bluffs “front on the river near 1 mile if they were level on top it would be the most beautiful site for a town that I have ever seen.”

Bluffs of the White RIver Port Royal Indiana Indianapolis History
The Bluffs as seen from a sharp westward bend in the White River in March 2021. The river enters the image from the left. Cell tower not in place in 1820.

In 1818, Jacob Whetzel, a Euro-American pioneer residing in Franklin County, cut a trace from Laurel, Indiana to the Bluffs with the help of his son and various axmen. This trace, later named the Whetzel Trace, would turn into one of the more important thoroughfares into the New Purchase territory, and provided access to these the area which would be Johnson, Morgan, and Marion Counties, as well as access to the White River. Some sources note that Whetzel had the permission of Lenape Chief Anderson to cut the trace, although I was unable to confirm this claim. The exact dates that Whetzel and company were cutting the Trace are not clear beyond the work being done in 1818, the same year that the Lenape, and Chief Anderson, were heavily involved in the talks surrounding the Treaty of St. Mary's in September and October. In my mind the permission from Anderson may be more of a legend and probably was not received, especially considering the weakening position of the Native Americans in central Indiana at the time.

Indianapolis history Bluffs map
Excerpt, Burr Map of Indiana, 1835

Whatever the truth, Whetzel and his trace preceded the formal opening of the New Purchase to Euro-American settlement, and he and his family established themselves at the Bluffs, which became a significant waystation for travelers, both Native Americans, and Euro-American who were jumping the gun on the opening of the territory. In later years, the Bluffs would be an important stop for travelers heading to the new seat of government from the south, and would attract attention of land speculators, including Calvin Fletcher, who purchased significant acreage in the area around the Bluffs. Additionally, in the 1830's the the town of Far West, centered near the intersection of present day SR 37 and Highway 144, was platted not far from the Bluffs. The town never really flourished, although Waverly, just to the south, was established in the late 1830's as construction for the Central Canal brought workers to the area.


One enigma with this area is the town of Port Royal, which was located at the Bluffs. Several sources note this was a French name for the area, although it does not appear on any map I found until several years after the events of this blog post (specifically 1831). Tipton made no mention of the name Port Royal (or Porte Royale, the claimed French name), although the treatise History of Johnson County, notes the town had a post office from 1824-1835, and that same source details the plat for the town which was field on May 18, 1822. Port Royal is also referenced frequently in Indianapolis newspapers and Calvin Fletcher's diaries in the 1820's and 1830's, and the name Bluffs and Port Royal seem to be used interchangeably. However, the French connection was difficult to determine.


While the Fall Creek site was quite flat and level, as described above, the terrain at the Bluffs was much more varied. The LiDAR (light detection and ranging) scan below shows the topography of the Bluff region and the surrounding hilly terrain. Keep in mind this is a recent scan, which is heavily impacted by modern development. The northeast side of the Bluffs had a stone and gravel quarry, and a neighborhood exists on the south end of the Bluffs. SR 37 is visible going north to south, while Highway 144 is visible crossing the river just south of the Bluffs.


Returning to the Commissioner’s activities, Tipton commented on the good supply of water in the Bluffs area, including from a creek which ran along the Bluffs, and a number of springs which originated in the hills themselves. Tipton and his party crossed to the west side of the river to explore further and found the river bottoms flooded. He also noted that at this point the river took a hard westward turn, which he thought “seems to be a very difficult pass for boats of burthen[burden?]…” This hard turn appears on maps from this time period, and is still present today (see map above, and photo of the Bluffs above). Having paddled upstream to this area from Waverly in my kayak, I can confirm that it is a difficult passage without motor assistance. Tipton commented on the remains of several cabins, which he was told were the remains of a Native American camp and the French trading post from years earlier. Again, he makes no mention of Port Royal, or any other name for the area aside from the Bluffs. He and his party then returned to Fall Creek, on the 26th, and found that Governor Jennings had returned to William Conner’s home.


On Sunday, May 27th the Commissioners met and decided that the site of the seat of government would be located within Township 15 North, Range 3 East, which included the Fall Creek site. Tipton noted that the township had not yet been divided into sections, and the Surveyor General, Judge William B. Loughlin, informed the Commissioners that conducting the necessary surveys to finalize the location would take ten days. The Commissioners adjourned until the next Monday, and some, including John Conner, returned home, while the remainder returned to William Conner's home. Tipton and other Commissioners then headed south along the White River, and after a brief stay with the Whetzels at the Bluffs, explored the territory south of that point, towards present day Spencer. Tipton provides detailed descriptions of the area, which will not be described in detail since it is mostly not related to locating the seat of government.


However, Tipton did record details about the status of the White River in that area, and how he encountered a section of river (south of present day Martinsville) where there were a series of islands in the river, and the main channel was split several ways. He noted that “[t]his obstruction entirely prevents the pass of any water craft, even the smallest canoe can not pass them at this time…” Tipton opined that the state legislature would need to act to clear this obstruction to allow navigation. Tipton’s journal includes a detailed sketch of this area:

John Tipton journal Indianapolis History
Credit: John Tipton papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana State Library

After exploring this territory, and even selecting a piece of land he intended to purchase, Tipton and his party returned to Fall Creek on the evening of June 5, where Governor Jennings and the other Commissioners were gathered. The surveyors indicated their work had progressed enough to allow the Commissioners to select the specific location of the seat of government. The next day was spent surveying and selecting the sections to set aside for the seat of government, and in the evening, the Commissioners crossed the to river to the northwest of Fall Creek to camp for the night on a low bluff on that side of the river (based on Tipton’s journal, they camped somewhere around where the Michigan Street bridge crosses the river today).


The next day, June 7, 1820, was the big day, and on Tipton’s motion, the Commissioner’s selected the site for the future state capital. The clerk of their group prepared the paperwork for signature, and at 5 pm, the Commissioners met at McCormick’s cabin to sign their selection. Tipton described the site in full detail as "sections numbered 1 and 12, and east and west fractional sections numbered 2, and east fractional section 11, and so much off the east side of west fractional section number 3, to be divided by a north and south line running parallel to the west boundary of said section, as will equal in amount 4 entire sections in r 15 n. of R, 3, E." Below is a excerpt from the survey for Township 15 North, Range 3 East, which shows the specific sections selected for the seat of government.

Indianapolis history survey city Fall Creek White River

Note that this map has had various additions and notes written sometime after the original survey was drafted. One is the inclusion of the line for the National Road on the westside of the river. For reference, the east-west section line which runs through the "G" in Government roughly follows present day Washington Street. Fall Creek is depicted as it previously flowed, prior to the re-routing in the early 1870's which resulted in the confluence for the creek and the river being moved to near 10th Street at the present day VA hospital. A full view of the map can be accessed below.

Plat_463658_1
.PDF
Download PDF • 15.62MB

In a piece of extraordinary coincidence, at 6:45 pm, not long after the signing, the Commissioners witnessed what Tipton described as “the first boat landed that ever was seen at the seat of government.” A small flatboat and canoe loaded with the possessions for two families who were relocating to the Fall Creek area landed not far from McCormick’s cabin. Tipton explained that the travelers had sailed upriver in a keelboat as far as they could, and then switched to the flat boat for the rest of the journey. While their arrival was serendipitous for the selection of that site, and the belief that the river would be an avenue of commerce, the fact the keelboat could not make the journey could have been considered a bad omen, although Tipton was silent on this point. No further information is known about the two families who arrived, and the Commissioners finalized their business and returned home. Tipton arrived in Corydon on Sunday, June 11, after an absence of 27 days. He noted that his compensation had been $2 for every 25 miles traveled to and from Conner’s, and $2 for each day of service. In all his compensation was $58 dollars, and he recorded that this was “not half what I could have made in my office. A very poor compensation.”


Some sources, including the 1907 pamphlet Pioneer Indianapolis by Eda Stearns Stickney and edited by Arthur William Dunn, mention that other locations in Hamilton County were also considered for the seat of government, including William Conner’s homesite on the White River. The location made sense because Conner’s homesite was a long time crossroads and point of commerce for Native Americans and early Euro-American settlers in the area. However, aside from being a well-known meeting spot for the Commissioners to gather, Tipton’s journals don’t suggest the location was under consideration. Further, an Editorial in the Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History in 1912, reported on a local rumor that the Strawtown area north of Noblesville was in the running for the seat of government. The editorial notes that there was never a mention of this by the Commissioners, or Tipton in his journal, and suggests this possible location for the seat of government was more of a local legend. A final possible site is described by Judge Fabius Finch during a speech to the Tippecanoe Club in 1885, where he described his family, along with others, moving to a site north of William Conner on the western side of the White River near present day Noblesville called Horseshoe Prairie, in 1819. Finch recounted that several Commissioners and Governor Jennings visited their small settlement. Finch, who was ten years old at the time, recalls that the group were "shown the beauties of our location," although it isn't clear if the visit was part of the Commissioner's formal duties. Tipton makes no mention of this.


Legend also says the Fall Creek location won out over the Bluffs by one vote, a story which is retold in several sources, including Sulgrove's History of Indianapolis and Marion County and Logan's History of Indianapolis. Usually the vote is reported at 3 to 2. However, I could not find any records to confirm this. Even Tipton’s journal does not identify how the commissioners voted, although he does report that nine Commissioners had gathered at Conner's. Some of these same sources mention that Tipton was the deciding vote, although his journal is silent on this point too.


The Commissioner’s selection was just step one in the process of choosing the site for the seat of government, as their selection had to be ratified by the General Assembly. On December 28, 1820, the Commissioner's report (pictured below) and selection, which had been prepared on June 7 of that year at Fall Creek, was presented to the Senate. Note the references to seeking a site with the "advantages of a navigable stream and fertility of soil," and the "political centre" of the state.


Ratification of the Commissioner's selection was done on January 6, 1821, and the actual plan for Indianapolis was laid out by Alexander Ralston later that year, with the sale of lots in the new town following in October.


The reasons for the selecting the Fall Creek site, and even considering a location along the White River was multi-faceted as has been mentioned above. The Commissioners were charged with locating a site near the geographic center of the state. Additionally, the prospect that White River could be used for commercial traffic (i.e. a navigable waterway), was a consideration, and the lower river banks than that at the Bluffs, was a plus for the Fall Creek location. The Fall Creek site was also more level, since Tipton noted the uneven terrain on top of the Bluffs. The selection of the Bluffs would have been an interesting site, considering the rolling terrain and hills at and around the Bluffs site. Whether the city would have been laid out in the well-known mile square design developed by Alexander Ralston is questionable, considering the terrain at the Bluffs. Alexander Ralston was retained in 1821 to actually design the city, and so his plans were based upon the mostly flat and level terrain present at the Fall Creek site. No such plans were developed for the Bluff site, although it is entertaining to consider how the city might have developed at that more topographically diverse location.




Sources


Journal, John Tipton, To fix seat of government, 1820 (original scans), Indiana State Library, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/ISL_p1819coll11-1032


Transcription of Journal of John Tipton, volume 1 (1809-1827), https://indianamemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15078coll2/id/8808


Tipton, J. (1905). The Journal of John Tipton: Commissioner to Locate Site for State Capital—1820 (Concluded.). The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History, 1(2), 74-79. Retrieved September 12, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27785229


The Journal of John Tipton: Commissioner to locate Site for State Capital—1820. (1905). The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History, 1(1), 9-15. Retrieved September 12, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27785087


Unedited letters of Jonathan Jennings, with notes by Dorothy Riker, https://archive.org/details/uneditedletterso104jenn/page/226/mode/2up


Cottman, G. (1912). EDITORIAL. The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History, 8(3), 146-148. Retrieved September 11, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27785380


Brown, Ignatius, Logan's History of Indianapolis from 1818.


1820 Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Indiana


Journal of the Senate of the State of Indiana (1821), https://archive.org/details/journalofsenateo182021indi/page/144/mode/2up


Atlas of Johnson County, Indiana, 1820-1900, p. 227, https://indianamemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/HistAtlas/id/2361


REMINISCENCES OF JUDGE FINCH. (1911). The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History, 7(4), 155-165. Retrieved September 12, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27785332




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