The Native American Presence at the Founding of Indianapolis

Updated: Jul 9

Indiana’s historic reputation is that it is the land of the Indians, the very name of the state being acknowledging this history. And that is true. Prior the arrival of European settlers in meaningful numbers (French fur traders and some missionaries had preceded this), Indiana was populated by numerous indigenous peoples, from prehistoric to the Mississippian cultures, which built some of the mounds found around the state. Post-Mississippian Native Americans residing in Indiana at the time of first European contact includes the Miami and the Shawnee, among others, and these established groups were soon to be joined by other indigenous peoples displaced from the east as European settlement advanced.


The area which is now Indianapolis and Marion County was no exception to the above, and hosted Native Americans who camped, hunted, and traveled through the future site of the state's capitol city and county. However, by the time the Commissioners for the state met at William Conner’s home south of present-day Noblesville to decide on the location of future seat of government the numbers of Native Americans in and around Indianapolis were much diminished, as a transition from the displaced indigenous peoples to the Euro-American settlers streaming into the newly opened territory of central Indiana.


The Lenape People and Central Indiana


Before we dive into exploring the Native Americans who were present in and around Indianapolis, I want to look at the Native peoples who were in Central Indiana area in the years immediately preceding the founding of the city in 1820/21. During the first two decades of the 1800's, the central part of the state was primarily occupied by the Lenape people, also called the Delaware, who lived along the west fork of the White River, and ranged from the area north of Indianapolis, to south central Indiana, and in some cases, even farther south. The Lenape were not native to Indiana, and as the Delaware name suggests, they had originated in the Delaware River Valley in New Jersey, parts of Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania. The tribe had been displaced from these lands in mid 1700’s as European settlers became more numerous in the original 13 colonies, and began to pressure the Lenape's traditional territory and culture. Additionally, the Lenape faced pressure from the Six Nations, with whom they had been in regular conflict with for several generations. These difficulties led the Lenape to undertake a migration to the Ohio River Valley and their settlement in the Ohio Territory.


However, even their new homes in the west they were not to be left alone. Yann (2009), a masters thesis describing the Lenape culture in Indiana and analyzing archaeological sites related the Lenape along the White River, details how some of the Lenape likely began to move into Indiana as early as the mid 1770’s as Ohio began to become more populated with Euro-American settlers. In the early to mid-1790’s, the Lenape accepted an invitation from the Miami people of Indiana, who were the dominant tribe in the state at the time, to move onto Miami lands in the central and south-central part of Indiana, which included the future site of Indianapolis (some sources suggest an invitation was extended as early as 1770). This migration was close in time with the Treaty of Greenville (1795), which was finalized following the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794) and opened most of Ohio to Euro-American settlers, while establishing new lands for the displaced Native Americans. Except for a small part of the southeastern part of the present-day state, most of Indiana was reserved for Native Americans, although encroachments by Euro-American settlers, traders, and missionaries were common. The large open area with the "Delaware Towns" label in the map below was reserved for Native Americans.

#indyturns200 old map Indiana New Purchase history of Indianapolis Treaty of St. Mary's
Credit: Ind. Historical Society (1819). Note the reference to 'Delaware Towns' north of Indianapolis.

The interim time period between Treaty of Greenville and the establishment of Indianapolis in 1820/21 was a time of turmoil and change for the Lenape. Continued pressures from Euro-American settlers and rampant alcoholism amongst the Lenape (encouraged and facilitated by the settlers) caused difficulties in maintaining tribal cohesion and culture. Internal conflict was common, as were external dangers, such as the hostilities surrounding the rise of Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and The Prophet and the war of 1812, even though the Lenape along the White River generally remained neutral during these conflicts. (Note: This period of history in the Indiana territory is a fascinating, and complicated period, but is beyond the scope of this post. Check out the sources below, many of which provide more detail about this period of the Hoosier state's history.)


The most immediate event impacting the Native Americans in and around the future site of Indianapolis was the pivotal Treaty of St. Mary’s in 1818 (check out this link for a blog posting about the discovery of a copy of the treaty in the state archives). The treaty was finalized between the United States and several Native American tribes, including the Miami, Wea, Delaware (Lenape), Wyandot, and Potawatomi, and generally required the Native Americans to give up their lands in an area which covered most of central Indiana, and set out the displacement of some of these tribes to lands west of the Mississippi. Fragments of other tribes, comingled with the ones noted above, were also included, namely the Seneca and Shawnese (a.k.a Shawnee). The United States "purchased" the land, although the negotiations were tilted in the government's favor due to the ever increasing pressures from settlers and military power of the United States which had defeated the Native Americans of the Northwest Territories during the previous 15 years. The map below shows the central part of Indiana after the Treaty of St. Mary's, although some Native American groups, like the Lenape (Delaware) and Miami, are still present in these lands.

#indyturns200 old map Indiana New Purchase history of Indianapolis
Credit: Indianapolis Historical Society, 1821

The most notable portion of the treaty was with the Miami, who were the largest Native American group both in population and land (recall that the Lenape were essentially guests on those lands). The Miami lands were pushed north to the Wabash River, and the Great Miami Reserve, the largest Native American Reservation in the state, was established in the area around Howard County. The Miami would also receive annuity payments from the US government, along with farming materials, and the construction of mills and blacksmith facilities.


The Lenape finalized their portion of the treaty with the United States on October 3, 1818, which required them give up their residency and any land claims in Indiana during the next 3 years, in return for $4,000 in annuity payments (a few chiefs received secret individual annuities), and new lands in Missouri. A few members of the tribe who were not going to move west received small allotments of land, but most would soon begin yet another displacement of their people. The land opened to Euro-American settlers was known as the New Purchase, and within that would be the site of Indianapolis.


Native American Presence in Indianapolis


By 1820/21, the center of the Lenape population was along the White River north of Indianapolis, where a series of villages and towns was located, from William Conner's home (present day Conner's Prairie) to Anderson and Muncie. The map below identifies Lenape towns along the White River from Marion County northward. No Lenape villages are reported to have been sited in the original plat of the mile square of Indianapolis. Considering the site’s swampy and often flooded nature due to the proximity of the White River, Fall Creek, the ravines which cross the mile square, and Pogue’s Run, it is possible that the Native Americans recognized the location was not ideal, or healthy, for long term habitation. However, outside of Indianapolis mile square in the county, there were signs of more established habitation, namely two possible towns, one in northern Marion County, the other on the southern county line.

#indyturns200 Lenape Indian towns Indiana New Purchase history of Indianapolis
Credit: Charles Thompson (1937) Sons of the Wilderness: John and William Connor. Ind. Hist. Society

The evidence of these towns is pieced together through various secondary and primary sources detailing the years prior to, and at the time of, the founding of Indianapolis. The southern town was supposedly located on the Marion/Johnson County line and was described as being on the western side of the White River, with clearings and fields for agriculture on the both the west and east sides of the White River. Dr. Ryland Brown, who authored the 1882 Report of a Geological and Topographical Survey of Marion County, Indiana, in discussing these two the Lenape towns in Marion County, described the southern town as the “largest and most important of these was located on the high bluff west of White river, the town being divided by the line now separating Johnson and Marion counties.” Mann Hill is located a short distance north of the county line, and that hill could be the high bluff referenced by Brown. The Chief of this town was reported by Brown, and others, as being named Big Fire.


According to local legend, this town was the site of a battle several years before the founding of Indianapolis. Various sources, such as Berry Sulgrove’s History of Indianapolis and Marion County, and the A Historical Sketch of Johnson County Indiana by David Banta, and Ignatius Brown’s Logan's History of Indianapolis from 1818, discuss this town and the battle in similar detail. This incident was preceded by an attack by Native Americans from a branch of the Shawnee tribe on the Euro-American settlement at Pigeon’s Roost in Scott County (the historical marker at this site can be viewed here) in September of 1812. While the attack did occur, the events afterwards seem more akin to local legend. According to some histories, an armed detachment known as the Madison Rangers traveled northward in pursuit of the Native Americans involved in the attack. These Rangers reached the Marion/Johnson County line where the above-described Lenape town was located and attacked and destroyed the town and surrounding fields, despite the Lenape not being the aggressors at Pigeon’s Roost, although there were reports of one or two Lenape in the the party. Banta’s history of Johnson County reported that by 1820, the remains of the village and agricultural fields could still be seen. Banta further describes finding bullets and other artifacts at Section 32, Township 14N, Range 3E, which is along the east side of the river and a mile south of County Line Road.


Corroborating evidence of this battle, and the town, is limited, and I could find little information confirming a Chief Big Fire existed. Indeed, it seems that many of the sources discussing these topics cite back to each other and contain strikingly similar accounts. The unnamed author of an article titled “Indian Towns in Marion County,” which appeared in the Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History in 1905, also expresses doubts about the existence of the town, noting that “[t]he town that once stood where the river crosses the south line of the county was still a thing of vague report,” and suggests that it was more of a local tradition as opposed to an established fact.


An 1888 work, Loughery's Defeat and Pigeon Roost Massacre, described the attack on Pigeon Roost and includes commentary from individuals who lived in the area and were part of the militia which responded to the attack. One such person, Judge Isaac Naylor, joined a group which pursued the Native Americans, but turned back when they found the attacking force had left the area. When joined by additional military units from Kentucky, and some "Indiana Rifleman," another expedition was launched to attack towns on the White River, but this effort was unsuccessful. As described by Naylor, "[i]n attempting a military organization, the expedition failed through the ambition of a few men who desired to have the command of the troops. We then dispersed and retired to our homes..." This seems to support that the often cited battle on the Marion/Johnson County line did not occur, or at least did not occur soon after the Pigeon Roost incident.


More recent scholarly articles make no mention of a Native American town, Lenape or otherwise. Examination of the original surveys for this area, done in 1820/21 shows no indications of a Native American town, although such towns are identified farther north at Conner's Prairie and on the future site of Anderson, Indiana (see survey maps below). Additionally, a survey of the land just north of Conner's makes note of an "Old Indian Village" on one section surveyed. It seems reasonable to conclude that if there was an identifiable town or significant settlement, or the remains of one, in southern Marion County, it would have been noted in these surveys.

The only potential reference I found to some presence along this part of the White River comes from the journals of John Tipton, an early Euro-American settler who was a solider (he reached the rank of general in the War of 1812), and later State Representative and US Senator. Tipton was heavily engaged in the hostilities with the Native Americans around the time of the War of 1812, and was familiar with the various tribes and geography of Indiana. In 1820 Tipton had been appointed as one of the Commissioners charged with selecting the location of Indianapolis and traveled to William Conner's home in the spring of that year to meet the other Commissioners and formally determine the location of the future seat of government. After their selection had been made, Tipton and several others left William Conner's home and began to follow the White River south to visit the territory around Spencer, Indiana. His journal notes that on May 29, 1820, that he and his party crossed Fall Creek at 3:15 in the afternoon and continued down the river, before stopping that evening at 7 "at some Indian camps," where the party passed a "pleasant" night.


The next day, Tuesday, May 30, Tipton notes the party set out at 6 am, and at 7:45 am they "past the Bluffs stopt at Whetsalls." The Bluffs referenced here are the Bluffs of the White River, an early landmark in this area, and located just north of Waverly at Ind. 37 and State Road 144. The "Whetsalls" are the Whetzel family who, were some of the original Euro-American settlers in the area. Visualizing Tipton's route, and the location of the Bluffs, and the southern Marion County town discussed above, the "Indian camps" Tipton stayed at on the night of May 29, could have been at or near the Marion/Johnson County line and present day Southwestway Park/Mann Hill.


Considering the folklore which has developed around the alleged battle and the Native American village, I would theorize that there was some Native American presence prior to the establishment of Indianapolis, and I think Tipton's records support that the area was at least used as a camping ground, versus a permanent village or town, at the time Indianapolis was founded. As for Chief Big Fire, his existence is something of a mystery. Brown’s Report of a Geological and Topographical Survey of Marion County, Indiana, notes that Big Fire was allegedly a “firm friend” of William Henry Harrison, although no mention of Big Fire is made in the Harrison papers at the Indiana Historical Society that I was able to locate.


However, one source, the book Counties of Clay and Owen, Indiana: Historical and Biographical (1884), does references a Chief Big Fire outside the context of the village and battle in southern Marion County. In the bibliographic section of this book, a local minister named J.M. Mathes described that in 1823 or 1824, a group of Lenape traveling to their treaty lands in the west camped just north of Gosport, Indiana as they followed the river downstream and to the west. Mathes identifies the chief as Big Fire, described that the chief died while at the camp and he was buried on a bluff just north of the town. He also describes that the Lenape stayed in the area for 30 days for a morning period.


Delaware Indians Indianapolis history pigeon roost massacre
Counties of Clay and Owen, Indiana: Historical and Biographical (1884), p. 701

I had been concerned that Big Fire may have been a construct of the Euro-American settlers in the area, a practice which is not unheard of when dealing with Lenape leaders. (See this link for a story about the false Lenape Chief Munsee, supposedly the name behind Muncie, Indiana.) However, I think this source lends some credence to the Big Fire connection in southern Marion County (Gosport is not that far downriver from the village site), and it is helpful that the author was a young man at the time of this occurrence and observed the event personally.


Aside from the Lenape presence in the area of Mann Hill and the Marion/Johnson County line, there is other evidence of a Lenape town elsewhere in Marion County. As noted in the map of Lenape towns along the White River, above, there was a Lenape village, called the ‘Lower Delaware Town,’ in northern Marion County. Direct observation of this town is provided once again provided by John Tipton, who references the town in his diary, this time as he was on his way to William Conner’s home south of Noblesville to assist in the selection of the site for Indianapolis. As he traveled through Marion County heading northward, he recorded in his diary that he passed the “Lower Delaware Town,” just after crossing Fall Creek and near the 17N4E Sections 32 and 33 (see green highlights in map below), which places the village somewhere northeast of Broad Ripple and in between Keystone and Castleton. The location is also noted on the "Indian Towns" map depicted earlier in this blog post. This town is also referenced in Brown’s Report of a Geological and Topographical Survey of Marion County, Indiana, where the author identifies the location of the village as being in section 20 (see blue highlight in the map below).


The extent of this town at the time of Tipton's visit and the establishment of Indianapolis is hard to gauge, as is its exact location. McCord (2004) is an article which analyzes the archeological remains of the various Lenape towns along the river. In this paper, the location of the "Lower Delaware Town" is referred to as "unspecific" and details how in some sources the village is four miles south of Conner's home, or it could have been associated with an area of Native American occupancy south of the county line and east of the White River. Considering the varying information, McCord(2004) concludes that the site was very close to the Hamilton/Marion County line. This is in line with Tipton's report of the town being north of sections 32 and 33 in the map above, and Brown's location in section 20.


Upon arriving at Conner’s for the meeting of the State Commissioners, Tipton noted that there were several “Indian huts” in close proximity to the home. Tipton does not identify whether these huts were Lenape, although that assumption seems logical considering Conner’s longtime role as an “Indian Agent,” that he had lived amongst the Lenape for the past 20 years, and that his wife was Lenape. Lastly, Conner’s Station (as his cabin at present day Conner Prairie was often called) was along a stretch of the White River that had several Delaware villages, including Anderson Town. Located within present day Anderson, Indiana, this village was the home of Chief William Anderson (also known as Kikthawenund), who was the father of Conner’s wife, and would lead a large number of Lenape westward later that year as part of their required displacement under the Treaty of St. Mary's. As for the the Lower Delaware Town in northern Marion County, the site is entirely subsumed by development, including the remains of several gravel mining operations, and there is no evidence of its existence today.


Once the site of Indianapolis was selected, and the future city established, interactions with Native Americans continued. One of the often repeated stories of early Indianapolis is the disappearance of George Pogue in April 1821, who according to legend was informed by a lone Wyandot known to travel between various Native American camps in the area, that he had observed horses which seemed to match those which had been stolen from Pogue near Buck Creek, southeast of Indianapolis. Pogue set off to reclaim what he believed were his stolen horses from these Lenape but was never seen again. Reports in secondary sources differ, with some reporting that shots from the Lenape camp were overheard and that Lenape were later observed wearing Pogue's clothing. Other accounts state that the local white settlers gathered a group who searched local Native American camps for signs of Pogue. Whatever the truth behind Pogue’s disappearance, this story does show the presence of Native Americans, including the Lenape, in Indianapolis and Marion County at the earliest date of the city’s existence.


Even as Euro-American settlers traveled into the New Purchase, the land which was opened following the Treaty of St. Mary’s, and to Indianapolis, occasional encounters with Native Americans continued. Most of these encounters appear to be transient in nature, with the Native Americans passing through the city, and heading north, in accordance with the treaty obligations. On December 1, 1823, Calvin Fletcher recorded in his diary that a group of Native Americans traveled through the city, selling venison and bear meat. Fletcher mentions that a “Capt. John,” whom he identifies as a Wyandot chief was part of this group. (p. 99) A few weeks later, on December 14, Fletcher again recorded that a group of Native Americans came through offering venison hams, although he does not identify their tribal affiliation. (p. 101) I was unable to find any additional information on the Capt. John referenced by Fletcher, although I found other examples of Native American chiefs being referred to as “Captain” in various local historical sources.


Fletcher would travel to the northern part of the state in spring of 1824 on his way to visit his family in Vermont. He traveled by way of William Conner’s home, and recorded numerous encounters with Native Americans north of Indianapolis, along the White River (likely Lenape, and others from smaller tribes) and farther north along the Wabash, which was the territory of the Miami people. He was also involved in the defense of several white men accused of killing a peaceful band of Seneca along Fall Creek near present day Pendleton in 1824. However, no further mention is made of his experiences with Native Americans in Marion County or Indianapolis.


Another member of the Fletcher family, Emily Beeler Fletcher, the wife of Calvin Fletcher Jr., gave an interview to the Indianapolis News in 1907 where she was questioned about the existence of Native Americans around Indianapolis, since she was believed to be one of the oldest citizens in the city at the time. Fletcher, who was born in 1828 in Decatur Township, southwest of downtown, noted that there were always Native Americans around when she was a child, but they were “entirely friendly." She also described how “they used to come through the woods past[sic] our house in small parties of three or four and ask for something to eat and we always fed them. Once I saw a band of about one hundred Miami Indians moving north preparatory to leaving the state after some treaty had been made.”


Fletcher may have been mistaken regarding the identify of the Native Americans, since the Miami, while at one point prevalent across the central part of the state, were primarily confined to the territory along the Wabash River, and in several of what turned out to be short lived reservations (including the Great Miami Reservation) or had already been displaced westward, by the early 1830’s when Fletcher was a child. Whatever the case, her recollections of Native Americans passing through the area and heading north comports with the Native American’s northern migration out of the New Purchase as required under the Treaty of St. Mary’s.

Indianapolis history #indyturns200 Lenape Indians
Map of the territory around the Johnson homestead.

Another early settler in Marion County, Oliver Johnson, was credited with a memoir of his early years in Marion County north of downtown as recounted to his grandson and published 40 years after his death. Johnson’s family lived in the northern part of Marion County near the current State Fairgrounds and he was born in 1821. In the memoir, Johnson describes how early settlers tapping trees for sugar in what he called the Sugar Flats, an area that the map accompanying his recollections depicted south and southeast of Board Ripple. He recounted that many of the trees in this area bore the scars of previous tappings done by Native Americans. Johnson also recollected that the Native Americans had moved out from the territory his family lived due to the treaty (St. Mary's), but that "[f]or a few years after, a band [of Native Americans] would come through, just travelin or movin, nobody knew which." In 1828, when a schoolhouse was built in the area and he was seven, Johnson noted that by that time the Native Americans had left the area "except for now and then some friendly ones travelin or comin to trade." Johnson's recollections of the Native Americans passing through his part of Marion County is similar to what Calvin and Emily Fletcher described of their experiences with Native Americans in Indianapolis.


The founding of Indianapolis came at a moment of transition for Marion County and Central Indiana as a whole. The selection of the location of the seat of government would trigger a wave of migration by Euro-Americans into the new town, and the surrounding territory. At the same time, there was a steady migration out of the territory by the native peoples who were being displaced by the rapidly advancing frontier. The early years of Indianapolis shows that there were still regular interactions with Native American’s although these contacts were transitory in nature as members of the Lenape and other Native American tribes were pressured to surrender their territory in the face of expanding settlement from Euro-American settlers attracted to the new capitol of Indiana.





Sources


Indianapolis News: February 13, 1907, p. 13


A home in the woods; Oliver Johnson's reminiscences of early Marion County, Howard Johnson, Indiana Historical Society, 1951


John Tipton papers. Volume I: 1809-1827, Indiana Historical Bureau, pp 1979-205


Banta, David Demaree, "History of Johnson County Indiana" (1888). Articles by Maurer Faculty. 1080. https://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/facpub/1080


Brown, Ignatius, (1868). Logan's History of Indianapolis from 1818


Lahrman, D., & Johnson, R. (1975). A Delaware Indian's Reservation: Samuel Cassman vs. Goldsmith C. Gilbert. Indiana Magazine of History, 71(2), 103-123. Retrieved July 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27790025


Larson, J., & Vanderstel, D. (1984). Agent of Empire: William Conner on the Indiana Frontier, 1800-1855. Indiana Magazine of History, 80(4), 301-328. Retrieved July 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27790831


Yann, Jessica. L (2009) In Search of the Indiana Lenape: A Predictive Summary of the Archaeological Impact of the Lenape Living Along the White River in Indiana from 1790 -1821.


McCord, Beth (2002) The Ghosts of the Delaware: An Archaeological Study of Delaware Settlement Along the White River, Indiana. Reports of Investigation 62. Muncie: Archaeological Resource Management Service, Ball State University.


Brown, Ryland T. Report of a Geological and Topographical Survey· of Marion County; Indiana


Indian Towns in Marion County. (1905). The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History, 1(1), 15-17. Retrieved July 3, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27785088


Thompson, Charles N. (1937) Sons of the Wilderness, John and William Conner


Gayle Thornbrough, ed., The Diary of Calvin Fletcher (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1972), vol. 1, p. 99, 101


William Henry Harrison Papers, Microfilm Reel 6: August 28, 1812-December 19, 1812, Indiana Historical Society


Blanchard, Charles, (1884) Counties of Clay and Owen, Indiana: Historical and Biographical, F.A. Battey & Co., Chicago, https://archive.org/details/countiesofclayow00blan/mode/2up


Martindale, Charles (1888) Loughery's Defeat and Pigeon Roost Massacre, https://archive.org/details/cihm_09846/page/n11/mode/2up