Based on a letter written by English colonist Edward Winslow, what we have come to call the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621 in what is now Massachusetts. More than four centuries later, our grasp of what was happening during this time in history at Plymouth Colony is being rigorously reassessed.
Around Thanksgiving dining tables this year, people are honoring traditions as well as new understandings. To add to this conversation, we’re sharing our own local history and some of what we know about interactions among Native Americans and white settlers.
“The Miami and Wea peoples were in this area long before the 1600s. They left in the mid-1600s to go west and northwest during the Beaver Wars, and returned in the early 1700s. In the 1600s, tribes like the Potawatomi and Wea became dominant,” according to “Celebrating Hamilton County, Indiana: 200 Years of Change.” The following is also from this official Bicentennial history book.
Non-native fur traders may have begun appearing in the area by 1717. That was when the French trading post at Ouiatenon on the Wabash River (at the site of what is now the city of West Lafayette) was established and the Trace would have been a useful route to get there. Despite this, the area seems to have had little involvement in the disagreements between the French, Natives, and the British over control of the land north of the Ohio River. The area became part of the Northwest Territory according to the U.S. government when it was established in 1787 after the American Revolution. The Native Americans still claimed the land as Myaamionki, the land of the Miami and other tribes. (1)
The trails through Hamilton County were possibly used as a route during the series of battles known as the Northwest Indian War. The explorer William Clark, (later of Lewis and Clark), was part of a military expedition in 1791 that may have used the trails to get from the Wabash River to the Falls of the Ohio. (2) With the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 ending the war, the Lenape (Delaware) Indians and their allied tribe, the Nanticoke, arrived from the east and established towns along the river. Chief Anderson – whose Lenape name was Kikthawenund – eventually became leader. In 1800, the Indiana Territory was created with William Henry Harrison as governor in the still-not-yet-ceded Native Land.
The Lenape established several villages along the White River in the area that would become Hamilton County. The site where 96th Street crosses White River today was called the Lower Delaware Village or Owl’s village. It later had a trading post run by one of the Lenape families that stayed in the area after 1818 (see Chapter 3). There was a small unnamed village near where William Conner would establish his trading post. Another village was where 146th Street crosses White River, and was supposedly burned during the War of 1812. The ruins on the west bank of the river remained a landmark for many years. The Upper Delaware Village was at the horseshoe bend where Stoney Creek joins White River. This is where the first white settlers established themselves. (3) Farther upriver, there was a village called Sarahtown which may have been where River Bend Campground is today.
The main village in Hamilton County was Strawtown. Local lore claimed that it was named for a Lenape Chief named Straw or Strawbridge and a monument was created for him in 1928. However, no such name has been found in any contemporary documents. The earliest mention of the community name is from 1850, saying that it was named for a house with a roof made of straw. Just beyond the present border with Madison County was the village called Nancytown, which had been settled by members of the Nanticoke tribe. The next village was the main tribal community of Andersontown, which would eventually become the city of Anderson. (4)
The Fur Trade – Hamilton County’s First Industry
For close to a century, from around 1717 to around 1820, the fur trade powered the economy in the area that would become Hamilton County. We know little about the trading in the area until the establishment of Fort Ouiatenon in 1717 at the head of the northern end of the Lafayette Trace. Interestingly, the first known European traders in the Hamilton County area were probably from Vincennes. They were the Brouilettes, a French family that received a license in 1801 to trade with the Miami Indians. This apparently included the Lenape Indians who had obtained permission from the Miamis in the late 1700s to settle in the area after being pushed from their homes in the east.
The Brouilettes, (also spelled Bruett, Bullett, Bennett, etc)., established a trading post at the Lenape village on the site of present-day Strawtown. This was a prime spot, as this was the largest village in the area. The family also established a post at what was known as Lower Delaware Village, which was roughly where 96th Street crosses White River today. Members of the family stayed in the county until the 1820s and owned property in the area that would become Carmel (see Chapter 3).
In 1802, the man who is recognized as the first permanent settler of the area, William Conner (1777-1855), arrived to establish a trading post. However, since the Brouilette family had established a post at Strawtown, Conner created his further downriver at a ford later called Jordan’s Ford. Conner then took a Lenape woman as his wife. Her name was Mekinges and, as a daughter of Chief Anderson, she was well-connected. (Importantly, the Lenape tribe is matrilineal, which means that the mother determines the clan of the child. Still, her connections to the Chief would have been useful). (5)
The only other trader in the area was Pete Smith – an African-American who lived with Native Americans at the site on White River where it is joined by Stoney Creek. It’s not certain when he arrived, but it was sometime before 1819.
All of these people were involved in the exchanging of various manufactured items to the Native Americans for animal pelts. The traders would offer utensils, cloth, metal knives and other things. In the archaeological work at Strawtown Koteewi Park, a piece of trade silver was found. This was a silver pin that could be worn on the clothing as an ornament and could be traded again later. The Native Americans in return had pelts from nearly every kind of animal in the area – the most valuable being beaver. Generally, the skins prepared by the Native Americans were usually considered to be of superior quality to those prepared by Europeans.
We have some idea of prices from William Conner’s dealings with later trappers. All of the prices below are in 1800s values:
Beaver skins - $1.00 to $1.25 a pound
Entire deerskin - $1.00 for a male (a buck)
67 to 75 cents for a female (a doe)
Bearskin - from $1.25 to $5.00 (depending on quality)
Fox, mink, and wildcat - 50 to 67 cents.
Raccoons - 37 ½ to 40 cents, a good skin could bring $1.00.
Muskrats - 25 cents
Weasels, groundhogs, and opossums had no trade value. (6)
The fur trade in Hamilton County could be considered to have ended with the Treaty of St. Mary’s in 1818, in which the Native Americans agreed to move farther west and opened the area to white settlement. The Lenape were gone by 1822, removing one of the key sources of pelts. Mekinges went with them and William Conner married a white woman settler about three months after she left. The Brouilettes had already returned to Vincennes. Pete Smith was taken away by a man who claimed that Smith was his runaway slave and was never seen again (see Chapter 7). Pioneers moved into the area and began clearing the forest for farming. The animal population dropped rapidly, with most of the larger animals gone by the 1860s. There was still some interest in hides and pelts, as the first industry in Noblesville was Cogswell’s Tannery, which opened in 1825. However, a changing economic base signaled the end of the opening chapter in the county’s history.
The Lafayette Trace may have been used by Tecumseh to travel between Prophetstown and Andersontown as he tried to get Chief Anderson to join his confederacy. One source says that the Lenape requested aid and protection from William Henry Harrison during Tecumseh’s 1811 uprising, to which Harrison responded by stationing cavalry at Strawtown. (7) However, during the War of 1812, the Lenape abandoned Strawtown and retreated to Ohio.
Hamilton County is not usually thought of in terms of bloody combat, but during the War of 1812, Indiana was a major battle zone with clashes between United States soldiers and Native Americans at places like Mississinewa, Fort Wayne, and Terre Haute. Spillover into this area would be expected, particularly with the crucial trail crossroads at Strawtown. On June 11, 1813, Colonel Joseph Bartholomew of the Indiana Rangers set out from Fort Vallonia in southern Indiana up the west fork of the White River with 137 men to deal with a rising number of attacks by Native Americans.
One of Colonel Bartholomew’s soldiers, Sargent John Ketcham, later wrote his version of what happened.
We then went down the river to towns not interrupted, and come to Strawtown late in the evening, and discovered fresh Indian signs. Early next morning, General Bartholomew, Captain Dunn and Captain Shields and about twenty Rangers, went in pursuit of the Indians.
When we had proceeded about three-fourths of a mile we discovered three horses; we surrounded and secured them—two were hobbled. Following their back track, we came to their camp. General Bartholomew directed three mounted Rangers, namely, Severe Lewis, David Hays, and ------- (that is John Ketcham) to keep in the rear, but at the fire of the first gun to dash forward.
Captain Dunn went on the right under cover of the river bank, Captain Shields on the left, and General Bartholomew brought up the center division. The directions were to surround their camp and take them prisoners.
The Indians had a large brass kettle hanging over a fire, with three deer heads boiling, and were sitting near the fire. Captain Shields slipped carefully through the bushes, and when opposite the camp, at 100 yards distance, the Indians discovered us, jumped to their guns and fled.
Shields fired his gun to notify the horsemen. One of Bigger’s men, (to-wit, John Ketcham) immediately started in pursuit, ran two or three hundred yards, when he got into the path the Indians had run on. He was within thirty steps of his game, and shot down an Indian.
The other horsemen soon made up, but the other Indians were just out of sight. They were directed by (Ketcham) to where the Indian was last seen. Hays got separated from the other two horsemen, and unfortunately, met with the secreted Indian, who gave him a mortal wound.
The horses and kettle were sold to the highest bidder, on a credit, and the notes were given to Hays. His wounds were dressed by David Maxwell. He was carried on a litter to the mouth of Flat Rock, now Columbus, where we made two canoes and sent him and the guard by water to Vallonia where his wife and family were. He died in two or three days, after they had reached the fort. (8)
During the war, William Conner left his trading post and served with the army at several battles, including the Battle of the Thames in Canada, where Tecumseh was killed. The Lenape Native Americans returned to this area in 1815 after the war was over.
The Native American presence in the Hamilton County area was officially ended by the Treaty of St. Mary’s in 1818. Although the main treaty was with the Miamis, the pre-eminent tribe in Indiana, the villages in the area at the time belonged to the Delaware/Lenape tribes who lived there with Miami consent. While the Miami Tribe did not have villages in this area, they still saw it as their land, especially because of its value for hunting. This treaty was signed at St. Mary’s, Ohio, on October 6, 1818. The John Melish map of the state from 1819 shows nothing in the central area except for Lenape villages on the upper part of the west fork of the White River. (9)
A separate treaty made with the Lenapes was signed on October 3 by Chief Anderson and other Lenape leaders, most of whom lived in what today is Madison County. Among the names were Lapahnihe or Big Bear, James Nanticoke (the Nanticoke Native Americans were a tribe allied to the Lenape), Captain Killbuck, Netahopuna, The War Mallet, Petchenanais, and others.
The area from this treaty became known as the Delaware New Purchase. This larger area was soon broken up into sections called Wabash County, which covered the Wabash River drainage area, and Delaware County, which covered the White River drainage area. The Delaware New Purchase eventually became about 35 different counties. This would include Hamilton County, but first there had to be enough residents to legally incorporate it.
You can find much more Hamilton County history in “Celebrating Hamilton County, Indiana: 200 Years of Change.” Plus, the beautiful book makes a wonderful holiday gift!
The Hamilton County Bicentennial is proudly supported by Duke Energy, Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, Hamilton County Tourism Inc., and Hamilton County Historical Society.
Schedule of Indian Land Cessions, American Memory, Library of Congress. https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwss-ilc.html. Accessed 3/3/2022. This data is supported by Miami oral tradition. Hunter, Diane, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.
Clark, William. Journal of Gen. Charles Scott’s Journey, Ohio River to Louisville, May 1791. Clark family collection: Box 11. William Clark papers, 1789-1810.
Thompson, Charles N. 1937. Sons of the Wilderness. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society.
Thompson, Ibid; Helm, Thomas B. 1880. History of Hamilton County, Indiana. Chicago: Kingman Brothers., p. 132; Indiana Gazetteer. 1849. Indianapolis, E. Chamberlin, p. 394; Shirts, p. 17.
"Kik Tha We Nund" : the Delaware chief William Anderson and his descendants, Cranor, Ruby. [Bartlesville, OK?] : R.A. Cranor, [2000?]
Morris, Cloe and J Stanton Renner. 1988. Early History of Strawtown 1787-1861, 11.
Brown, Ryland T. 1884. Geological and Topographical Survey of Hamilton and Madison Counties, Indiana – Fourteenth Annual Report of Indiana Department of Geology and Natural History, 21-28.
Esarey, Logan, ed. 1922. Messages and letters of William Henry Harrison, Volume 2. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Commission, 282-283.
This data is supported by Miami oral tradition: Hunter, Diane, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.