The Journal Gazette
Thursday, December 10, 2015 10:00 pm

Lessons of history

Today is the 199th anniversary of Indiana’s admission to the union, the start of a year-long celebration of the state’s bicentennial and a perfect opportunity to reflect on what Indiana looked like two centuries ago.

In "The Indiana Way," historian James H. Madison describes a territory largely unsettled and wild, shaped by political events within and beyond its borders. The Indiana Territory was formed in 1800, when the young U.S. Congress approved division of the Northwest Territory. The eastern portion became the new state of Ohio, in 1803, while the western division became the Indiana Territory, stretching west from the Ohio border to the Mississippi River and from the Ohio River north to the Canadian border.

"By 1800 the land northwest of the Ohio (River) was well on the way to becoming a full part of the American nation," writes the Indiana University historian in his well-regarded history of the state, "and its frontier people were already becoming in their own minds the most American of Americans."

Between that time and the state’s admission to the union, Indiana’s early settlers battled the resistance of Native Americans, dealt with the mechanics of surveying and selling land, and balanced their desire for self-government with the reality of becoming a part of the new nation.

Territorial governor William Henry Harrison was tasked with addressing Indiana resistance, according to Madison’s history.

"Harrison adopted an Indian policy devoted to aggressive land acquisition," he writes, negotiating multiple land treaties with Native American tribes, most of them signed in Vincennes or Fort Wayne. The governor’s success at securing the southern third of Indiana and most of Illinois came from "his persistence, skill and ruthlessness as treaty negotiator and from his ability to intimidate Indians with the military invincibility of the ‘long knives.’ " Harrison also enticed the chiefs with visits to Washington, and used disagreements among the tribal leaders to his own advantage.

Indian resistance continued, however, resulting in the famous Battle of Tippecanoe in November of 1811. Fort Wayne came under attack a year later, saved only by the intervention of a relief force of 5,000 Kentucky volunteers.

"This army lifted the siege of Fort Wayne and, joined by Indiana militia, launched a scorched-earth expedition against Indian villages, some of them neutral, burning the towns and destroying the crops of Miamis, Potawatomis and other tribes," Madison writes. "By the summer of 1813 it was clear that the Indians were thoroughly defeated."

Another battle at Indiana’s founding was the issue of slavery. Harrison convened a convention in 1802, successfully pushing a resolution calling for repeal of the prohibition against slavery in the territory, arguing it would attract more settlers to Indiana.

"Congress did not grant the petition but Gov. Harrison and the territorial judges nonetheless permitted slavery under various guises," according to Madison, in "a brazen and successful flouting of the antislavery terms of the Northwest Ordinance."

Later, in drafting the state constitution in Cory­don, the founders prohibited slavery but left a loophole for existing slave owners. The 1820 census – four years after Indiana became a state – showed 190 slaves. It took several Indiana Supreme Court decisions to make slavery and indentured servitude illegal even for indentures made before 1816, according to Madison.

Two centuries later – facing fractious political challenges and issues – it’s worth pausing to remember both our state and nation overcame issues every bit as divisive as the current ones, and without the wisdom gained from experience.

Happy Statehood Day.

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