The mansion of Grouseland
In much of the Midwest, a pre-Civil War home is considered old. But Grouseland, the Georgian mansion built in 1804 in Vincennes, Indiana, predates statehood itself.
”]Vincennes is the oldest community in Indiana, and one of the oldest settlements west of the Appalachians. Founded in the 1730s by French voyageurs, Vincennes marked the spot where the Buffalo Trace crossed the Wabash River. When William Henry Harrison, the newly-elected first governor of the Indiana Territory, arrived in the frontier village of Vincennes with his wife Anna, he resolved to build a mansion that would inspire respect and be worthy of the office of governor. Completed in 1804, Grouseland was the first brick house constructed within the Indiana Territory. It cost $20,000 (in those days, a fortune) and had a superb view of the Wabash.
Because Harrison owned slaves at the time that he and his family relocated to the frontier, he brought them along as part of his entourage. It is quite possible that some of the workers who built his mansion were enslaved. Slavery was afterward prohibited in the Territory and any existing slaves were reclassified as indentured servants. But whether they were white or black, slaves or freemen, the unknown craftsmen who built the house were highly skilled. The residence was built from 400,000 locally made bricks and choice hardwoods from the vicinity. Fine finishes and furniture were imported by boat from New Orleans, the East Coast or from Europe. The residence must have seemed a palace to the 700 local villagers.
The viewer who stands outside the home today must mentally strip away the nearby bungalows, the electric lines, levee and railroad in order to see a stately Virginia-style plantation home that originally possessed a 300-acre estate. The surrounding virgin forests contained cougars, bison, passenger pigeons and vast amounts of game (the local grouse led to the name of Harrison’s estate). Only a few days’ journey away, Indians viewed the increasing incursions of white settlers with understandable anger.
During the eight years that the Harrisons lived at Grouseland, the home was the center of frontier government where important treaties dealing with Indian lands were drawn up and signed. Because of “frontier hospitality” and the danger of Indian raids, Harrison and his wife Anna welcomed anyone who was passing through the area or who was afraid of Indian raids. Surviving records mention a constant stream of visitors, guests and troops staying at the house, which due to its thick brick walls could serve as an actual fortress. The basement contained an arsenal and had a brick-lined well set into the floor to serve in case of a siege.
Residents of this elegant home watched fearfully from their windows as the great Indian leader Tecumseh, accompanied by 400 warriors, paddled down the Wabash River to parley with the Governor. The two sides nearly came to blows during negotiations near the house, but war was averted until the Battle of Tippecanoe, when Harrison defeated the army of Tecumseh’s brother, The Prophet.
The mansion of Grouseland has a central hallway with a floating cantilevered staircase that curves upstairs to the upper hall. The ground floor has two spacious rooms: the dining salon and the council chambers where important territorial treaties were drawn up and signed. Upstairs are four bedrooms. Ceilings are more than eleven feet high and the tall windows have interior and exterior shutters. At the rear of the house is a dependency containing simpler lodgings and a morning room used by the lady of the house. The kitchen would have been built separately, at a distance from the house, due to the danger of fire from open flames. Grouseland’s basement contains a warming kitchen and buttery where food could be kept before being sent upstairs. One of the basement rooms is today a weaving workshop complete with spinning wheels and loom; this reminds us that every home back then, whether wealthy or poor, was largely self-sufficient.
Like many Americans in this past decade, Harrison built a bigger and better house than he could actually afford. He and Anna only lived in the house for eight years before he returned to Ohio. During the War of 1812, Harrison invaded Canada and finally defeated Tecumseh there. In his old age Harrison ran successfully for President on his reputation as an Indian fighter and frontiersman. For much of the rest of his life, including his brief presidency (he died of pneumonia a month after taking office) he struggled to pay his own bills and those of his children who fell on hard times. Although the house stayed in the family until the 1840s, the estate was parceled off. Grouseland was used as a hotel and at one time even for storing grain.
By 1909 the house was ramshackle and scheduled for demolition; it was openly stripped of salvageable parts. The local chapter of the DAR was horrified at the thought of losing such a significant building and immediately launched a drive to purchase and renovate it. Thanks to their efforts over many years, the house today is filled again with beautiful period furnishings.
Harrison’s campaign for the Presidency used the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” with images of a log cabin and a cask of hard cider. Ironically, he was a teetotaler and his frontier home was a mansion.
Learn more at http://www.grouselandfoundation.org/ and http://www.vincennescvb.org/attractions/16/historic. A large historic reenactment takes place inVincenneseach May; see http://www.spiritofvincennes.org/rendezvous/index.htm.