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Long ago in Bloomington…

March 23, 2013
The advertisement for the very first sale of lots in Bloomington, 1818, from the Vincennes Sun. Note the remark about how "gentlemen around the state" expected Bloomington to be chosen as the state capital.

The advertisement for the very first sale of lots in Bloomington, 1818, from the Vincennes Sun. Note the remark about how “gentlemen in various parts of the state” expected Bloomington to be chosen as the state capital.

Bloomington, Indiana is a college town well known for its art, theater, music and culture. Few of its citizens have considered the fact that the city is now almost 200 years old. Bloomingtonians tend to think that “deep” history happened only in the East, in the thirteen original states, or possibly in the South during the Civil War. But our city and county were both founded in 1818 and are therefore the better part of two centuries old. The oldest buildings on the courthouse square are Victorian, so our imagining of local history ends there. But the town is decidedly pre-Victorian, having been founded before Queen Victoria was even born. Our history begins when Jefferson and John Adams were still enjoying retirement, and the ruling President was James Monroe.

The early county commissioners decreed that the new town of Bloomington would have streets and lots of uniform size laid out around a public square 276 feet on each side. But one can’t dip a quill into ink and conjure up a city that easily. The site they chose for the new town was at the time largely forested, the former properties of two farmers named Robertson and Graham, who lived in log cabins and were carrying on subsistence farming in clearings amid the woods. Bear in mind that the trees of early Indiana were more like California redwoods than anything that grows here today. Towering well over a hundred feet high, filled intermittently with vast flocks of passenger pigeons that darkened the sky in migration, the woods provided habitat for cougar, bear, deer and wolves. The commissioners ordered that four standing stones be sunk into the corners of the heavily forested new public square in order to assist the imagination of those who were considering buying lots in the new community. (“Hmmm, where’s the next stone? … Ah, yes, over there behind the huge tulip poplar. This could make a good-size town, that’s for certain, but it’ll sure require a heap of clearing.”)

The commissioners directed that the first two auctions of lots in the new town would be accompanied by a keg of whiskey, to ensure spirited bidding. It was a good marketing move, as early American settlers drank liquor in impressive quantities. By the end of the first year virtually all the 300-plus lots had been sold, but that doesn’t mean that the town suddenly had a large population. New property owners needed to fell the trees that stood on their new lots before they could construct log cabins. Gradually the town evolved from forest to a cluster of log cabins in the centers of muddy clearings, the remaining trees girdled and dying around them. Few new citizens bothered to dig privies; most would have simply disposed of waste and garbage (a small item, as food was so scarce) by tossing it into a pile in the yard, where unfenced hogs whiffled through the remains.

Life was a lot messier and more unkempt than the cleaned-up historic re-enactments we see at Spring Mill and Connor Prairie. There was no concept of neat lawns, of curb-appeal, or of public zoning. Every house kept livestock which wandered at will (and occasionally menaced the children). Women’s lives consisted of endless cycles of cooking, spinning, weaving and sewing, with gardening added during the warmer months, and they gave birth to an enormous number of children. Pioneer life in the forests of the West (as it was called then) was not easy, tidy or safe. People died of ailments as simple as a scratch or mosquito bite that would lead to blood poisoning and death in under a week. And remember the fate of Abraham Lincoln’s mother, who died suddenly on the family farm a hundred miles south of Bloomington around that time, poisoned by drinking milk from a cow that had eaten toxic snakeroot. Malaria was endemic, carried by the hordes of mosquitoes that came swarming in through open windows all summer long. Typhoid and cholera arrived soon after settlement.

One thing which no previous history of Bloomington has noted is the fact that there were a small number of slaves present in the community. Officially Indiana was an anti-slavery state, but anyone who imported his own slaves to the area simply made them sign indentures of ongoing servitude. The 1820 census lists less than five African-Americans but it seems probable that there were more than that number present. A touching record of indenture survives in the documentation at the History Center, by which a black woman named Anaca indentured herself to her master for five years starting in June of 1820 for the minuscule consideration of three dollars. She bound herself legally to serve him, his heirs and assigns; swore to do no harm to him nor allow harm to be done to him by others, asserted that she would never waste her master’s goods and would not absent herself day nor night from her master’s service without his leave, and that she would “demean herself as a faithful indentured servant ought to do during the said term of five years.” All for three measly dollars! A skilled workingman’s daily wage in those times hovered around 75 cents, so we see that the amount paid in exchange for her five years’ labor was equivalent to about one week of a man’s wage. Women’s work (and slave’s work) was enormously undervalued despite the fact that all of pioneer society depended upon it.  Nowhere in the contract did Anaca’s master bind himself legally to clothe, shelter or even feed her during those five years of servitude. We also have a slightly later record of a newcomer arriving in town and being greeted by Anaca, but learning later in the day that she had died of cholera several hours after he had seen her working.

Bloomington and Monroe County have not had a new and comprehensive history written about them since 1914. It’s definitely time for a new history, and I have begun to write a bicentennial narrative that I hope will tell hitherto untold stories like that of Anaca. Back in 1914 historians had no interest in women, or blacks, or Jews, or gays, or artists and musicians, or artisan laborers, or in anything other than successful local white Christian businessmen. It’s high time that all these other people’s stories finally get to be told as well.

An ad from the Vincennes Sun, 1818, for a runaway slave.

An ad from the Vincennes Sun, 1818, for a runaway slave.

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4 Comments
  1. derekandjenrichey permalink

    Carrol: This article is interesting in about a thousand different ways, but let me start with two:
    1. Going through the census data as we did to find out more about who lived where and what they did, we find that “stone workers” and “railroad workers” or any of the other tough jobs that had to be done, get little attention in the papers–making it so hard to tell the story of the average worker (the archives we use usually range from the 1850s to the 1940s). You’re right–most of what can be found are about the city’s “elite” and business owners, unless of course you were a poor worker unfortunate enough to be busted for public drunkeness, a brawl, or some other deviant activity. Most reports on “negro” citizens usually only found themselves in the paper when a crime was suspected or committed. Still, we have been able to tell some of those stories, but it is a tough dig.
    2. Passenger pigeons mentioned in your article! Ask a majority of people today what a passenger pigeon is and they’ll shrug. Why? They were hunted into extinction after once being the most abundant bird in North America. They were used for food, but often they were simply hunted in massive nets because they were thought of as pests. Martha, thought to be the last passenger pigeon in North America, died in a zoo in 1914…
    3. I look forward to reading more!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Derek and Jen! I hope very much that this history project can be accomplished. There is so much to tell here…in fact, the stories that have already been told are only the tip of the iceberg, with far more still hidden from view.

      Re: passenger pigeons, I was taught as a child that overhunting led to their extinction. But as I read about how pioneers cleared the forests of early Indiana, it became obvious to me that it was just as likely that habitat loss also contributed to their extinction. Similarly, I now wonder whether the settlement and fencing of the Plains States (Nebraska, Kansas, etc.) had as much to do with the decimation of the American bison as the actual mass hunting did.

      thanks for reading, and commenting!
      Carrol

  2. Carey Beam permalink

    Carrol, this is great. Let me know if you want to look through our records regarding Elizabeth Breckenridge, the African American domestic servant of the T. Wylie family. She lived with them for the majority of her life (1860ish- 1900ish) and eventually bought her own home on Washington St. in 1902(?) just before she died. What would that process have been like for her, I wonder?

    • Thank you Carey, I most certainly want to learn more about Elizabeth, but I probably need to work my way forward in linear time on the project until I reach the proper era. (If I jump back and forth in time I’m not sure that insights will be acquired properly.) I’m very glad to know that you have information like this available. This will help enormously.

      Many thanks for reading, and commenting!
      Carrol

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