Long ago in Bloomington…
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.