Kids should be learning about history of Indiana

By James Johnson

Last year’s Indiana Bicentennial kindled, or rekindled, a great deal of interest in state history. Perhaps that accounts for legislation introduced in the recent session of the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 29 requires Indiana high schools to offer an elective course in state history at least one semester each year. The bill passed by large margins and was signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Hoosiers should applaud this measure. Until now, the only requirement for teaching Indiana history was in the fourth-grade curriculum. Teachers in that grade level have done a great job of introducing students to the heritage of their state. However, 10-year-olds can only grasp so much.

Much more about Indiana that can be learned in the teenage years.

Indiana is aptly named. It was the home of proud Indian tribes such as the Miami, Delaware, Kickapoo, Shawnee and Potawatomi. Powerful chiefs such as Little Turtle and Tecumseh led these families of Native Americans. How they came to leave our state is not a matter of pride, but still a part of Indiana history.

“Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” is one of the most famous phrases in American politics. Yet, how many know its origin? The answer takes us to Vincennes, William Henry Harrison, a battlefield near Lafayette and a presidential election that began the tradition of campaign parades, rallies and songs.

Jonathan Jennings, the first Indiana governor after statehood, is a man worth study in the classroom. He was among leaders who held firm against the tide of slavery in 1816. Because of him, the Indiana Constitution outlawed human servitude in the new state.

The Constitution was signed by 43 men in Corydon, the capital city in 1816. That document, handwritten some say under a giant elm tree, called for free public education. True, it took a half-century to start toward that goal, but at least it was on the table from the beginning.

Corydon is a charming city in southern Indiana. It was the obvious choice for state capital in 1816. However, even then, Hoosiers knew they would need a more central location. A delegation, led by Jonathan Jennings, made the arduous journey into the middle of the forested state. They stayed with William Conner (yes, the one of Conner Prairie) and decided that the Fall Creek/White River area would be ideal.

White River was the key. City founders dreamed of boats carrying freight to and from the new city by way of the White, Wabash and Ohio rivers. One can only imagine their disappointment when they discovered that the White was too shallow in many places and unsuited for commercial navigation. It is thought that only one boat, the Robert Hanna, ever made the trip from Cincinnati. And it ran aground on its return.

The first Statehouse in Indianapolis was built on the model of the Greek Parthenon. The building housed all departments of state government for four decades. The body of Abraham Lincoln lay in state in the rotunda in 1865 when the funeral train stopped on its way to Springfield, Illinois. By the 1870s the structure was in such dire need of repair that it was demolished and replaced by the current Statehouse, which opened in 1888 and still houses all three branches of government.

This Indiana history sampler could go on and on. From canals to the Klan, battles to barges, mounds to movies, parks to poetry, there is more than enough fodder for a fascinating class in state history. We have plenty of personalities, too, such as James Whitcomb Riley, Benjamin Harrison, Hoagy Carmichael, Madam C. J. Walker, Wendell Willkie, Amelia Earhart, Booth Tarkington, Kurt Vonnegut and so many more.

Indiana is rich in history. It would be easy to fill a one-semester high school class with enough to intrigue any high school student. The problem will come in deciding what to leave out.

James Johnson is a retired teacher who lives in Greenwood. Send comments to