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Column: 1820 ‘hunting’ trip, with 10 Hoosier men, bagged location for state capital

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Anyone who’s ever served on a committee can relate to the old laugh line: A committee is a group of people who keep minutes and waste hours.

Such was not the case, however, in 1820 when 10 Hoosier men were named to a committee to find a new state capital.

They were focused, efficient and prescient.

Traveling from different counties in southern Indiana, they met at the home of William Conner on the west fork of White River near present-day Noblesville. From there they headed out to scour the middle section of the state.

A clerk accompanied them to record their proceedings. Each received an allowance: $2 a day and $2 for every 25 miles traveled.

Their official business resembled a camping trip more than a meeting. In preparation for the task, Joseph Bartholomew of Clark County wrote to John Tipton of Harrison County: “You inform me you are preparing a tent to carry on our route to White River. That is very well, and in order that I may not be entirely dependent, I will carry the coffee kettle ... As for the cooking I know you was formerly a very good cook and if you have forgotten I can learn you.”

From May 22 to June 7, the committee surveyed land options before settling on an area “at the mouth of Fall Creek ... 83 miles from Madison, 108 miles from Corydon, 107 miles from Vincennes and 71 miles from Terre Haute.”

Within a year, the area they described would be dubbed Indianapolis.

At the time, the capital was in Corydon, but from the earliest days of statehood, Indiana’s framers expected to move it northward as settlers headed that way, populating former Native American lands. The state constitution set Corydon as the capital only until 1825. An 1816 Enabling Act granted land for a new capital “on such lands as may hereafter be acquired by the United States from the Indian tribes within the said territory.”

In October 1818, U.S. Treaty Commissioners Jonathan Jennings, Lewis Cass and Benjamin Parke met in St. Mary’s, Ohio, with Delaware and Miami tribal leaders and negotiated the “New Purchase” treaty. The tribes gave up their claims on the middle third of Indiana in exchange for promises of annuities, other economic assistance and bushels of salt.

The treaty cleared the way for the Indiana General Assembly to go capital hunting.

On Nov. 29, 1820, the committee delivered its final report to lawmakers: “In discharging their duty to the state, the undersigned have endeavored to connect with an eligible site the advantages of a navigable stream and fertility of soil while they have not been unmindful of the geographical situation of the various portions of the state to its political center, as it regards both the present and future interests of its citizens.”

On Jan. 6, 1821, the legislature approved the state’s new political center.

The next task was to pick a name for this seat of Indiana government. Although Indianapolis seems obvious now (“polis” means city), it was not without controversy. The Jan. 13, 1821, Indiana Centennial mocked the choice, saying, “Such a name, kind readers, you would never find from Dan to Beersheba; nor in all the libraries, museums and patent offices in the world.”

Needless to say, the name stuck.

This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December 2016. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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