The Early Pioneers of White River Township, Johnson County, Indiana

By Judge Franklin Hardin

 

Editor’s Note: Excerpted from Chapter 18, A Historical Sketch of Johnson County, Indiana. 1881; Ed. David Banta (full bibliography at end). Some spellings and punctuation have been modernized and links added. 

Franklin Hardin (1810-1890)

 

White River Township originally extended across the north part of Johnson County, but is now restricted to its northwest corner. It includes forty-eight sections of land. Its length, which lies north and south, is eight miles and its breadth six. It is situated in the basin of White River, and about one thousand acres lie on the west bank of that stream. [1]

The township has a greater variety of soils than any other in the county, and of unequaled productiveness. When [Captain Jacob] Whetzel, in cutting his trace with the purpose of going still further looked down into the rich valley of White River, he said “This is good enough for me,” and there erected a permanent camp. And those who have resided in White River Township and, having left in search of other eligible points, have sought in vain for its equal. Its rich, dry soil attracted emigration at a very early day, which continued to pour in until the township was soon densely populated.

The greater part of the emigrants were from the southern states— three-fourths at least from Virginia, a few from Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio. The emigrants were men of small means, seldom able to enter more than eighty acres of land, and dependent entirely upon personal efforts for the improvement of their lands and for the subsistence of themselves and families. And this one feature—that is, the slender means of the emigrants—although at first thought it seems paradoxical—accounts for the rapid advancement of Indiana more than any other. 

There were no idlers. The men worked, the women worked, the children worked. The first emigrants were a body of select men who came to a county covered with a heavy forest to better their condition by conquering its wildness and developing its agricultural resources. Their capital was in their ability to perform hard service and in a will and purpose to do so. The heavy forest, with its tall trees and with its dense shrubbery, was sufficient to deter irresolute men from undertaking so arduous a task as its removal and, except a few wandering hunters, there were none here. Every man needed assistance, and every man stood ready to render it. If an emigrant but cut a new road through the brush- wood, and erected a camp, a half a dozen men would find it out and be there in twenty-four hours, not by invitation, but voluntarily to assist him in building a cabin.

Often a cabin was built in a single day and covered in, and the family housed in safety and comfort at night beneath its roof. If food was needed by the newcomer, that was carried along and often half of the meal for those assisting was supplied by the neighbors and the good, old, kind-hearted mothers went along to help prepare it.

 The furniture of the cabin consisted often of a fixed bedstead in each of the four angles. One bedpost only was used, set up four and one-half feet from one wall and six and one-half from the other with two large holes bored into it two feet from the floor. Then, two holes were bored into the walls and into these were inserted, smoothed with a drawing-knife, two poles, four and a half feet, the width, and six and a half feet the length of the framework. On the long way, rails were laid, and into the space between the logs of the wall were inserted the usual split boards and, thus, this indispensable piece of furniture was completed. A man could make one in an hour. They answered every purpose with the finest bedstead, except they were not sufficiently stable for restless sleepers, who often found themselves descending through misplaced boards to the floor.

In every cabin, suspended to the joists, hung a framework of nicely- smoothed poles a foot or two apart. On these, in the fall season, hung, in thin sections to dry for long keeping, the rich, golden pumpkins. But often the emigrant did not wait to build a cabin but, if he came in the spring, he built a camp, leaving the cabin to be erected during the summer and fall. The first indispensable object was bread, and to reach it required long days of patient labor. But the pioneer came fully advised of what was to be met and overcome. His bread was in the ground beneath the forest trees. He did not sit down and repine or reload his wagon and return whence he came; he was a man.

 The first thing was to remove the small undergrowth. It was the universal practice to cut down everything “eighteen inches and under”. When felled, it was cut up into sections twelve to fifteen feet in length, and the brush piled around larger trees for the purpose of killing them by burning. Ten to fifteen settlers had an understanding that they would act together and assist one another. It mattered little if ten miles apart—that was not too far to travel to assist or to be assisted. Every man had his day and, when that day came, rain or shine, none of the expected assistants were absent. They did not wait ‘til the dews were dissipated; they came as soon as the sun rose and often sooner. I yet see them and how I regret that we have not a photographic view of the company, our fathers and mothers, just as they were then. True, they were not fashionably dressed, for in nine cases out of ten, each man wore a pair of buckskin pants, partly from necessity and partly from convenience, for a man dressed in leather moves through brush and briers with little inconvenience. Each wore moccasins instead of boots; and old hats, coonskin or buckskin caps made up the head gear. 

There was no time lost. Every man was a veteran and hastened on to the work to be done with precision and skillfulness. If the company was large enough it was divided. Eight men made a good strong company, and quite as many as could act together. Every squad had a captain or leader, not by election, but he was such by pre-eminence and skill in the business. 

And now the work begins. The leader casts his experienced eye over the logs as they were fallen by accident or, more probably, by design and at a single glance takes in the situation over an acre. A half-dozen logs are lying a few feet apart and in a parallel position. They can be readily thrown together and constitute a nice pile for burning. The leader speaks, and they seem to have suddenly acquired locomotion and are in a pile. And thus on and on for fifteen or twenty days every spring before each man has had his day. 

The mothers were there also assisting, in cooking—not in patent metal stoves with a half a dozen apartments to stow away everything nicely but in Dutch ovens and sugar kettles before a hot burning log-pile. If anything was wanting, and the want was made known, it was kindly contributed and a rich, hearty meal was provided, and then eaten with a zest unknown to the present lazy shadows of manhood. And thus the day was spent in useful necessary labor and friendly chat. 

But the pioneer, during the busy season, did not go home to rest and to sleep from a log rolling but to his own clearing, where he continued to heap brush on the burning heaps till the snapping and uproar could be heard in the distance and the light lit up the heavens for a half a mile away; then, retiring to snatch from labor a few hours of rest, he soon found the coming day, bringing with it the busy scenes already described.

But there was a good woman, a faithful mother left behind, and so soon as the morning meal was over, she did not while away the day in reading novels or fingering a piano, but she took all the children to the clearing and, securing baby in a safe position, she and the older ones continued to pile on the brush and combustibles. Thus the work went on by day and night. In early spring, when the trees were being foiled to be cut up for piling and burning on some elevated place in the midst of a pioneer settlement, my attention has been often arrested by the busy scene around me. In old age the mind wanders back to brighter days and often finds pleasure even in youthful sports. 

How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood, When fond recollection presents them to view; The orchard, the meadow, the deep tangled wildwood, And all the loved scenes which my infancy knew.” 

When we travel over the “New Purchase” and see it as it now is, and compare it with its condition fifty years ago, the exclamation forces itself upon us: How changed! Everything is altered! It is another world! But what wrought the change? Come, travel back with me to its condition as it was fifty years ago and learn the cause and see the busy scene around. It is a pleasing one to me and was then, although repeated over and over for three months during every spring. It is now the first of May and fifty years ago since those good men, the pioneers, stimulated by the recollection of the scanty supplies of the last year, were straining every nerve to clear up more ground to supply the deficiency.

Here, with their bare, brawny arms, they swung high in the air their sharp glittering blades that effectively fell in unceasing blows amid the trees and brush of the jungle, click! click ! just at hand and faintly heard in the distance; click! click! twenty or thirty axes are heard in rapid fall. Every man and every boy is at work. “Deep echoing, groan the thickets brown; Then rustling, crackling, crashing, thunder down” the forest trees. And the ponderous maul forced down with the power of a stalwart pioneer shakes the forest for a mile away; and the loud-sounding monotones of twenty bells, at least, on the leaders of cattle and horses, like telephones, tell the owners where to find them, as they roam at large and feed on nature’s wide pastures.

 And now gaunt want, with his emaciated form and hateful, shrunken visage, who had forced himself into every cabin in spite of the efforts of its inmates when he heard the crashing, falling trees, and saw at night the lurid glare of burning logs and brush was alarmed and fled but afterward often returned and cast a wistful eye within but seldom entered.

 It was thus the improvements in Johnson County were begun. It is thus the work has been carried on and the consummation reached in the grand development of its resources in every department of our industries. Among the pioneers were some immoral, bad men; there were, however, but few entirely destitute of all good. In this history, it is the gold and not the dross that we would preserve. Not only in laborious duties, but, also, in moral and social qualities, the pioneers generally, were a noble and select class of men and women. Their ears were open to every call of aid and assistance. I would to God that I had the skill to paint in proper colors, and to describe their kindness and sympathy, and their vigils around the couches of their suffering, dying neighbors— but I am powerless to do them justice. And around their firesides, in social evening gatherings, their friendship and kindness knew no limits. And, if it were not for the want and destitution and constant hardships endured by them, and the gloomy, deadly autumnal sickness, I could wish to meet them once again, though in the gloomy forest, to enjoy another social gathering in a humble log cabin where every thought and every word came up fresh and pure, pushing from the heart. But they are gone. [2]

We owe to their memories a vast debt for the beautiful country which their labors and sufferings have left us and, yet, still more, for their examples in goodness and virtue, which by night and by day still go with us, and kindly, and softly, and sweetly, in angelic whispers, invite us to walk in their footsteps and practice their virtues. They are gone, but still they are with us and live in our memories as fresh and as green as the beautiful grass that, mournfully drooping, in springtime waves over them. They are gone but still affection, though it linger, will follow on and cling to them and for long years to come will often return with soft, silent footsteps to plant nature’s sweet emblems of virtue on their graves, the choicest and richest and rarest of flowers, which will spring with fresh vigor, and bloom in new beauty and glory, and shed richer fragrance, sweeter than incense, because they grow on the graves of the pioneer fathers and mothers and because they were planted by children and kindred who loved them and nurtured [the flowers on their graves] with tears of richest affection.

Detail from 1881 edition of the book, A Historical Sketch of Johnson County, Indiana (Banta)

[1] This is the full text of the opening paragraphs:

White River Township originally extended across the north part of Johnson County, but is now restricted to its northwest corner. It includes forty-eight sections of land. Its length, which lies north and south, is eight miles and its breadth six. It is situated in the basin of White River, and about one thousand acres lie on the west bank of that stream. Three or four sections in the southeast corner are included in the valley of Young’s Creek. The valley of White River, through and over the gravelly and sandy stratum of the drift, is about twenty miles wide, and has a depth of sixty or seventy feet. There are only two terraces to the river, the nearer being about twelve feet above low water and a mile in width, and overflows to a depth of about three feet. The farther is still fifteen feet higher and of equal breadth. With this terrace, the level portions of its valley cease and are succeeded north of the bluffs by sandy and gravelly ridges a mile and more in width and which extend for long distances parallel with the river having an elevation often equal to the greatest depth of the valley, proving to any observer that they were formed by moving waters confined to the valley of the river, and which were then equally extensive with its whole width and depth. Across this inclined plane, with its great fall throughout the whole township, except half a dozen sections in the southeast corner, situated in the basin of Young’s Creek, Pleasant Run, Honey Creek, Bluff Creek, Crooked Creek and other smaller streams rush down to the river, thus giving an unsurpassed drainage to the township.

[2] This paragraph follows the sentence “But they are gone”:

‘They have long since gathered by the “side of the beautiful river,” in a friendship now changed into perfect love, where God shall wipe away all tears, where there is no more toil, nor want, nor sorrow, nor death, to receive the glorious rewards of well-spent lives.’

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hardin, Franklin. “Chapter XVIII: White River Township,” A Historical Sketch of Johnson County, Indiana. Editor, David Demaree Banta. Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co, 1881.

 

NOTES

Chapter 18 comprises pages 122-150 of the original book.

A Historical Sketch of Johnson County, Indiana is in the public domain. The full text and imaging of the original book is available in many places online including, among others,  HathiTrust.org, Google Books, Indiana University.

More about Franklin Hardin (1810-1890): His obituary and memorial from Find a Grave, “Hardin Pioneers in Indiana” from Genealogy.com, his family tree and additional information on Ancestry.com.

 

 

 

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