What might surprise many people was the number of sheep on Sugar Creek farms. Unlike those in the northern tier of states in the Midwest, like Wisconsin or Minnesota, Hoosiers were not really mutton eaters. No, in states like Indiana, Illinois and Ohio sheep were meant to fill a pocketbook, not a dinner table. Over 1,500 sheep grazed the fields of Sugar Creek. Each spring they were divested of their winter coats as shearers went about their work. Wool was a prized commodity to farmers. Some of the 3,500 hundred pounds of wool was handed over the wives and daughters to be carded and spun into clothing material for the family. But most of it was sold to support the family. Wool was in demand and easily transported. Sugar Creek farmers likely got about .40 cents per pound in the 1850s. There were always buyers. For instance, one Joseph Tiernan placed a notice in the Terre Haute Journal on April 1, 1853 that he wished to purchase 100,000 pounds of wool, and he was prepared to pay the highest prices for good clean wool delivered to him in Terre Haute.
Early settler life was well known for cooperation among farm families. Barn raisings, corn huskings, harvesting were just a few types of mutual support. But there were instances when feuds could erupt. Most involved disputed ownership of animals or water rights, but some were sparked by pure economic disputes.
One such dispute in Sugar Creek Township led to the first hanging of a man from Sugar Creek.
The Mickleberry and Beauchamp family farms were located north St. Mary’s near the Fayette Township border. The dividing line was a small spring used by both families to water their livestock. Like many early settlers the Noah Beauchamp family came to the area by a circuitous route. Noah was born in Maryland in 1785. He was likely descended from one of the families which founded the Plymouth Colony. Beauchamp, a tall red-faced man was known to be a very devout Baptist, but one who was quick to exhibit a foul rage when he felt provoked. He became an ardent abolitionist who may have been disowned by his slave-holding father. He learned the blacksmithing trade and moved to Cincinnati around 1803. It was there he met and married his wife Elizabeth.
He moved the family to Fayette County, Indiana in 1811. While there he joined the 11th Indiana Regiment during the War of 1812. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant. From there he moved to Edgar County, Illinois, just across the state line. Sometime in the 1830s he moved to Vigo County in Fayette Township, where the George Mickleberry family became his neighbors. George was born in Tennessee, later moved to Harrison County, Indiana, before settling in Sugar Creek. He bought 80 acres north of St. Mary’s in 1837.
The two families were not the coziest of neighbors. There was an ongoing dispute about the boundary lines, likely centering upon the creek/brook that demarcated their property. But it was a bit of wool that led to tragedy.
April and May was sheering season. By then the sheep’s coat was at its fullest. Farmers would gather around the sheerer as he barbered his four-legged customers. The wool was then collected and spread to dry before being sold. The wool kept for family use was stored and later brought out to further dry and whiten in the sun. The Beauchamps laid theirs out on one side of the creek, the Mickleberrys on the opposite side.
Two tales were told about what sparked the deadly dispute. In one, the Mickleberry daughters spread the word that the Beachamps were sneaking across the creek and stealing wool. The other version (which is the preferred version of Beauchamp family) is that, despite the enmity between the families, Mickleberry’s wife Mary hired the Beauchamp girls to do knitting for her. Soon after, the Mickleberry women spread the word that the Beauchamp girls had made off with bits of wool.
It did not take long for the gossips to spread the word, which quickly reached the aggrieved ears of the Beauchamps. Noah was away, but was immediately informed of the slander when he came home for lunch. Quick to anger, Noah rose from the table thundering he would set things straight. He long legs hastened his stride across the creek. Some said, that being very religious, he paused a moment to seek God’s guidance. If wisdom was indeed proffered, Noah did not heed it.
Beauchamp appeared fuming at the Mickleberry’s door, demanding to know if the gossip was true. The Mickleberrys were sitting down to eat. When the family repeated the accusations anger blinded Noah to reason. A fearful George Mickleberry was said to have grabbed a chair to protect his family. Noah pulled a knife from his boot. The blade of the six inch knife flashed in the light as it was plunged into George Mickleberry. He collapsed to the floor, blood painting the wood around his body.
When reason returned to Noah’s mind his instinct was to run. He made his way to the Wabash and swam to the opposite bank. There he stole a rowboat to help make his escape.
News of the murder caused an uproar throughout the area. Posses were formed to look for the fugitive throughout the county. They searched through the woods and bottoms, scoured the banks of the Wabash. They did not find him. Frustrated in the search, local authorities printed handbills with Noah’s description offering a $500.00 reward for his capture. He was described as grey haired, leaning toward fat, and wearing jean pantaloons, a striped dove color coat and a white hat. Word of the murder even made its way into the Boston newspapers.
Time passed. Hope that Noah would ever be caught dimmed like the fall of night.
Chance is a funny thing. How often are fates decided by mere coincidence, by a seemingly trivial aligning of time and space?
A young man from Vigo County decided to seek his fortune in the new Republic of Texas. At the last moment he threw some of the wanted posters into his bag. He eventually made his way to a hardscrabble town along the Rio Grande River, just across from turbulent Mexico. Arriving in April of 1841, he spent the night at a dingy “hotel” where he nailed one of the posters to the wall of the hotel bar.
More than a year before this another man from the Midwest had appeared in the town. He was tall, quiet. He did not say much about where he had come from or why. He borrowed money to rent a blacksmith shop. Times were not easy and he fell in debt. By coincidence one of the young men who frequented the hotel saw the poster. He thought a minute. Yes, that description matched the blacksmith who owed his dad money. Taking note of the $500.00 reward he convinced a friend to help him grab the blacksmith.
The would be bounty hunters captured Noah Beauchamp. They took him to the river and boarded a steamboat to take him to Indiana, and thus return to Texas richer men than when they started the trek.
Noah managed to break away from them, but his freedom was fleeting. Recaptured, he was held in a boarding house until the steamer arrived. He tried to cajole a slave working there, saying if he helped him escape he would take the man to free a free state. The blandishment was not enough.
Soon Noah and his captors boarded a ship name the Canton. Noah was chained in a cabin. Seeing the chains as his only hope for freedom he attempted to hang himself with them. But his captors foiled his death plan. Noah cried he would stop eating and they would never get him to Terre Haute alive.
But, he did indeed make his appearance in a Terre Haute courtroom. His lawyer, Tilghman Howard, argued for and received a change of venue. The trial would take place in Rockville, Indiana where less was known about the case. The change did not help. On September 8, 1842 Noah Beauchamp was found guilty and sentenced to hang by his neck till he was dead.
Howard appealed the decision to the Indiana Supreme Court. While the court deliberated there was a most odd revelation. Noah’s cousin Jeroboam had also killed a man with a knife 17 years earlier. Liked Noah, he had escaped, been recaptured, tried to kill himself and was hanged.
On December 22nd the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and ordered the sentence be carried out with haste. Four days after Christmas a gallows was built in built in Rockville. The next morning crowds appeared, eager to witness the spectacle of a man swinging from a rope. Many had made the journey from Terre Haute and Sugar Creek. They watched as the prisoner was brought out. Someone asked Noah Beauchamp if he had any last words. He looked out and said “goodbye.”
With that word sounding in the air, a hangman’s rope in Indiana did what a chain in Texas could not.
Noah Beachamp was the first man from Vigo County to be hanged.