As farmers continued to prosper, other things were happening in Sugar Creek. In the decade leading to the Civil War several factors were coalescing that were essential to community formation. These would change the township from an expanse of often isolated people and farms to a broader “community.
Churches both bonded the township and divided it, particularly over liquor and slavery.
All the early churches were established in the township, Macksville not having a sufficient number of any single faith to warrant a church. The first church in Sugar Creek was located southwest of Macksville. Called the New Hope Presbyterian Church it was erected in 1824. Each family in the congregation provided a log of black poplar for the building. A lecture forcefully delivered at the church in 1828 was the opening shot in a social war that would echo throughout Sugar Creek for the next century.
Samuel Baldridge, the second Presbyterian minister in Indiana, was born in North Carolina in 1780. He, himself, was a product of a religious “schism.” When he chose to become a Presbyterian his father disowned him. His father was a Scots-Irish immigrant and a strict adherent of the Covenanters, a strict sect of Presbyterians born in 17th-century Scotland to combat their perceived interference of the Stuart kings in Presbyterian affairs. When Samuel chose the more mainstream Presbyterian Church, His father William would have none of it and chose his brand of faith over his son.
With that past trailing him Baldridge strode boldly to the pulpit of the tiny log church in Sugar Creek and set afire the brimstone of his holy wrath. His subject was Temperance. Drink, perfidious alcohol, was a defiler of the flock and an affront to God and all those who feared him. Some in the log pews nodded their heads or added a chorus to his booming voice. Still others emphatically shook their heads no and headed for the door.
The battle between “wets” and dries” was to be fought on a regular basis for the next nine decades. It was a war that never seemed to end and its battlefronts were scattered across the township. This first confrontation literally brought down the church. So incensed by the temperance sermon some of the original families would later return to the church with teams of horses and chains and literally tore out the logs they had offered for the church building. Not to be deterred from his self-ordained mission, Baldridge left behind Sugar Creek’s first temperance society, 101 members strong.
A Methodist Church, Pisgah, opened in the northwest part of the township in 1840. Built of hewn logs, it was covered in whipsaw weatherboarding to make it more attractive. Bethesda, another Methodist Church was built a mile west of Macksville from 1849 to 1852. The church was a simple frame building and its burial ground became the resting place of a great many. These churches and the others that followed not only brought together congregations, but also became part parts of a larger community.
New Hope, which had to be physically rebuilt after the exodus of non-temperance and their sundering of the walls of the church, seemed to be particularly prone to conflict. This time the internal strife was over that most divisive element in American society, slavery. Presbyterian orthodoxy held that slavery was a “divine institution” approved by God. This doctrine did not sit well with some of the more thoughtful in the congregation, especially the Goodman brothers.
John and William were the sons of Sugar Creek pioneer Micajah Goodman. John was among the very first children born in the township, thus laying claim to being a native son. Both brothers came to see slavery as an “immoral and wicked institution” that was “a barrier… to progress of the christian religion.” Finding themselves increasingly at odds with the church’s doctrines, they and a splinter group of ten other members left New Hope. In 1849 they founded the West Vigo Congregational Society and built the church four years later.
Of course the most unusual church “founding” in Sugar Creek was the one “established” far away across the Atlantic Ocean, St. Mary of the Woods. It was the first Catholic church across the Wabash. Most are aware of the story of Mother Theodore Guerin’s arduous journey from France along with five other members of the Sisters of Providence. Their mission was to establish a school for girls. The small, but hardy, group arrived in Sugar Creek in the Fall of 1840.
The school and its church would become a magnet for Catholics and a small village grew around it, including my Chrisman ancestors. It was at the village church that the Chrisman’s were born baptized, lived, married and buried. Two generations worked there or in the coal mine owned by the Sisters. My grandmother scrubbed the school’s floors and was quite proud when her grandson taught there seventy years later.
Terre Haute was not the only market for the bounty of Sugar Creek farmers. There was another place to sell their products, and one that provided a sense of adventure. Many young men in the township dreamed of steering a flatboat to the magical city of New Orleans.
Flatboats were the “freight carriers” of their day, precursors of later railroad trains and semis. They had previously been used to transport families of settlers and their goods (including livestock) to their new homes in Indiana. Many a Hoosier family originally reached the state by flatboating down the Ohio River and landing on the Indiana shore.
The craft were built by merchants and farmers, typically several farmers banded together to construct them. They varied in size from twenty to nearly one hundred feet long. Most were fifteen to twenty feet wide. Construction methods were similar to those of log cabin building. Axes, broadaxes, froes and mauls were used. For instance the gunwales of flatboats were fashioned very much in the manner of sill logs for a cabin. A pitch made of lard and rosin and rope made the boat watertight.
Construction good be easily done by local farmers, but just north of Sugar Creek in Parke County there was a man whose sideline was boat building. John Gilkison, a Kentuckian, was one of the first to settle there, along Little Raccoon Creek. He started as a framer, but later added a sawmill. He began building flatboats in the late 1830s. Some he used for his yearly trip to New Orleans, others he sold to local farmers or merchants. Estimates vary, but the average cost of materials to build a flatboat was about 75.00.
Image courtesy Indiana Magazine of History (December 1964)
The time to launch the flatboat was during the Spring rains. The boats were loaded with varying combinations of corn, barrels of pork, smokehouse-cured hams and shoulders, beef, lard and whiskey. Some, and the largest of flatboats could hold over 90 tons of goods, also carried hogs (fed well and further fattened on the journey) and chickens.
Crews, including young men eager for an adventure (like a young Hoosier named Abraham Lincoln who made his first trip as a nineteen year old in 1828), ranged from four to twelve men. They set off in high spirits on a journey of nearly a thousand miles that could take up to five weeks to complete. But, oh, what an exciting journey might be theirs as they drifted south on the currents.
Flatboats were steered by a long rudder (essentially an oar up to 60 feet long) at the back of the boat, and shorter oars on the side called sweeps and another at the front called a gouger . The trip could be dangerous. The crews might find themselves facing high winds or storms, or raging currents caused by flooding. Some flatboats were flung to the banks and smashed. A few boatmen liked to travel at night, but that could be dangerous. Even bright moonlight might not reveal driftwood, sandbars, or swirling currents waiting to snag the flatboat. Most steered the boat to the shore at night and tied up to a stout tree to await the morning.
There are no extant diaries kept by Sugar creek boatmen, but others from the area tell the tale of what the eager youth might have encountered. William Dole, a former Hautean living in Clinton, not fifteen miles from Sugar Creek Township, made several trips down the river. Dole, who would later help nominate Abraham Lincoln for president and served as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, made a habit of writing back home to his family during the trip.
In 1840 he wrote of the fine sunny conditions and that the “hogs are in fine order & will be in fine order” by the time he reached New Orleans. As they reached the Ohio River near Shawneetown, Illinois the boat encountered the results of a great flooding. People had fled to the interior to escape the roiling waters and everywhere he saw the livestock they left behind flailing in the water with no chance of rescue. A few nights later the perils of running at night caught up with him:
“we had a Terrible time night before
Last in a Storm we was runing & about 12 oclock at night a storm
came up drove [us] on an Bar Islandlo it was so dark we could not
See one another on the boat when we struck the Island we not Knowing
which way to pull to get off attempted to fasten her when the
wind blew a perfect huricane & drove us off into the river again
Leaving Joseph on the Island the wind raved & rain poored down
and we runing as hard as the current & wind both would carry us not
Knowing where we would strike or where we was going the night
was so dark that we could not see trees until1 we struck them & tore
off a part of our roof.”
Luckily, they were able to make some repairs, right the boat and continue downstream.
Though New Orleans was the final destination, smart flatboatmen would sell some of their goods along the way. Keeping a keen eye out for the best prices.Whenever they were anchored near a town they would inquire about local prices, or check with returning flatboaters trudging back home about what they might get further downstream. If the prices were lower ahead, they would sell off some of their goods on the spot.
Prices for hogs and corn, especially, were subject to wild swings depending on supply and demand. Dole wrote home lamenting the surplus on the market along the way. He was getting only six cents a pound for salt pork and shoulders, and seven cents a pound for hams. If it continued this way, he said, the trip would be a “Loosing” situation, as he had paid the farmers back home higher prices.
For speculators, having to buy their goods from local farmers instead of raising their own as the farmers did, could make for an anxious trip. Theodore Armitage, from Carrol County, Indiana was one such speculator. He began his trip downstream in 1847 with a no yet full boat. He hoped to buy commodities along the way at a cheap price. While stopped north of Terre Haute. He bought 200 barrels of pork and 389 kegs of lard, among other goods. He fretted about profit and loss throughout the trip. Ultimately he made a profit on the trip.
The adventurous farm boys, many of whom had likely never strayed more than twenty miles from their fields, drifted down into a world much different than their own. They saw the vast wonder that was the Mississippi River, the rolling hills of some of the southern states, and the Louisiana bayous. They also caught glimpses of a society different from their own.
Though many were the sons of upland southerners and heard stories of their parents’ old homes, they were only stories. It is possible many of them had never seen a black man or woman before taking to the rivers.. They had only heard tales of the “nigrahs” and life among the legally divided races south of the Ohio River. They might not have seen slave auctions like the one that revolted the young Lincoln, but many did view the open scorn and contempt of negroes that characterized many of the places where their flatboats had tied up for a rest.
One of those was young Asbury Jaquess of Posey County. In 1834 his flatboat was tied up in Natchez, Mississippi. Hearing that there was to be a hanging, always a well-attended spectator sport, he took it upon himself to head for the jail. He mingled among the crowd, straining to see what was happening. The man was a nurderer he was told.Soon the door of the jail thrust open and a murmur of excitement washed over the waiting spectators. Then a “first rate looking black man,” named Nat of strong, muscular appearance, despite the fcat that he had only one arm. Nat was escorted out by twelve guards, six white and six “mulatoes” (sic). Nat was pushed onto a cart to carry him to the gallows. The only seat on offer to Nat was the coffin he would be buried in. Nat coolly looked over the crowd, his placid face showing neither fear nor hatred.
The sheriff then asked Nat if he had anything he wanted to say, but before the calm face could utter a word, the sheriff pulled the trapdoor. Nat’s body shuddered and swung from the force of his fall, teetertottering from side to side. Within minutes he was dead, many of the crowd, satisfied with the spectacle, lurched toward the saloon. Jaquess never heard whom Nat had murdered, nor why. Not that anyone in the crowd would have cared a whit about what a Black man had to say for himself.
Jaquess moved on to lively, chaotic New Orleans, his destination. He and the crew pocketed the money from selling the goods remaining on the boat. Jaquess did not mention if he enjoyed the delights of the delta city. Doubtless other young men, including some Sugar Creek boys were either tempted or succumbed to the redolent brothels, flowing booze, and the tempting games of chance offered on many a corner.
Once the goods were unloaded, the flatboatmen would tear down the boat and sell the wood. Many a house in New Orleans was built with lumber that had floated down from Indiana. Jaquess was disappointed that he could only get two dollars a cord for the remains of the boat he had helped build, but you took what you could get.
Jaquess took a steamboat back upstream, but many simply walked back home to Indiana. The long trek on sore feet took about three months. When they got home there were chores to don and the start of the harvest lay before them. The cycle of farm life continued so that there would be goods to fill another flatboat in the Spring.
(None of my blog posts have garnered as much attention (or vitriolic response from a few who misunderstood the tenor and facts of the story) as the one about Taylorville. Since I posted it last January over 11,000 people have read it, including 4,000 readers the day it went online. It shows, I believe, a fascination with the grimy little village that many drive by each day. There are all sorts of rumors, wild tales and jokes about Taylorville, but little concrete knowledge. Since that blog I have kept an eye out for research material for it. Thus, we return to Taylorville.)
In 1917 the woman’s page editor of The Saturday Spectator made a very cogent comment about the place of Taylorville viz. the people of Terre Haute. “Periodically,” she wrote, “Taylorville is brought before a searchlight and a discussion follows on what ought to be done about Terre Haute’s slum problem.” She was right about the village only sporadically coming to the mind of others in Vigo County, usually during the almost yearly flooding that swallowed up part of Taylorville. And even then most only went to look at the flooding and walked away muttering about “those people” who lived a “sprawling dump” that was Taylorville.
She was only partially right about the “discussions.” Taylorville was discussed. It was talked about in tones that ranged from absolute contempt to a shrugging sympathy about what could be done for those poor people. Opinions were offered, observations were made. What they almost never did was talk WITH Taylorville’s residents, to hear of their ideas and feelings. To some it seemed Taylorville was little more than an open air zoo with inhabitants to be studied and remarked upon.
With that in mind I decided to look at how Taylorville was “discussed” during the first two decades of the 20th century. That was the period in which the spotlight shone most brightly on the west bank of the Wabash.
The earliest mentions of Taylorville focused mainly on the criminal element there. A 1904 article talked about Terre Haute’s reputation as a “wide open” town that attracted the worse sort. In particular it noted the latest murder in Taylorville, in which one saloon owner was forced to obey Sunday closing laws while another saloon a few hundred yards away was open for a thriving business. Angered, the belligerent saloon man walked up the road and murdered his fellow barman.
There is no doubt that Taylorville was a crowded, unruly place that at best disdained the law. It was crowded with rough saloons, gambling and drug dens, and hideouts for an ever changing troupe of felons. Across the river from one of the most booming redlight districts (the West End) in the Midwest, it had more of its shares of prostitutes and “brothels,” which were often just one room dilapidated one-room shacks. If the fleeting affections and bodies of women could be bought on the cheap in Terre Haute, there was always someone in Taylorville who would beat the price.
Many, of course, felt the way to cleanse the iniquities of Taylorville was the healing light of religion. In April of 1905 The Lighthouse Mission called upon various churches to send out workers to venture “down the dark alleys and byways of the West End” and Taylorville and bring salvation to the vast circus of sinners so they might “leave their lives of sin and shame and determine by the help of God to live pure, clean lives.” The mission announced that it had begun a Sabbath school in Taylorville and houses were visited weekly to spread the word, Taylorville was a “large field [for] the labor” of God.
Two years later a mission worker’s comment led to a tongue-in-cheek (read smartass) column in the Spectator titled “Race Suicide Not Imminent.” The premise was that the Taylorville “race” would never die out due to their feats of procreation. The majority of girls married between 14 and 16 years old. A mission worker said she offered the girls a wonderful wedding gift on condition they not marry until at least 17. In several years none had waited long enough to marry to claim the present. A “comparatively young man” living in the bottoms in Taylorville had 10 living children; six others had died in early childhood.
Such early marriage, it was said, of boys and girls with “all sorts of physical and mental deficiencies” led to them “to breed children, like rabbits, with their combined deficiencies accentuated.” If nothing were done Taylorville would continue to add its people to the ranks of Indiana’s insane asylums, prisons, homes for the feebleminded and reform schools. In the end the report took on a more positive note by arguing for batter education, health training and community support to end the devastating cycle of misery wrought by the conditions.
Hygiene instruction was the mission of a nurse named Esther Allen. A dedicated professional she worked tirelessly with women and girls especially, teaching them about their bodies and how to keep them clean and healthy. Miss Allen often visited Taylorville twice a day bringing medicine to those who could not afford it or checking on her patients. She worked to get authorities to provide cleaner water, as the shallow wells of the area gushed forth with tainted water that fueled much disease. She supported a ban on dumping garbage in Taylorville, even though some of the poorest residents said that was sometimes the only place they could scavenge food scraps to feed their families.
Over the next five years mentions of Taylorville were mostly limited to reports of crimes committed there or undertaken in Vigo County by Taylorville denizens, and the endemic corruption that was seemingly in the marrow of Vigo County politics. Each election system brought reports of vote buying, coercion and ghost voters. Often more votes were cast in the Taylorville precinct than the actual number of residents, men, women and children.
A major article, complete with photos, that appeared in July, 1912 showed that despite the best efforts of Nurse Allen and others little had changed for the good in Taylorville. The author was among a group of women who toured the “squalid tenements” of the area. She described the tenements along First and Wabash as filthy multi-story buildings that seemed to defy gravity. Only one house in the neighborhood had a toilet that was shared by many. The rest ended up dumping their chamber pots on the street or in the Wabash. The fetid conditions bred disease.
They found much the same conditions, or worse, in Taylorville. People lived in rundown houses or shacks that leaked or allowed cold winds to swirl through the cracks in the walls. They were dark, dank, ugly places for children to grow up in. Yards were dust or mud, not grass. The article pointed out that a coherent housing plan in the county could better conditions. It noted that the slumlords who owned the properties (which included prominent Terre Haute men, including Donn Roberts, contractor and future Terre Haute mayor who would be convicted of fraud and election while in office and sentenced to six years in federal prison) could easily improve the properties for very little money. But that would have cut into their profit margin.
Tellingly, the article wondered why the various religious groups that proselytized in Taylorville seemed “more about saving the souls for the next world than saving bodies in this world.
The following year brought the tornados and epochal flooding to the area. I covered that in the previous blog. This time I want to look at all the various comments and schemes that swirled around Taylorville. Again it was a tide of recrimination, loathing and sympathy without any real action. Some comments spoke volumes about what people thought of Taylorville and its people.
One article published after the flood on April 5, 1913 began by explaining why people lived in Taylorville and ended by defaming them. Those who barely noticed Taylorville took it all in when they went to gape and gasp at the flooding/ They wondered why anyone would choose to live there, as if settling in the squalid surroundings there would willingly choose to do it. They were there because there was no other real choice. They were in effect exiled there by society and the economy.
Where else could you rent a house (or shack or hovel) for as low as fifty cents a week? Or even buy a house for five dollars down and five dollars a month? Or where else could you “rebuild” so cheaply after the flood? Now was the time, it was said, for Terre Haute annex the area, raze the buildings and re-house those poor souls living there. It was certainly an option worth talking about. But then the article concluded by saying that Many Taylorville-ites actually enjoyed the flood and natural disasters that periodically struck them. It accused them of seeing the floods as gala events that meant they would be removed to Terre Haute by charities or the city to temporarily bask in the good life. And that they claimed higher value on their loss to defraud the relief funds and actually make a little money after the “vacation” to rebuild their old ways. “Heretofore the Taylorville people have received aid when there was no need for giving it. They came out of each freshet with as much or more than they had before the high waters, besides being cared for at public expense until the waters went down.
Annexation was supported by the County Heath Commissioner, Dr. W.F. Shaley. Otherwise, he said, there is little I can do to “protect Terre Haute from the contagion that the filth that Taylorville breeds.”
1913 was also when an idea was first floated that Taylorville be razed to build a pleasant riverside park. Besides the practical issues (the land could not be seized by right of eminent domain), it meant that every property owner in Taylorville would have to agree to sell. Besides one would have to wonder if the area would be congenial for a park which presented striking views of a packing plant, crematory and an abattoir, and slums. All such talk of a park soon died down. Taylorville “rebuilt” and went on its way.
Except for the occasional crime report or news of yet another small pox epidemic there, Taylorville was mostly absent from the newspaper pages until WWI. Terre Haute was eager to to be named a site for an army training camp that would bring up to 35,000 soldiers to the area. However, the towns reputation as a brothel-strewn Gomorrah doomed it. Still soldiers passed through town and many felt there was a need to protect them
City leaders set about clearing 300 prostitutes from the West End and Taylorville. When the order went out there was a scramble to get away from Terre Haute. During that time my grandmother Hilda worked as a telephone operator (they were also known as Hello Girls then). She delighted in telling of the calls from the “girls” to the prominent and godly men of Terre Haute who were their customers demanding they bring the money so they could flee town and the reach of the law. After her shift, she and a friend went to the train station to see the embarrassed bigwigs surreptitiously handing over money and train tickets to Evansville.
There were renewed calls to “abolish” Taylorville and resettle the 800 or so people living there to protect the health of soldiers. Taylorville soldiered on as before.
The murder of a Terre Haute police detective in Taylorville in 1919 again brought an onslaught of hatred towards the village as can be seen in the excerpt of an editorial below:
“Taylorville, now as always, is a menace to the whole community, a settlement that should be wiped off the map. Ever since it has been a settlement it has been a disgrace to the county because of the political crookedness pulled off there. It has been a further menace in that it is a breeding place for disease. And it has been a constant danger in the matter of the desperate characters it has housed for many years. Thieves and gunman have made Taylorville their hiding place ever since the little colony was established.”
Again there were calls for a park to replace the eyesore across the river, but nothing came of it. Taylorville still stood.
A century later he park idea was revived. An article in the Indiana Economic Digest in 2013 spoke of the efforts to buy out Taylorville (It is called Dresser, its official postal designation.) and turn the area into a park and nature sanctuary. At that time more than ten lots had been purchased but many residents were holding out. Among them was resident John Tapp, who bemoaned the fact “They’re trying o push us out” of our homes.
Taylorville’s population has shrunk greatly over the decades. The village, only about a half mile long and four blocks wide now contains less than fifty inhabited homes.
Last summer at a community event I was approached by someone supporting the creation of the nature reserve. Knowing my interest in Taylorville’s history, he told me that progress was being made. There were still holdouts, but supporters were hopeful.
Whither Taylorville? Will a century old dream held by some finally wipe it from the map and minds of Vigo County?
(This section is drawn from my experiences helping in the annual butchering program at Conner Prairie. This program, called Butcherin’ Stuffin’ and Smokin”,” is, I believe one, that truly brought home to visitors one of the hardships faced by pioneers in their struggle to survive in a new land.)
4,000 hogs in Sugar Creek grunted through the mud and nosed for food, creating a near constant din of squeals and a pungent aroma that hung over the hills and valleys like a miasma. Farm families lived alongside the noise and the mess, but did not complain, at least not too much. As one old farmer would later reply when asked if the smell bothered him, “Not much, feller, it smells like money to me.” And indeed it would prove to be.
Pork was vital to farmers for two main reasons: to feed their families and to sell. Late fall, as the temperatures steadily dropped, was butchering season. After a long summer of fattening on corn and mast in the forests the hogs were ripe with meat. Without refrigeration, nature’s ice box was needed to cool and preserve the carcass. Butchering was often a community affair as neighbor gathered to help neighbor make ready for the long winter. The Goodmans Crews and
Butchering procedures varied slightly from place to place, but in the main followed the same pattern. On the appointed cold morning families gathered. While the women boiled water in huge iron pots and made ready the utensils, the men would separate the hogs to be butchered. Sometimes a gunshot between the eyes or blows from an axe or sledge stunned the animal first, but more a dual-edged knife was plunged into its throat. This also facilitated the bleeding out (blood could contaminate the meat during butchering) and cooling to begin.
The hogs were taken to the butchering site where a gallows type structure, huge iron kettles of steaming water and the crew awaited them. The carcass was plunged into the boiling water or it was poured over them to soften their hair. Men, women and children would then scrape the bristle-ly hair to reveal the pink flesh beneath it. The bristles were also of value as they could be sold to brush makers or used in plastering. Once that was done it was prepared to be hoisted up on the gallows or tripod. Cuts were made in the tendons of the hind legs, where a strong piece of wood, a yoke or gambrels was inserted and up it went. When it was sufficiently cooled (which might take 24 hours) the butchering began.
First to go was the head, which was severed and set aside for later use. The carcass was split open and the entrails removed. The women and children set to work. The stomach and intestines were placed in water to prepare them to be scraped of fat and be used as sausage casings. The heart and liver were doused in water and hung to cool. Fat was diced into smaller section to be later rendered into lard.
As soon as the carcass was considered cooled thoroughly, the “harvesting” of the meat began. Skilled hands cut away the shoulders, hams, and middles. Loins which would soon find their way into a lard filled skillet and prepared to feed the helpers, were cut from the back, spareribs came from the belly and bacon from the sides. Foods that seldom make their way to the modern dinner table were also consumed. The feet were pickled, the head and brains made into a jelly called souse or scrapple. Survival meant using every part of the hog they could, and what few scraps that remained were fed to the dogs. Pioneers even found use for the tail, which might find itself dropped down the back of an unsuspecting person as a joke. In rare cases when the stomach could not be used for casings, it was blown up like a balloon for the enjoyment of children.
To keep them in food for the long winter and summer ahead, settlers preserved the larger portions like hams, bacon and loin. These were “cured” in barrels of brine (an intricate method that required skill) or dry cured in salt.. Once cured the meat would be hung in a smokehouse, or on some occasions in the fireplace chimney. Hickory, maple and apple braches were lit and this process might take up to two days or more. The meat was then hung in the cool, dry smokehouse. When needed for the table someone was simply dispatched to the smokehouse to cut away what was needed. Sometimes, though, part of the meat had grown green and moldy. That had to be cut away to get to the cuts that were still preserved.The butchering season was mainly to provide food for themselves. Though some settlers did preserve extra hogs to sell, the real profit came when they sold to pork packers or butchers. And how did they get those little piggies to market
Movies and television, from Red River to Rawhide, have made the cattle drive one of the central images in the American mind gallery. But few realize that hog drives were a not uncommon sight in the Midwest. Farmers would herd those hog meant for market as well as they could and start a hog drive to the nearest pork packers. The residents of Macksville became used to hearing the oinks and squeals of a herd of hogs passing through town as the farmers attempted the keep hogs from roaming away and maintaining some semblance of order. No doubt after the herd drove through the Macksville gardeners moved onto the street to shovel the “fertilizer” left in their wake.
After slogging through the bottoms, the herders paid the two cent per hog fee to the ferryman and bridgekeepers to finally get to the market. Terre Haute was a major pork packing center. One of the larger ones in the Midwest for a time. Terre Haute’s first packing plant was opened in along the east bank of the Wabash in 1824 by Ben Gilman, who announced he was seeking $10,000.00 worth of “fat hogs.” Pork packing was such a profitable business that soon other packers set up shop along the Wabash. The river provided both the water that was needed and became an open sewer for the dregs and offal leftover from butchering. The river often flowed red with pig’s blood or grown from the “sewage” dumped by the pork plants.
Micajah Goodman, Jr. built a pork packing plant in southern in southern Sugar Creek Township in the 1840s. Located near the site of Cox’s Ferry, the plant required thousands of pounds of salt brought by four-horse teams from Chicago. Salted and placed in barrels the cargo was then loaded on flatboats headed to New Orleans.
Prices paid by packers varied over the years, but before the Civil War, the “hog cash crop” usually brought between three to five cents per hundred weight. It made for a nice “payday” for farm families. And though hogs were primarily a cash crop, the tradition of butchering seasoto supply the home needs continued into the 20th century. Some farmers in Sugar Creek and throughout Indiana were doing their own butchering well into the 1940s.
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.
Perhaps the issue that most divided the people of Sugar Creek and Macksville was Temperance, the battle between the so-called “wets” and “dries.” It was a contentious issue that was in many ways one of the rights of the individual versus the “public good.” It was especially bitter in Macksville, which was often noted for its saloons. Before delving in to specifics, I thought it might be good to look at the history of temperance to place the Sugar Creek struggle in context.
America was a nation of drinkers. Foreign visitors like Trollope and others commented upon the bibulous nature of the citizens of the New Republic and decried the often staggering quantities of alcohol they consumed.
It is not surprising that alcohol was a feature of American life as it grew from European cultures where drinking also abounded. The Dutch had their genever (gin), the French and Spanish their wine, and the British rum. It is likely that there was at least a medicinal stock of alcohol on ships bring the Puritans to the new world, where it was known as “hot water.”
Who drank is perhaps the easiest question to answer. In short, nearly everyone, all ages and classes, across the nation had a “taste” from time to time. Workmen, farmers, children, women, men all were tempted to lift the cup. Even the clergy drank. In 1800 members of the Presbyterian clergy, gathered for a meeting, drank four bowls of punch, a pint of brandy, a round of grog, two bottles of wine, and four bottles of wine (sounds like a party at Jimmy Swaggart’s house). Thus, drinking crossed all lines in society and casual consumption in itself elicited little comment. It was the quantity that gave rise to the temperance movement.
Americans drank over 5 gallons (some sources believe it was 7.1 gallons) of distilled spirits per capita each year. Additionally, the “average” American drank 15 gallons of hard cider and small amounts of wine and beer. Americans drank more than the British, Irish and Prussians, and about the same amount as Scots and French. Only the Swedes are thought to have been heavier drinkers than Americans. This thirst was serviced by numerous eager suppliers. The 1810 census listed over 14,000 breweries (in this case, “breweries” was not limited to “beermakers,” but included all manner of distilling operations ranging from large distilling businesses to lone “distillers” like William Conner).
Americans drank for many reasons. Technical innovations allowed for increased efficiency in distilling and more ”bang for your buck.” Some drank to “supplement” their diet. Whiskey added zip to the often bland, unvarying meals gracing American tables and provided much needed calories to a meager diet. Many non-alcoholic drinks were considered unsafe or too expensive for some pockets. Water and milk could be “unhealthy” and coffee and tea often cost more than “spirits.” It should not be forgotten that alcohol (in moderation) was thought to be healthful (cf. modern medical thought regarding wine and its role in preventing or ameliorating certain diseases). Alcohol was often “prescribed” for various ailments and afflictions or as a preventative. Finally, as with today, alcohol in the 19th century offered an escape from life’s “troubles.” The view from inside the cup was often more roseate than the shadowed vistas glimpsed from without and drinking became an addiction for some.
Drinking was not limited to saloons. Alcohol was sold in stores, druggist shops, groceries, inns and numerous other outlets. People drank at home, work and play. Public occasions were occasions for drinking. Weddings, funerals, bees and agricultural fairs (Indiana’s most famous 19th century drunkard and temperance activist Luther Benson—see below—first drank at a county agricultural fair) often featured alcohol—either openly consumed or hidden in dark corners.
All the above led to calls for Americans to at least temper their drinking habits. By the early 1800s, a temperance movement began to gather speed.
Drive Toward to Sobriety
There were always those who hated drinking and decried its effects. Religious groups were early leaders in temperance efforts, as were some in the medical profession. Eventually, reformers of all stripes would join in the call for temperance. It is important to note that, initially, most called for temperance, not total abstinence or prohibition. They only asked that Americans drink less, not give up alcohol completely.
Religious voices were among loudest in the temperance chorus (and music was to play a major role in temperance campaigns). Various denominations took the lead, among them the Quakers. Methodists, too, became increasingly prominent in the movement. In 1790 they imposed limits on the use of distilled liquor and by 1816 had barred ministers from distilling or selling it. The church council officially voted to support temperance in 1828 and in 1832 took the ultimate step of calling for prohibition (though some medicinal use might be tolerated). The Methodist temperance message was pushed at camp meetings and by circuit riders.
Some doctors pointed out the health hazards of excess drinking. America’s most famous and prescient physicians, Dr. Benjamin Rush, published an article in 1784 that enumerated the debilitating effects of alcohol. Others in the medical “profession” echoed his warnings, such as health faddist Sylvester Graham (of cracker fame).
The temperance movement existed alongside other reform and self-improvement efforts of the day, sharing the roiling landscape peppered with abolitionists, protean labor reformers, women’s rights activists, and educational revisionists. Many viewed temperance as vital to the economy and society. Industry needed sober workers in its workshops and factories and the nation needed a temperate citizenry so as not to fall into rowdiness and anti-social behavior.
So, it is not surprising that local temperance societies sprang forth between 1810 and 1820. One of the first “national” societies formed in Boston in 1826 when the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, which helped establish a model for other temperance groups by conducting press campaigns and sending out lecturers to harangue audiences about the evils of drink, was begun. Many local efforts followed suit. Though most opted to push temperance, there was also an element within the movement which urged total abstinence (thus “T” for tee-totaler). Disputes over how “temperate” to be sometimes divided groups. At the national convention of the American Temperance Union in 1833 a dispute broke out between the moderates and those seeking total abstinence. The dispute festered for several years, until the moderate wing dropped out of the union to form its own organization.
Indiana’s earliest temperance group was probably the one formed in Richmond in 1819. Their temperance “pledge” was hardly all-inclusive. It only specifically proscribed whiskey and even then individuals were allowed a “dram every morning” for health reasons. Beer was not considered alcohol and wine, gin and brandy were thought too costly to be consumed by those in the area, so were not prohibited. Methodists began pushing for total abstinence by 1824. A statewide temperance group formed in 1829.
Most groups used the same techniques to forward their agenda. They preached, bullied and exhorted laggards to return to the straightened path and to prevent others from first stepping off of it. They pointed to the moral, social, and physical ills caused by drink. Temperance activists also sought practical steps to lessen drinking. They proposed taxes to make liquor more expensive, production limits to make it less available, and selling in quantity to at limit the access of the poor to drink.
Their efforts often paid dividends. By 1860, some estimate, consumption had been cut by more than half among some. Still, many felt much more should be done—and that mere preaching or encouraging temperance was not enough. In a move that presaged later developments, these groups called for governments to take action (Indiana passed a prohibition law in 1855, but it was declared unconstitutional) by enacting prohibition legislation. Little was accomplished at the time.
After a quiescent period caused by the Civil War and other national concerns, temperance voices rang anew after the war.
Politicization and the Rise of Prohibitionism
The temperance movement revived and carried the cause’s banner with renewed vigor after the war, this time with increasing calls for not just temperance, but prohibition. There was also an overt move into the political arena.
The arguments for temperance (and prohibition) were much the same as before. Its pernicious effects on the body, mind and spirit were endlessly cataloged; its negative influence on individuals, families, and society were trumpeted in speech, verse and song. By the 1870s many temperance advocates had a locus upon which to focus, a place against which to plot—the saloon.
The saloon came to epitomize all that was evil about drinking. They were seen as dens of immorality, fosterers of multiple vices, almost palpable “creatures” whose dark hands could reach out to ensnare the innocent and willing alike. They were dark places that took money from the pockets of husbands and fathers, and food from the mouths of babes. Increasingly, they were also viewed as gateways to violence.
The emphasis on the saloons coincided with the increased participation of women and gave rise to an American archetype, the axe wielding temperance woman, later epitomized by Carrie Nation. Such incidents actually began more than forty years before their heyday. One early example took place in frontier Illinois in the 1850s when a group of militant temperance ladies smashed a saloon. They were defended by lawyer Abraham Lincoln, though they lost their case.
Not all saw violence as the solution and there was an increased emphasis on political means to further their agenda. The national Prohibition Party was founded in 1869 and fielded its first presidential candidate in the election of 1872. The Indiana Temperance Alliance was formed to promote efforts in 1870. They supported legislation like the 1873 Baxter law that mandated licenses for Hoosier saloons. The following year the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which was to become one of the most powerful temperance and prohibition movements, was formed in Ohio.
The WCTU shared the stage with other temperance movements, like the Washingtonians, Reynolds movement and the Murphy group. Symbolism often played an important role with such groups. In a move that presaged the various modern “ribbon” movements, the groups encouraged supporters to wear various colored ribbons to show their support for the cause. The Murphy supporter wore blue ribbons, while Reynolds supporters had various colors (red for reformed drinkers, white for women and boys). WCTU members wore white ribbons.
Except for local successes, outright prohibition was still decades away for temperance groups. They were more successful at getting specific laws passed in Indiana. Between 1877 and 1883 the Hoosier legislature enacted laws that regulated aspects of liquor sales. These provisions forbade sales on Sundays, election day, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. Even druggists could not sell on these proscribed days, unless the patron had a prescription from his physician (which shows that alcohol, properly used, was still considered medicinal).
Other legislation mandated penalties for public drunkenness, selling to drunks or minors, and furnishing liquor to prisoners. No sales were allowed between 11:00 PM and 5:00 AM. Nor could vendors sell within a mile of religious or agricultural meetings unless sold in regular places of business. The prohibition against sales at agricultural meetings and fairs is interesting. The most famous Hoosier drunkard (and one of the nations most well known), Luther Benson, began his life inside the bottle at a county agricultural fair. Benson was known for his continual attempts to wean himself from drink and became one of the country’s most famous temperance speakers. Benson traveled the nation chronicling his struggles with alcohol and his description of delirium tremens is one of the more harrowing passages in temperance literature. He recounted his struggles in 15 Years in Hell, one of the late 19th-century’s most widely read temperance works. He started writing the book after his friends and family committed him to the Indiana insane asylum following yet another hard fall from the wagon. Benson was ultimately out-wrestled by his demons and, never shaking his drinking habit, died in the asylum. Indiana was home to another temperance author and speaker, one who successfully broke his addiction—to multiple vices. Mason Long was a Ft. Wayne resident who wrote of freeing himself from gambling, tobacco and alcohol in Mason Long the Converted Gambler. Long, a prototype Born Again Christian, credited religious faith for his recovery. He, too, cited agricultural fairs as prime venues for drinking and gambling.
Outright prohibition remained a goal for some. Fresh efforts at outlawing drink were made in Indiana. In 1882 and 1883 another attempt was made to emend the state constitution by adding a prohibition amendment. It failed. The State Temperance Union was formed in 1887. By bringing together as many of the local supporters under the umbrella of a statewide organization it was hoped to increase influence with legislators. It was to be two more decades before the temperance (or ”dry”) groups met with success. After years of lobbying and preaching, and with the aid of a sympathetic governor, temperance advocates finally saw a dream fulfilled when Indiana passed a “local option” law that allowed to counties to take prohibition to the polls.
Though much of daily life in the early Midwest necessarily focused on survival, sports and recreation were important aspects of pioneer culture as settlers sought respite from their toils. Some recreational activities took place in conjunction with social or work gatherings while others were extensions of protective or survival skills. Some were means to educate the young in necessary skills, others purely for enjoyment. Recreation occurred year round, but was most often occurred during the agricultural year’s slack times of late fall and early winter or on days set aside for enjoyment.
Most pioneer recreation fit Adelman’s definition of pre-modern sports as competitions held only local significance and offered little clear distinction of participant’s roles or between competitors and spectators. Additionally, the contests’ organization was non-existent or informal and they were played by unwritten rules highly variable by location.
A major study has shown that though the pioneer generation was preceded by and had contact with Native American and European cultures there was little direct cultural transference between the groups with regard to sports. Recreation was simply another piece of the cultural baggage settlers brought with them to the Midwest. They normally adapted activities they had known back home, although some who migrated from more settled areas may have taken part in survival-related recreation for the first time after moving into the frontier. It does not appear that any new sports were specifically “created” after the pioneer’s arrival in the Midwest.
Physical strength and dexterity played important roles in pioneer sports, many of which were connected with defense or survival skills. Sport thus became a pleasurable pastime and a method to measure one’s worth. Events like shooting matches, fighting, and horse and foot races were all examples of such contests that could also train the young or hone the survival skills of their elders.
Shooting matches were extremely popular and occurred throughout the year. Typically a target was attached to a tree or post and shooters took three shots from varying distances. Prizes for winners included cash, whiskey, or beef (an early Indiana settler recalled beef shoots in which marksmen shot for shares of a butchered cow). Equally important to most marksmen (and they were almost always men) was the pride inherent in being the “crack shot” in the area.
Though modern prizefighting was unknown in the pioneer Midwest, there were fights and wrestling matches. “Bully” fights in which a local tough picked a fight joined “friendlier” matches meant to settle who was the “best man.” Both drew crowds of spectators backing (and occasionally betting on) their man. Other than prohibiting weapons, there were few rules and custom allowed kicking, gouging, biting and “stomping upon a fallen victim.” Much the same was true for wrestling matches, although they could also be friendlier affairs at social gatherings. Ideally the battles did not result in lasting grudges and combatants and spectators alike adjourned as friends, as in the famous case of a young Abraham Lincoln’s match with “bully” Jack Armstrong in frontier Illinois.
Speed of foot, both human and horse, was an obvious source of competition. Many gatherings featured foot races to determine the swiftest. Allied with these were other games analogous to modern track and field events, such as Jumping the Bar which was akin to modern high jumping and early versions of pole vaulting.
Horse racing was perhaps the most popular sport in the Midwest during the first half of the nineteenth century. Races ranged from informal contests for bragging rights to organized “meets” complete with prize money. The sport’s popularity grew from its long practice in America combined with an intense sense of competition and pride in one’s livestock.
Informal match races usually took place along dirt roads or across farm fields and were held on the spur of the moment or at gatherings like militia musters or July 4th celebrations. The steeds were usually “saddle nags or plow ponies” ridden bareback by proud owners along distances from a few hundred yards to a quarter mile or longer. Most were “match races” between two horses, but occasionally a larger field competed. The spectacle seldom failed to thrill the crowd.
More formalized race meets were held on designated racecourses, often ovals, and offered purses. The first recorded race in the Midwest may have been the 1801 event in Cincinnati that lasted two days and earned the winner a $50.00 prize. The meet quickly grew to a three day fair with a sweepstakes prize of $500.00. By 1840 many other Midwestern towns featured racetracks. The horses that ran on these tracks were many cuts above the nags of earlier times. Horse breeding, long a southern tradition, swiftly made inroads in the Midwest as blooded stock became available in most areas. Indianapolis newspapers, for example, carried ads for a number of stud horses in the 1830s, including one whose lineage was traced back to the famous Godolphin Arabian. Harness racing, later to be wildly popular in the Midwest, made few appearances during the pioneer period.
Early settlers eagerly sought escape from their isolation by combining work and social functions into events such as husking bees or house raisings. At such gatherings work skills, like survival skills, morphed into recreation with a purpose. Log-rollings were popular “work sports” that combined strength and speed. After trees were felled and stripped, two teams armed with hand spikes were chosen. Logs were rolled to a specified spot where they were lifted to erect a cabin. Rollings to clear land continued beyond the log cabin era. Teams rolled unwanted logs to a spot and lifted them onto a pile. The first team to hoist their final log was the winner and the logs were set afire. Related skills were shown in woodchopping contests in which individuals or teams competed in felling and trimming trees.
The highly developed American sense of competition turned even mundane activities into sport. Cornhuskings were good-natured coed, intergenerational contests that took place in a party atmosphere. Teams of men and women, adults and children, competed to remove the husk from the ears of corn. Though there were seldom prizes for the winners, there were rewards. Finding a rare red ear of corn sometimes meant the finder received a kiss from the opposite sex or perhaps was the prelude to the passing around of a bottle of whiskey for the men.
Though hunting and fishing were primarily food gathering activities, they were sometimes recreational as well. Small groups gathered for wolf, squirrel, or coon hunts, as much for sport than meat or fur procurement. Sugar Creek farmers were still organizing township-wide fox and wolf hunts as late as the 1890s. This time it was to eradicate them from preying on chickens and other livestock.Hunts were also important avenues for educating the young in necessary survival skills.
Not all sporting activities were directly related to work or defense. Some, like pitching quoits, were meant for amusement, sport for sport’s sake. Two versions of quoits appeared in the Midwest. One mirrored the eastern game of tossing an iron ring toward a stake. In the other, quoit pitchers hefted a boulder or flat stone onto their shoulders and threw it to a designated spot. This version of the game, described as being played on the Indiana frontier, more closely resembles the Native American practice and may be one of the few examples of cultural transference. Similar was the game of Long Bullets (not to be confused with the Native American gambling game of Moccasin and Bullet), which was played with an iron ball. Hard evidence about the game is sparse, but it appears to have been played by two teams who tried to prevent their opponents from throwing or rolling the “bullet” across their goal line. How widely the game was played is unknown.
Such “ball” games did not play a significant role in pioneer culture, at least among adults. This was in sharp contrast to Native Americans, who participated in games (often accompanied by gambling) similar to modern soccer, lacrosse, volleyball and field hockey. A 1796 account described a game of “football” in Ohio in which a male team competed against a female one, a rarity. The idea was to drive the ball (probably a deer hide stuffed with hair) between the opponents goal. Men were restricted to using their feet to touch the ball, while women were allowed to also use their hands. Lacrosse, the most widely known Native American sport still practiced, was played throughout the Great Lakes area with one contemporary account claiming nearly 2,000 Miami gathered to take part in a game.
The Midwestern frontier was also a scene of blood sports such as cockfighting and gander-pulling. Typically in cockfighting a ring was cleared and the agitated birds battled each other until one died or managed to flee. Even crueler was gander-pulling. With feathers plucked and neck greased, a gander was suspended by its feet from a tree limb. A succession of riders took turns attempting to pull off the bird’s head to win a prize. Shooting matches sometimes featured live geese or turkeys as targets. How prevalent were these “sports” is open to debate, but they existed to such extent that laws were passed in attempts to control them. An 1807 Indiana territorial law levied fines for any person who “shall cause to fight any cock or cocks, for money… , or shall encourage any match, or matches of cockfighting.”
A trait shared by many pioneer pastimes was gambling, which one historian noted was “in the blood of the time.” Gambling was widespread as wagers, friendly and otherwise, were placed on horse races, footraces, billiards, and cockfights. Nearly every sort of contest was a potential venue for betting. Though it appears most wagering was as much for its entertainment value as profit, a strident anti-gambling movement formed in reaction as religious groups and reformers sought to outlaw it. Indeed, most laws concerning horse racing or cockfighting seem meant more to inhibit gambling than prohibit the sport.
One of the few direct recreational transfers from Native Americans to pioneers was a form of gambling called Moccasin and Bullet. Later simply called Bullet, it was an early version of a shell game practiced by many Midwestern tribes and eagerly taken up by settlers. In the game, a dexterous “tout” would gather the players around and show them a large bullet and four to six moccasins. The bullet was skillfully (and deceptively) place under one of the moccasins as “players” bet on under which one it nestled. The game was very popular among wagering pioneers, as were various card game and billiards. Billiard tables, usually found in an inn or tavern, were a presence in the Midwest by the first decade of the 19th century. Contemporary descriptions of the games are rare, but it likely resembled modern pocket billiards.
As always, children found time to play. In addition to typical childhood games they were more likely than adults to take part in ball games. Versions of games similar to baseball were played throughout the Midwest, among them Rounders, Town Ball and One Old Cat. Children emulated adults by competing in foot races or wrestling matches. Boys were indoctrinated into their grown up roles as providers through shooting matches, hunting and fishing. There were also seasonal activities like swimming or iceskating that likely led to competition.
Though some of these childhood activities were coed there was usually a clear separation of genders as females were expected to attempt less strenuous activities thought more in keeping with their delicate natures. Much the same held true for adults. Though women occasionally took part in sporting activities, their usual role was as spectator or food provider, not participant
Pioneer sports may have been limited by time and circumstance, but they did lay the groundwork for the future. The American love of competition, exaltation of physical prowess, and eagerness for recreation exhibited during the era set the stage for the sporting boom, both participatory and spectator, that began in the late nineteenth century.