The history of Indianapolis spans three centuries. Founded in 1820, the area where the city now stands was originally home to the Lenape (Delaware Nation). In 1821, a small settlement on the west fork of the White River at the mouth of Fall Creek became the county seat of Marion County, and the state capital of Indiana, effective January 1, 1825. Initially the availability of federal lands for purchase in central Indiana made it attractive to the new settlement; the first European Americans to permanently settle in the area arrived around 1819 or early 1820. In its early years, most of the new arrivals to Indianapolis were Europeans and Americans with European ancestry, but later the city attracted other ethnic groups. The city’s growth was encouraged by its geographic location, 2 miles (3.2 km) northwest of the state’s geographic center. In addition to its designation as a seat of government, Indianapolis’s flat, fertile soil, and central location within Indiana and the Midwest, helped it become an early agricultural center. Its proximity to the White River, which provided power for the town’s early mills in the 1820s and 1830s, and the arrival of the railroads, beginning in 1847, established Indianapolis as a manufacturing hub and a transportation center for freight and passenger service. An expanding network of roads, beginning with the early National Road and the Michigan Road, among other routes, connected Indianapolis to other major cities.
Alexander Ralston and Elias Pym Fordham surveyed and designed the original grid pattern for the new town of Indianapolis, which was platted in 1821. Ralston’s plan extended outward from Governor’s Circle, now called Monument Circle, a large circular commons at the center of town. The early grid is still evident at the center of downtown Indianapolis, although the city has expanded well beyond its original boundaries. When White River proved too shallow for steamboats and the Indiana Central Canal was never fully completed, railroads helped transform the city into a business, industrial, and manufacturing center. The city remains the seat of state government and a regional center for banking and insurance, which were established early in the town’s history. As early as the 1820s and 1830s, the city’s residents established numerous religious, cultural, and charitable organizations to address social concerns and to preserve the state’s history and culture.
Early settlement (prior to 1820)
Marker at the site of John McCormick’s cabin
Indianapolis was founded as the site for the new state capital in 1820 by an act of the Indiana General Assembly; however, the area where the city of Indianapolis now stands was once home to the Lenape (Delaware Nation), a native tribe who lived along the White River. The flat, heavily wooded area supplied them with ample food and wild game, although part of the area was swampy and poorly drained. The White River and Fall Creek also offered water access and good fishing, but the Natives established no permanent settlement in the immediate area; however, they did set up temporary camps, especially along the waterways.
Under the Northwest Ordinance (1787), the Northwest Territory was created from land within the boundaries of the United States lying west of the Appalachian Mountains and northwest of the Ohio River. This area included present-day Indiana and Indianapolis. In 1800 a large portion of land extending west from the Ohio border to the Mississippi River and north to the United States border with Canada was established as the Indiana Territory. As Indiana slowly progressed toward statehood, its territorial boundaries were reduced to establish the Michigan Territory (1805) and the Illinois Territory (1809). In 1816, the year Indiana became a state, the U.S. Congress donated four sections of federal land to establish a permanent seat of state government. Two years later, under the Treaty of St. Mary’s (1818), the Delaware relinquished title to their tribal lands in central Indiana and agreed to leave the area by 1821. This tract of land, which was called the New Purchase, included the site selected for the new state capital in 1820.
The availability of new federal lands for purchase in central Indiana attracted settlers, many of them descendants of families from northwestern Europe. Although many of these first European and American settlers were Protestants, a large proportion of the early Irish and German immigrants were Catholics. Few African Americans lived in central Indiana before 1840. The first European Americans to permanently settle in the area that became Indianapolis were either the McCormick or Pogue families. The McCormicks are generally considered to be the town’s first permanent settlers; however, some historians believe George Pogue, his wife, and their five children may have arrived first, on March 2, 1819, and settled in a log cabin along the creek that was later called Pogue’s Run. Other historians have argued as early as 1822 that John Wesley McCormick and his family, along with his brothers, James and Samuel, and their employees became the first European American settlers when he built a cabin along the White River in February 1820.
Site selection and town plan
On January 11, 1820, the Indiana General Assembly authorized a committee of ten commissioners to select a site in central Indiana for the new state capital. The state legislature appointed Alexander Ralston and Elias Pym Fordham to survey and design a town plan for Indianapolis, which was platted in 1821. Ralston had been a surveyor for the French architect Pierre L’Enfant, and assisted him in laying out the plan for Washington, D.C. Ralston’s original plan for Indianapolis called for a town of 1-square-mile (2.6 km2). Nicknamed the Mile Square, the town was bounded by North, East, South, and West Streets, although they were not named at that time, with Governor’s Circle, a large circular commons, at the center of town. Governor’s Circle later became known as Monument Circle, after the impressive 284-foot-tall (86.5-meter-tall) neoclassical limestone and bronze Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, designed by German architect Bruno Schmitz, was completed on the site in 1901.
Under Ralston’s plan, Governor’s Circle was reserved as the future site of the governor’s residence. Although a brick governor’s mansion was erected in the site in 1827, its prominent and conspicuous location lacked privacy and no governor ever lived there. In 1839, the state legislature appropriated funds to purchase another home in Indianapolis to serve as the official governor’s residence. The mansion on Governor’s Circle was used as office space for the Indiana Supreme Court and a state bank, temporary housing for the Indiana State Library, lodging for state government officials, and a site for community gatherings before it was sold and finally demolished in 1857.
Ralston’s grid pattern with wide roads and public squares extended outward from the four blocks adjacent to the Circle, and also included four diagonal streets, later renamed as avenues. Public squares were reserved for government and community use, but not all of these squares were used for this intended purpose. Ralston altered the grid pattern in the southeast quadrant to accommodate the flow of Pogue’s Run, but a plat created in 1831 changed his original design and established a standard grid there as well.
Ralston’s basic street plan is still evident at the center of Indianapolis, although the city has expanded well beyond its original boundaries. Streets in the original plat were named after states that were part of the United States when Indianapolis was initially planned, in addition to Michigan, which was a U.S. territory at that time. (Tennessee and Mississippi Streets were renamed Capitol and Senate Avenues in 1895, after several state government buildings, including the Indiana Statehouse, were built west of the Circle.) There are a few other exceptions to the early street names. The National Road, which eventually crossed Indiana into Illinois, passes through Indianapolis along Washington Street, a 120-foot-wide, east-west street one block south of the Circle. Meridian and Market Streets intersect the Circle. Few street improvements were made in the 1820s and 1830s; sidewalks did not appear until 1839 or 1840.
Once the initial town plat was finalized, the land was divided into lots, with the first ones offered for sale on October 8, 1821. A portion of the funds from the lot sales was set aside to create a public building fund that was used to construct a statehouse, a courthouse, the state clerk’s office, and residences and offices for the governor and the state treasurer. Initially, there were no plans to plat the area outside the Mile Square, but later, additional tracts of land were divided into irregular-sized blocks and lots.
Indianapolis has been closely linked to politics since its selection as Indiana’s seat of government in the 1820s, but early in its history the city became a railroad transportation hub for the region and a center for civic and cultural affairs.
Indianapolis became a seat of county government on December 31, 1821, when Marion County, Indiana, was established. A combined county and town government continued until 1832, when Indianapolis was incorporated as a town and the local government was placed under the direction of five elected trustees. Indianapolis became an incorporated city effective March 30, 1847. Samuel Henderson, the city’s first mayor, led the new city government, which included a seven-member city council. In 1853, voters approved a new city charter that provided for an elected mayor and a fourteen-member city council. The city charter continued to be revised as Indianapolis expanded.
Effective January 1, 1825, the seat of state government relocated to Indianapolis from Corydon, Indiana, and the Indiana General Assembly’s first session in the new state capital began on January 10, 1825. In addition to state government offices, a U.S. district court was established at Indianapolis in 1825; two years later, the state legislature appropriated $500 for construction of a new building in Indianapolis to house the Indiana Supreme Court.
In its early years Indianapolis hosted numerous political gatherings and visiting dignitaries. In 1828, Indiana supporters of John Quincy Adams’s candidacy for president of the United States held their state convention in Indianapolis; in 1833, William Henry Harrison, former governor of the Indiana Territory, attended a reception held in his honor; in 1840, the country’s first Whig convention met at Indianapolis; and, in 1842, former U.S. president Martin Van Buren and Kentucky politician Henry Clay visited the city. In 1851, the Indiana Constitutional Convention was held at the newly completed Indianapolis Masonic Temple, and, in 1856, the Indiana Republican Party held its first state convention in Indianapolis. Abraham Lincoln made his first visit to the city in 1859.
Public health and safety
Military protection, law enforcement, fire safety, and public health were addressed early in the city’s history. Some of these efforts were undertaken with federal assistance, while others were established locally, in some cases on a volunteer basis.
In 1822, a federal militia was organized for central Indiana, and, in 1826, Indianapolis’s first rifle and artillery companies were formed. Its first cavalry company was organized two years later. Several more militia companies were established in the 1850s. Enforcement of town ordinances and fire protection were also early concerns for residents. Indianapolis’s first two justices of the peace were appointed in 1821, and its first jail was built in 1822. The city council established Indianapolis’s first police department in 1854. The Indianapolis Fire Company, organized in 1826, was the town’s first volunteer fire department. Indianapolis’s first firehouse was built in 1836. The volunteer fire companies disbanded in 1859, when Indianapolis’s first regular, paid fire department was established.
Because of Indianapolis’s location near the White River and Fall Creek, its low-lying areas were subject to flooding. Twenty-five fatalities were reported after heavy rains fell during the summer months in 1821, a series of severe spring storms flooded the town’s waterways in 1824, and record flooding occurred again in 1828. Heavy rains caused record flooding in 1847. Spring rains once again flooded Pogue’s Run and the White River in 1857, although high-water marks did not reach the 1847 level. In 1860, a tornado passed through Indianapolis, but the most significant destruction occurred east and west of the city.
Poor drainage and sanitation in Indianapolis’s early days contributed to the spread of illness and disease. Mosquitoes infected settlers with malaria and the town’s first cases of influenza, cholera, and smallpox arrived in the 1820s and early 1830s. To combat these illnesses the Indiana Central Medical Society formed in 1823 to license physicians, town officials appointed its first board of health in 1831, and, in 1848, the Indiana Central Medical College organized. Indianapolis became home to the Indiana Hospital for the Insane in 1847, when its main building was completed. City Hospital’s first building was completed in 1859, but it did not have sufficient funds to purchase equipment and remained vacant until 1861, when it served as a military hospital during the American Civil War. Indianapolis’s first cemetery was established near the White River in 1821, the adjacent Union Cemetery in 1834, and Greenlawn Cemetery was added west of Union Cemetery in 1860. A Hebrew cemetery was established 3 miles (4.8 km) south of the city’s center in 1856, and land for a Catholic cemetery was acquired south of the city in 1860.
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