How 1816 looked

From December 1928’s perspective

Rex M. Potterf, later to become head librarian for the Fort Wayne public library, addressed the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society at the Swinney Homestead Dec. 12, 1928. His topic was “Indiana in 1816.” Although not a long presentation, it was packed with interesting insights of the time. He made the point that when Indiana entered the Union, four counties were formed during the 181617 session and nine more in the next, predominantly along the Ohio River.

In 1816, as the Indiana Constitutional Convention developed, Potterf suggests, it was influenced by the basic laws of Kentucky and Ohio. He noted the delegates were practical men and adopted a committee system creating 12 committees whose members developed the Indiana Constitution. Typical of the time, divorces required legislative enactment, executive power rested with the legislature rather than the governor’s office and accommodations were made for public education. Provisions were made for constitutional revisions every 12 years, and it was 1849 before voters agitated for a new constitution. The convention’s final document went into effect immediately without a vote by the people.

In 1816, Jonathan Jennings became governor, William Hendricks the first U.S. Congressional representative, and James Noble was Indiana’s first U.S. senator. The first General Assembly took up the issues of establishing a state library and passed several acts which provided for the punishment of “Man-stealing, giving false certificates of manumission, dueling, incest, Sabbath-breaking and profane swearing.”

In 1816, Indiana came into the Union carved from the Northwest Territory, which banned slavery. Even so, pro-slavery people attempted to skirt the spirit of the law by releasing any from slavery or servitude they might enter into a long term contract for indentured servitude. It was not uncommon for southern slave-owners to cross the Ohio River into Indiana on a manhunt. The very act tended to turn sentiment against slavery.

In 1816 and for years after, both transportation and communication were left wanting since roadways were merely horse trails, which meant senators and representatives in Congress took 28 days by horseback to reach Washington, D.C. Although there were many important trails converging on Kekionga, our present-day Fort Wayne and the portage between the Maumee and Wabash river systems was nothing like we have enjoyed during the past two centuries.

In 1816, the buffalo were beginning to vanish from the Hoosier landscape, while mink, otter, lynx, porcupine, panthers, deer and bear continued to roam the woods. Wolves were a threat to the domestic hog population, and the legislature placed a $1 bounty per head on the wolf. Wild turkeys posed still another problem with throngs of the large birds keeping hogs from reaching their feed. Squirrels decimated the fields of corn when their natural food did not produce its expected production.

In 1816, extraordinary cold descended on the land. As late as June, below-freezing temperatures were recorded. During July, frost and ice were not an uncommon experience, and in August conditions had not improved. Illnesses such as ague, chills, fever, milk sickness and cholera were prevalent. Abe Lincoln’s mother is reported to have succumbed to milk sickness, a fatal illness due to poisoning by milk from cows that had eaten white snakeroot. Availability of good doctors was meager, and quacks abounded. Potterf itemized typical remedies as bloodletting, calomel, jalap, hot water, corn meal gruel, exclusion from the air and blisters. Charms were thought a practical solution. Quacks promoted root cures. 

Potterf’s presentation that day, 112 years after statehood was granted to Indiana, surely must have fascinated his audience. How would the head librarian’s talk have been received by that 1928 audience if Potterf could have foretold and described Indiana in 2016?

First appeared in the December 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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