Who’s Your (Hoosier) Ancestor?


by Terry Hogan


Early Illinois was a bit of a melting pot.  Before the rush of the Swedes, Irish, Germans and others in the mid to late 1800s, Illinois was settled in what looks a little like a military maneuver. 


From the south, through what is now Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana, came a group of settlers who were generically referred to as “Hoosiers.”  Many of these were from the Carolinas and Virginia or were descendants of those who were from that region.  Many were Scotch Irish.  They were hunters, movers, and farmers of small farms.  They were restless, and often not well educated.  They were often the front-line of the European culture pushing west across the land.  They were the classic log cabin, Indian fighters.  


From the north came those whose recent roots were from New England and New York.  The “Hoosiers” collectively called them “Yankees”.  Where they met, they tolerated each other, at best.  Neither had much use for the other, but over time, the melting pot did its thing.  Over the loudest protestations, daughters and sons crossed the cultural lines in the name of love and the lines began to fade.


Geographically, if you have many generations in Illinois, you will tend to find yourself backtracking one or both of these pathways from Illinois, back to the Northeast or toward the Carolinas and Virginia.  In so doing, history broadens from Illinois to the adjoining (usually easterly) states. 


If your ancestors came via the southerly route, you may find it interesting to take a weekend trip to the south and east, crossing the mighty Wabash River into southern Indiana.  Surprisingly (at least to me), Vincennes, just across the Wabash, is particularly well prepared to give you a taste of your ancestor’s life.  Dare I mention that it is in Knox County? 


Vincennes is the oldest city in Indiana, tracing its roots to an early French fur trading outpost in 1732.  A very important, but sadly overlooked, battle took place in 1779 that arguably was responsible for Illinois being part of the United States.  George Rogers Clark and a small group of frontiersmen captured the British-held Fort Sackville at Vincennes in February 1779. It was a daring and difficult task, undertaken during the winter in high water.  He and his band of American frontiersmen and some recruited French volunteers left Kaskaskia Illinois on February 5.  They traveled some 200 miles to reach Vincennes and Fort Sackville.  The largely French residents of Vincennes did not object to the arrival of the Americans.  On February 25, 1779, the British troops surrendered Fort Sackville.  By repelling the British from this western foothold, the Americans were able to convince the British to surrender large tracts of western land at the end of the Revolutionary War, including land that was later to make up the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin and the eastern portion of Minnesota. 


A beautiful George Rogers Clark Memorial now sits at the site of Fort Sackville and a nearby visitor’s center provides information and a short movie about the period. The memorial was begun in 1931 and was built in the Greek tradition.  It has a granite exterior from Vermont, Minnesota and Alabama and is circular, with 16 columns. It stands approximately 80 feet high and 90 feet across. Inside are seven large murals depicting historic scenes and a “larger than life” bronze statue of George Rogers Clark. The ceiling and rotunda walls are, of course, made of Indiana limestone. Tan marble from France breaks the limestone and is used for cool seating on a hot summer day.  The floor is pink marble from Tennessee. This memorial is now part of the National Park System, and it was spotless when we visited it.  Frankly, it looks like part of Washington D.C. had been picked up from the banks of the Potomac and placed along the banks of the Wabash.  It is all the more impressive, given the contrast of its surroundings. 


 An adjacent Cathedral, built in 1826 stands where three early churches had been, the first being built in 1749.  An adjoining cemetery helps to keep this all in perspective.  


Not far away is a blend of old and reconstructed buildings representing life in old Vincennes when it was the Indiana Territory Capitol (1800- 1813).  The series of old buildings are located adjacent to Vincennes University.  When I was there, the tour guide, appropriately dressed for the period, gave a low-key, natural, and extremely well informed tour of the buildings, providing insights to every day life. 


I think our tour guide particularly liked the Elihu Stout Print Shop, which printed the Indiana Gazette, the Territory’s first newspaper.  He provided glimpses of how the old print shop of 1800 has affected our speech to this day.  Ever wonder why we have our capital letters called “upper case” and the others called “lower case”?  The answer goes to the old print shop where the capital letters used in printing were held in the upper case for storage and retrieval and the others were stored in the case directly below the capital letters, and were therefore the “lower case” letters.  Another quick example will suffice to prove my point.  When you were a kid, were you ever told to “Watch your P’s & Q’s”?  That was a warning to young apprentices who worked in printing shops as the letters all had to be placed in the block upside down and in reverse order.  The letters “P” and “Q” looked very similar in this arrangement, so the printer had to remind the young apprentice from time to time to…well, you know, “watch your P’s and Q’s!” 


I also liked this part of Vincennes as it operated on pure donations, volunteers, and they allowed you to take photographs inside the buildings. (This is my not-so-subtle way of leading into the next area of Vincennes worth visiting.)


Although it is extremely unlikely that your Hoosier ancestor lived like William Henry Harrison, it is work taking the half a block walk from Elihu Stout’s humble printing shop to the grand “Grouseland”, home of William Henry Harrison.  The house is owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who saved it from destruction and have restored it.  It sits along the banks of the Wabash and shows how the moneyed could live, even in the wilderness.  Harrison built the home in 1803-04 on 300 acres of land.  Harrison was the Governor of the Indiana Territory from 1800 to 1812.  The building is nicely restored; cost $5/person to tour, but no photographs are allowed to be taken inside, not even with existing light.  I “groused” about this to the tour guide, which may explain her less the cordial guided tour. 


Grouseland contains some original Harrison furniture, and a lot of furniture of the period.  Unfortunately, I cannot show you a photo of the interior, although I confess that I was tempted to try to snap one or two just to strike a blow for freedom.  I would have, but I figured my wife would turn me in.  She knew what I was thinking and she wasn’t likely to take a rap as a coconspirator.


If you are a little rusty on presidential history, William Henry Harrison was elected as the ninth President. He served only 31 days in office before dying.  His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, became the 23rd President of the United States, but did not “go” by the nickname “W”.


So, if you want to get away for a weekend and see what some of your Hoosier ancestors may have seen or experienced in the early 1800’s, it is literally right across the Wabash River in Vincennes, Indiana.


It’s a little bit like historic Washington, D.C., except it is much cheaper and has easy parking.