When I try to imagine traveling to Indiana Territory , the first thing I see is one of those big signs we have today at state lines: Welcome to Indiana Territory.
Of course, there were no signs. No advertisements “Come live in Indiana Territory.” No real estate agents (at least not in today’s sense of the word) offering to make all your dreams come true.
There was word of mouth. And the promise of land.
Oh! And Danger… Lots and lots of danger.
© Comfort Marvel Mysteries 2020
Red Banks Trail. At last, solid ground beneath my feet.
But that wasn’t the only reason I was happy to disembark the cramped flatboat. I was equally looking forward to silence, now that my guide, Alexander Potins (“That’s Poe-teen, Lassy,” he’d informed me when we met) had to go to work, putting an end to the incessant chattering I’d endured since we boarded sixty-three long days ago. 
The prattle might have been entertaining had Mr. Potins more than one topic of conversation: my ultimate death or maiming in Indiana Territory. According to him, I would be mauled by bears , trampled by buffalo , swept up by a tornado , or buried by snow . And, of course, in constant danger of the natives who would, he claimed, “steal you and make you their slave, burn you alive at the stake, scalp you, and force you to run the gauntlet.”  The order of events he failed to specify.
At any rate, this morning we set out on foot  and peace would, at last, be mine.
I had barely picked up my valise, though—which I carried myself, Potins being weighed down with our pack on his back and a flintlock clutched to his chest and ready for danger—when he started talking. “Watch ye’self, Lassy. Injuns all ’round these parts. Not long ago, they ambushed a defenseless grandda—”
“There’s a happy ending to this story, right?” I said , interrupting what I knew would be another gruesome tale.
“Not likely, no. He was tending the syrup kettle . In these very woods. Left the poor bugger—”
He jabbered on while I turned my attention, instead, to my surroundings. Autumn has always been my favorite time of year and the forest we hiked was alive with color: yellow and golds of poplars, the sumacs’ vibrant reds, and of course vivid orange sprinkled throughout by the maples . I worried, however, about the noise the crunching leaves underfoot made. If natives were, indeed, near, they would certainly hear us coming.
Unfortunately, our ruckus had no effect on the panther that now stared at us from a limb overhanging the trail.
Notes & Sources
- As you know, I’ve switched horses and am currently working on a mystery series featuring my 3rd Great Grandmother Comfort Marvel (or rather a fictional facsimile of her). And since the stories will all take place in the newly opened Indiana Territory, I thought we should take a minute to learn a bit about it. Not to get into too much of a history lesson, the Indiana Territory was formed in 1800 from the Northwest Territory, the parcel of land inhabited by the Northeastern Indigenous Americans when the European colonists ran them out of their east coast homes. Well, manifest destiny being what it is (basically a what’s mine is mine and what’s yours in mine theory of Ownership), it wasn’t long before settlers were moving into the Indiana Territory as well.
- Flatboats were the most common way to travel from the east to Indiana Territory, even though flatboats were often attacked by natives, and progress was slow.
Source: Julia Henderson Levering, Historic Indiana 2nd Edition (New York: G.P. Putnum Sons, 1910) 62.
- Several accounts of settlers encountering bears have been recorded. The one that dear Mr. Potins shared with Comfort involved two boys enamored of bear cubs then running afoul of Mama Bear. Thankfully, the boys were not killed… Although I suspect Potins didn’t bother to tell Comfort that.
Source: Levering, Historic Indiana, 81.
- Buffalo were once so plentiful in Indiana that the most traveled route into Indiana Territory was called the Buffalo Trace, a trail wide enough for two wagons abreast and hard packed due to the weight and small hooves of buffalo that traveled the path. A familiar stopping point on the Buffalo Trace was the Mud Holes, an old buffalo wallowing spot. Despite this, I found no stories of trampled settlers. Mr. Potins was obviously into scare tactics.
Sources: a) William M. Cockrum, Pioneer History of Indiana (Oakland City IN: Press of Oakland City Journal, 1907) 428-429, 441; b) George R. Wilson, Early Indiana Trails and Surveys (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Publications, 1919, 2002) 1, 16-17, 20-24; c) Levering, Historic Indiana, 73.
- Tornadoes were not often mentioned in the early accounts of Indiana, although, having been raised in nearby Illinois, I know they frequently accompany thunderstorms. And since Mr. Potins is busy weaving tales of doom, I figured he would exaggerate the danger of tornadoes as well.
Source: Cockrum, Pioneer History, 440.
- Again, although reference to snow is frequent, there are few tales of death due to snowfall alone. In fact, in the five books I reviewed, blizzards are not noted even once.
Sources: a) Harlow Lindley (editor), Indiana as Seen by Early Travelers (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Commission, 1916) 109; b) Cockrum, Pioneer History, 439, 482, 491.
- Accounts confirm that native tribes did steal women and children, enslave captives, burn some captives at the stake, scalp their victims before or after death, and make captives run the gauntlet.
Sources: a) Milo M. Quaife (ed), The Indian Captivity of O.M. Spencer (Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1917) 100-101; b) Levering, Historic Indiana, 46, 107, 115; c) Cockrum, Pioneer History, 26, 151, 164, 167-168, 198, 201, 203, 210, 477, 555-556; d) Lindley, Early Travelers, 76, 305.
- The Red Banks Trail, so named from the red banks of the Ohio River at what is now Henderson KY, led directly from current day Evanville, IN to the capital of the Indiana Territory, Vincennes. It was one of three main trails used to enter the territory, but because it was narrow and forested, was generally traveled on foot.
Sources: a) Wilson, Trails & Surveys, 8, 12, 44-47; b) Cockrum, Pioneer History, 156, 204.
- “There’s a happy ending to this, right?” “Not likely, no.” was the writing prompt from an online writing tag-up that inspired this entire scene. Prompts sometimes don’t fit the general language of the era, as is true of this one, which has a very contemporary, 21st-century feel to it.
- The “poor bugger” Mr. Potins was talking about was elderly Sebastian Frederick, who, while watching syrup kettles at night, was attacked by a band of natives and found dead the following morning with a tomahawk lodged in his skull. According to pioneer lore (which in 1907 was decidedly anti-Native), the Native People were unhappy about the share of syrup they were promised.
Source: Cockrum, Pioneer History, 164.