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Where does history happen?

Wed, 2011-02-09 11:22 -- univcomm
February 9, 2011

by Dr. David Murphy, professor of history at Anderson University

Two things typically happen when people learn that I teach history at Anderson University. First, they tell me with enthusiasm of their own interest in history. Then, they lament what many studies describe as indifference toward history among today’s younger students.

I like the first part of this. It’s always interesting to learn just what kinds of history are interesting to people who are not, like my students, under any compulsion to read assigned texts. But I don’t really share contemporary pessimism about an alleged lack of interest in our past. While my evidence is admittedly anecdotal, I see a robust interest in history among our undergraduates, with enrollment in history elective courses here (and at other nearby institutions) booming.

I believe we face a different problem when it comes to thinking about our past, though, that might be described as a sort of vision disorder. We’re sometimes afflicted with a kind of historical “far-sightedness”. Two decades of teaching history to undergraduates at Anderson University have taught me that most of us, including myself, have a tendency to ignore the history that happens around us. If I were to ask my students “Where does history happen?”, I have a feeling that most would answer “Not here.” We expect to find significant historical events taking place in suitably significant venues far away, and presume that sleepy, provincial places like our home town or county lack the grandeur or drama that proper settings for “history” ought to have.

This is really too bad, for many reasons. When we omit the local from our idea of history, we not only miss much of the immediate personal drama that makes history so gripping, we also miss one of the essential purposes of studying the past. We can not perceive our own place in the vast web or tapestry of national and global history until we connect “here” with the greater history that happens somewhere “out there”. This insight was brought home to me with powerful clarity during the past few years of researching and writing my recent book, Murder in Their Hearts: The Fall Creek Massacre, which focuses upon events that took place here in Madison County, just about eight miles southeast of AU’s campus.

The book tells a story of interracial violence that is in many ways all too familiar to those who know the early history of our nation. In the spring of 1824, just a few months after Madison County was incorporated, angry settlers on a drinking binge slaughtered a band of nine Indians at a hunting camp along the banks of Deer Lick Creek, near the present-day town of Markleville. Following the killings, which were prompted by a variety of motives, the murderers mutilated the bodies of the dead, looted the camp of its valuables, and returned to their cabins.

So far, so typical. Episodes of brutal interracial bloodshed – white settler against Indian, and vice versa – were not uncommon as pioneers migrated into the old Northwest Territory. And in the normal course of events, little action was taken against whites who perpetrated such violence. Here in Madison County, though, this case turned out in a very different, and unique, way: The killers were rounded up by their neighbors, tried, and for the first (and possibly only) time under American law, executed for murder.

johnstonThis extraordinary outcome, so different from the usual official inactivity that followed similar killings, was due largely to the decisive intervention of a single individual: John Johnston, the federal Indian agent charged with managing relations between the government and the Seneca and other tribes to which the victims belonged.

[Photo: John Johnston]

Johnston was a Scottish immigrant who spent a lifetime fighting Indian wars in the Ohio Valley before helping administer federal relations with native peoples. His personality mixed unbending personal integrity and a Spartan commitment to duty with humane sensitivity. When his two sons went west to fight the Mexican War in the 1840s – both would die there – his stern advice to them was vintage Johnston: “You are to do your duty, and know nothing of party or party men. Remember that a soldier’s duty is to keep a shut mouth and to obey orders.”

The mass murder in the woods near Markleville briefly drew the national spotlight to Madison County. Newspapers from Ohio to New York to the nation’s capital reported the carnage in lurid detail, and local settlers began to flee the county as fears grew that retaliation by angry Indians, of whom several thousand still resided in Indiana, would lead to the nightmare of frontier warfare.

The retaliatory bloodbath never materialized, however, thanks to Johnston’s energetic intervention. Taking advantage of the revulsion that the killings of women and children inspired in much of the local settler community, Johnston quickly arranged for federal funds to build a local jail and to secure the services of Senator James Noble, widely regarded as the state’s finest courtroom orator, to head the prosecution. At the same time, Johnston spent the rainy spring of 1824 slogging hundreds of miles through central Indiana and Ohio to meet with tribal leaders and offer both compensation for the deaths as well as assurances that the white government’s system would see that justice was done.

johnston-homeIt was. Over the course of the next year, in two separate trials, three of the accused were tried by their peers, convicted, and put to death. Whatever one may feel about capital punishment today it was, by the standards of 1820s Indiana, the appropriate sentence. Johnston’s successful intervention both carried the protection of the law to Native Americans in the Hoosier backwoods, and served to prevent retaliatory bloodshed.

[Photo: John Johnston's home]

The murder conviction and subsequent execution for killing Indians remain anomalies to this day. What I found striking in writing about this sensational, dramatic and unique story, however, is just how obscure it was for most Hoosiers, even for many of those resident in Madison County. While some memory of these events lingers locally, particularly in the town of Pendleton, where the trials took place, I was impressed again and again by the fact that the Fall Creek Massacre was entirely unknown to most in central Indiana.

I have wondered often why no livelier memory of these events has been preserved. This, after all, is where we right here in Madison County were affected by, caught up in, and played a decisive part in shaping one of the most striking trends characteristic of modernity: The migrations of peoples across old ethnic, cultural and political boundaries that continue to remake the conditions of human life on this planet.

We may have been largely content to let the events at Fall Creek lapse from memory because they failed to set a new standard of just treatment for native tribes. Peoples, like individuals, would rather recall their triumphs than their failures. But my encounter with this part of our shared local past here in the vicinity of Anderson University has helped inform the way I teach our undergraduates. Wherever possible, it reminds me, make them connect the local picture with the larger perspective. The interactions between the two are often surprising, and always informative. The bigger picture is only clear and complete when we know exactly where we fit into it.

— Dr. David Murphy is professor of history at Anderson University and chair of the Department of History and Political Science.

Murder in their Hearts may be purchased through the Indiana Historical Society.

Voices from the Valley is a venue for members of the Anderson University community to share unique perspectives on topics for which they are qualified to speak. For more information, contact the Office of University Communications.

Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson continues to be recognized as a top Christian college: in 2010, U.S. News and World Report ranked Anderson University among the best colleges and universities in the Midwest for the seventh consecutive year. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing, and theology.