William Henry Harrison shaped Indiana from Vincennes mansion
by Andrea Neal
History remembers William Henry Harrison as the first president to die in office. Hoosiers should remember him as the man who shaped the Indiana Territory.
Indiana spent 16 years as a territory before it became a full-fledged state. Following a multistep process set out in the Northwest Ordinance, citizens first had to get practice at governing, grow in population, petition for statehood, be accepted into the union and write a constitution.
Like a conductor directing an orchestra, Harrison oversaw much of the process from his governor’s mansion in Vincennes, the territorial capital chosen because it had a sizable population and was conveniently located on the Wabash River. In the process, he negotiated 10 treaties with Native Americans bringing the land firmly under U.S. control.
The Indiana Territory was much larger than what became Indiana. Carved out of the Northwest Territory in 1800, it included Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota and Michigan. At the time, some 12,000 Native Americans and 6,000 settlers lived there. By 1816, Indiana had been whittled down to current size and had 64,000 residents.
Harrison was a native Virginian and a military man named territorial governor by President John Adams in 1800. He moved to Vincennes in January 1801 and got to work writing laws, appointing public officials, improving roads and directing Indian affairs.
In 1804, Harrison built a governor’s residence sturdy enough to function as a fort. It was the first brick home in Indiana and became known as Grouseland due to abundant game birds in the area.
As the pursuit of statehood progressed, power shifted away from a powerful executive, Harrison, to a democratic legislative branch. In 1811, the Legislature asked Congress for permission to write a state constitution and admission to the union. By this time, the territory hoped to be financially self-sufficient. It wasn’t yet, so plans were put on hold. War broke out, and statehood was further delayed.
In the War of 1812, Harrison was named commander of the Northwest Army and resigned his post to concentrate on battling the British. In 1813 President Madison appointed Thomas Posey as Harrison’s replacement. That same year the legislature passed the State Capital Act moving the territorial capital to Corydon, which would become the new state capital.
In 1815, the assembly again petitioned Congress for statehood, and this time all went according to plan. In December 1816, President James Monroe signed a resolution admitting Indiana to the union.
For the 12 years he served as governor, Harrison was synonymous with the Indiana Territory, and Grouseland functioned as the White House of the West. Today the mansion appears much as it did in the early 19th century and is “a cultural treasure in Indiana,” says historian James Fadely. “It embodies the history and culture of the early Indiana Territory within its walls."
Of the four meeting places of the legislature, one still stands: a two-story red house initially built as a tailor shop. The sites are within a block of each other and open to the public as living reminders of Indiana’s beginnings.
Note to Readers: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, beginning with the impact of the Ice Age and ending with the legacy of the Bicentennial itself. Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.