History of Indianapolis

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A line drawing of the original boundaries of Indianapolis
Plat of the Town of Indianapolis from December 1821
Downtown Indianapolis from the air, 2005.
For more details on this topic, see Indianapolis, Indiana.

The history of Indianapolis spans three centuries.

Early years[edit]

Marker at the site of John McCormick's cabin

Indianapolis was founded as the site for the new state capital in 1820 by an act of the Indiana General Assembly. Prior to its official founding, Indianapolis was a swampy area called the Fall Creek Settlement sparsely settled by fur traders. The first European American settler is generally believed to be George Pogue, who on March 2, 1819, settled in a double log cabin along the creek now called Pogue's Run. However, as early as 1822, it was argued that John Wesley McCormick was the first European American settler when he built a cabin along the White River in 1820 at the site of what is now the White River State Park in downtown Indianapolis. The state capital was moved from Corydon on January 10, 1825 and the state commissioned Alexander Ralston and Elias Pym Fordham to design the new capital city. Ralston was an apprentice to the French architect Pierre L'Enfant, and he helped L'Enfant plan Washington, D.C. Ralston's original plan for Indianapolis called for a city of only 1-square-mile (2.6 km2). Under Ralston's plan, at the center of the city was placed the Governor's Circle, a large circular commons, which was to be the site of the Governor's mansion. It was used as a market commons for over six years. Although an expensive Governor's mansion was finally constructed in 1827, no Governor ever lived in the house at Governor's Circle, as the site in the city center lacked any privacy. The Governor's mansion was finally demolished in 1857.[1] Later, Governor's Circle became Monument Circle after the impressive 284-foot-tall (86.5-meter-tall) neoclassical limestone and bronze Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, designed by German architect Bruno Schmitz, was completed on the site in 1901.[1]

Civil War[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Indianapolis in the American Civil War.
A black and white line-drawing map of Indianapolis
1831 map of Indianapolis in Marion County, originally drawn by surveyor B. F. Morris

During the American Civil War, Indianapolis was a major base of support for the Union. The governor of Indiana, Oliver Hazard Perry Morton, was a major supporter of President Abraham Lincoln and he quickly made Indianapolis a rallying point for Union Army forces as they prepared to enter Confederate lands.

The city was a major railroad hub and transportation center and therefore had military importance; it was also the site of a major prisoner-of-war camp, Camp Morton, and was at once threatened by attack from Confederate forces, although the nearest any Confederate came to the city was Seymour, Indiana, 60 miles (97 km) away. However, there was one incident sarcastically referred to as the Battle of Pogue's Run.

Industrial era[edit]

Child workers. Noon hour in a furniture factory. Indianapolis, Indiana, August 1908. Photographed by Lewis Hine.
"One of the busiest corners in the world", Illinois and Washington Sts., 1904

While the city lies on the old east–west National Road, the portion of that road that crosses Indiana was not completed until a decade after the city's founding. Indianapolis was founded on the White River under the incorrect assumption that the river would serve as a major transportation artery; however, the waterway was too sandy for trade. Through the mid-19th century, a horse-drawn barge canal by-passed the river bringing goods into the city. The Indiana Central Canal was one of eight major infrastructure projects authorized by the state's Mammoth Improvement Act of 1835. The Central Canal was intended to run 296 miles (476 km) from near Logansport, through Indianapolis, and to Evansville. The Central Canal was planned to connect the Wabash and Erie Canal to the Ohio River, completing a link between Lake Erie in the State of Ohio with the portion of the Ohio River flowing through southern Indiana in order to promote trade and commerce along its length. Construction of the Central Canal commenced in 1836, but Indiana went bankrupt in 1839 from the loans taken out under the aforementioned bill and all work on the project ceased. At the time, the 24 miles (39 km) portion of the Indianapolis section of the canal was dug and filled, but only an 8.29 miles (13.34 km) portion connecting downtown Indianapolis with the village of Broad Ripple to the north was ever operational. The portion of the completed Central Canal and adjoining White River have been turned into White River State Park.

1909 poster advertising the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The first railroad to service Indianapolis, the Madison and Indianapolis, began operation on October 1, 1847, and subsequent railroad connections enlarged the town. The population soared from just over 8,000 in 1850 to more than 169,000 by 1900. Later, the automobile, as in most American cities, caused a suburban explosion. With automobile companies as Duesenberg, Marmon, National, and Stutz, Indianapolis was a center of production rivaling Detroit, at least for a few years. The internationally renowned automobile races that take place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every year are a notable residual from that booming industry at the beginning of the 20th century. With roads as the spokes of a wheel, Indianapolis was on its way to becoming a major hub of regional transport connecting to Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus and St. Louis, as is befitting the capital of a state whose motto is "The Crossroads of America." Today, four interstate roads intersect in Indianapolis: routes 65, 69, 70, and 74. The city is a major trucking center, and the extensive network of highways has allowed Indianapolis to enjoy a relatively low amount of traffic congestion for a city its size.

A strike by the street car workers in Indianapolis began in October 1913. The strike was called on the eve of the city elections and hindered many people from being able to vote, causing considerable public outrage. The union demanded the passage of a law to better protect what they believe to be their rights and wanted Governor Samuel Ralston to call a special session of the Indiana General Assembly to pass such a bill. The strike quickly began to grow and other unions and labor organizations joined. Business leaders demanded the governor call out the army and end the strike, but the unions threatened violence if that happened. On November 5 Ralston finally called out the entire Indiana National Guard and put the city under martial law. At noon on the 6th, the strikers and their sympathizers gathered around the Indiana Statehouse and began chanting a demand that the troops leave the city. Ralston exited the building and spoke to the crowd offering to withdraw the troops if the strikers would go back to work and negotiate peacefully. He offered concessions and promises that convinced the strikers of his good intentions, effectively ending the strike that day. The strike led to the creation of the states earliest labor protection laws including a minimum wage, regular work weeks, and improved working conditions.[2]

Economic and political development[edit]

Indianapolis entered a period of great prosperity at the beginning of the 20th century, and during this time the city witnessed great economic, social, and cultural progress. Much of this was due to the discovery in 1886 of a huge natural gas deposit in east-central Indiana, the celebrated Trenton Gas Field. A few years later, the discovery of oil in the area would follow and cause an increase in the population. The Trenton Field formed the western portion of what was at the time the world's largest oil field and natural gas deposit, the Lima-Indiana Field (stretching from northwestern Ohio to east-central Indiana). The state government offered a free supply of natural gas to factories that were built there. This led to a sharp increase in industries such as glass and automobile manufacturing. However, the natural gas deposits were largely depleted by 1912 and completely gone by 1920, and the end of the Indiana Gas Boom along with the coinciding rapid decline of oil production (which continued on a greatly diminished scale until 1930) contributed to an abrupt end of the golden era. The 1920 census was the first to show that Indiana had more urban than rural inhabitants.[3]

Racial history[edit]

African Americans have played a vital role in the history of Indianapolis. The city served as one of the predominant stops on the Underground Railroad, and up to the time of the Great Migration in the early 20th century, Indianapolis had a higher black population (nearly 10%) than any other city in the Northern States.[4] Today Indianapolis is the least segregated city in the northern United States, according to a University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee study, with 25% of the population living on a city block with both white and black residents.[4][5]

The African-American population originally thrived in the vibrant Indiana Avenue neighborhood, which served as a hub of black culture for the entire Midwest. Though officially founded as a specific community in 1869, Indiana Avenue was home to a black Christian church by 1836 and had a majority of black-owned businesses by 1865. A strong black middle class called this neighborhood home, as did jazz greats such as Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Coe, Noble Sissle, and Wes Montgomery.

Indianapolis printed the nation's first illustrated black newspaper in 1888. This newspaper, the Indianapolis Freeman, was circulated nationally and considered by many the leading black journal in America - dubbed the Harper's Weekly of the United States' black community.[6]

In 1910, Madam C.J. Walker moved herself and her cosmetics manufacturing company to Indianapolis. Walker would become America’s first self-made woman millionaire[7] and the richest African-American of her day. Her long and remarkably successful career as both a businesswoman and a philanthropist is memorialized by the Madame Walker Theatre Center which continues to provide entertainment on Indiana Avenue to this day.

While Indianapolis had some segregated elementary schools in the early 1900s, high schools were not segregated until 1927, when, with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, Crispus Attucks High School was established despite the opposition of the African-American community. However, even after 1948, when school segregation was outlawed in Indiana, many African-Americans took pride in Attucks, in part because all its teachers had at least master's degrees and many had PHD's.[8][9] In 1955 Crispus Attucks, led by the legendary Oscar Robertson, became the first all-black high school in America to win an integrated state basketball championship. The team repeated its championship in 1956, becoming the first team in Indiana to have an undefeated season.

Currently, Indianapolis is home to the Indiana Black Expo. The Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration is the largest ethnic/cultural event in the United States. This ten-day event, held in the Indiana Convention Center as well as various places around Indianapolis, draws African-Americans to Indianapolis from both around the state and around the country. Organized in 1970, the Black Expo has provided networking, educational, career, and cultural opportunities for its guests. Participation at the 2006 Summer Celebration reached record highs, with over 350,000 in attendance.[10]

Ku Klux Klan[edit]

See also: Indiana Klan

A darker period of Indianapolis history began with the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan movement in the United States. The Indiana chapter of the Klan was founded in 1920 and quickly became the most powerful Klan organization in the United States. In 1922, D. C. Stephenson was appointed the Klan Grand Dragon of Indiana and 22 other states; he promptly moved the Indiana Klan's headquarters to Indianapolis, which was already coming under the Klan's influence. The Klan became the most powerful political and social organization in the city during the period from 1921 through 1928.

The Klan continued to solidify its stronghold on the state, taking over the Indiana Republican Party and using its new political might to establish a Klan-backed slate of candidates which swept state elections in 1924. The elections allowed the Klan to seize control of the Indiana General Assembly and place the corrupt Governor Edward L. Jackson in office. By then, more than 40% of the native-born white males in Indianapolis claimed membership in the Klan. Klan-backed candidates took over the City Council, the Board of School Commissioners, and the Board of County Commissioners. Through the Klan, Stephenson ruled over the State of Indiana, leading a powerful national movement set on gaining control of the United States Congress and the White House. However, the power of the Klan would quickly begin to crumble after Stephenson was convicted at the end of 1925 for the rape and murder of a young Indianapolis woman, Madge Oberholtzer.

With Stephenson's conviction, the Klan suffered a tremendous blow and quickly lost influence. When Governor Jackson refused to pardon him, Stephenson retaliated by going public with information of corruption which brought down several politicians throughout Indiana. The Mayor of Indianapolis and several local officials were convicted of bribery and jailed. Governor Jackson was indicted on charges of bribery, but he was acquitted in 1928 because the statute of limitations had run out; he completed his term in disgrace. The Klan continued to dwindle in popularity in Indiana and nationwide, and the national organization officially disbanded in 1944.

Robert F. Kennedy and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.[edit]

Years later, Indianapolis witnessed a historic moment in the Civil Rights Movement. On April 4, 1968, the day of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy delivered an impromptu speech on race reconciliation to a mostly African-American crowd in a poor inner-city Indianapolis neighborhood. Indianapolis was the only major American city spared the rioting that broke out across the country after the assassination.


For more details on this topic, see Unigov.

As the result of a 1970 consolidation of city and county governments (known as "Unigov"), the city of Indianapolis merged most government services with those of the county. For the most part, this resulted in a unification of Indianapolis with its immediate suburbs. Four communities within Marion County (Beech Grove, Lawrence, Southport and Speedway) are partially outside of the Unigov arrangement. Also, 11 other communities (called "included towns") are legally included in the Consolidated City of Indianapolis under Unigov, per Indiana Code 36-3-1-4 sec. 4(a)(2), which states that the Consolidated City of Indianapolis includes the entire area of Marion County, except the four previously mentioned "excluded" communities. The 11 "included towns" (there were originally 14, but 3 later dissolved) elected to retain their "town status" under Unigov as defined according to the Indiana Constitution, but the Indiana Constitution does not define "town status". Additionally, Cumberland straddles Hancock and Marion Counties.

These "included towns" are fully subject to the laws and control of the Consolidated City of Indianapolis, but some still impose a separate property tax and provide police and other services under contract with township or county government or the City of Indianapolis. Additionally, throughout Marion County certain local services such as schools, fire and police remained unconsolidated under the Unigov legislation. However, the mayor of Indianapolis is also the mayor of all of Marion County, and the City-County Council sits as the legislative body for all of Marion County. Further consolidation of city and county services and functions would require passage of new legislation by the Indiana General Assembly.

A bill, dubbed Indianapolis Works, was proposed by then Mayor Bart Peterson, and introduced in the 2005 legislative session of the state General Assembly, which would have further consolidated local government in the City of Indianapolis and Marion County. The Assembly passed a less-comprehensive version of the original bill that consolidated budgetary functions of the City and County, permitted the City-County Council to vote to consolidate the Indianapolis Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff's Department, and also permitted consolidation of the Indianapolis Fire Department with individual township fire departments based upon approval of the affected parties. The Washington Township Fire Department was the first township to merge with the Indianapolis Fire Department, effective January 1, 2007.

Police consolidation was defeated by the City-County Council in November 2005, but the bill was revived and passed on December 19, 2005 after slight revision. As of January 1, 2007 Indianapolis has a combined metropolitan police force. However, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department is not the sole police agency within Marion county or even pre-Unigov Indianapolis. The four "excluded cities" of Beech Grove, Lawrence, Southport, and Speedway still maintain separate police forces, as do many of the school districts and "included towns" within Marion County.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sulgrove, B. R. (1884). History of Indianapolis and Marion County Indiana. 
  2. ^ Dunn, Jacob Piatt (1919). Indiana and Indianans. Volume III. Chicago & New York: American Historical Society. p. 1230. 
  3. ^ Caldwell, Howard; Jones, Darryl (1990). Goodall, Kenneth, ed. Indianapolis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-32998-1. Retrieved 2008-12-25. 
  4. ^ a b "Indianapolis" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-08. 
  5. ^ "Racial Integration in 100 Largest Metro Areas". .uwm.edu. 2002-08-08. Retrieved 2011-11-08. 
  6. ^ "1889 1st BLACK illustr newspaper Berea College KENTUCKY". Worthpoint.com. 2008-05-30. Retrieved 2011-11-08. 
  7. ^ "C.J. Walker's story is told at Radcliffe". Harvard Gazette. 2001-02-08. Retrieved 2007-05-30. 
  8. ^ "Crispus Attucks High School, Indianapolis, Indiana - Custom Reunion Apparel". Classicschools.com. 2008-02-18. Retrieved 2011-11-08. 
  9. ^ "National Park Service - Crispus Attucks High School". Nps.gov. Retrieved 2011-11-08. 
  10. ^ "Indiana Black Expo". SoulOfAmerica. Retrieved 2011-11-08. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Abbott, Carl. "Indianapolis in the 1850s: Popular Economic Thought and Urban Growth." Indiana Magazine of History (1978): 293-315. online
  • Barrows, Robert G., and Leigh Darbee. "The Urban Frontier in Pioneer Indiana." Indiana Magazine of History (2009): 262-282. online
  • Dunn, Jacob Piatt. History of Greater Indianapolis (2 vol. 1910).
  • Hudnut, William H. The Hudnut Years in Indianapolis, 1976-1991 (Indiana University Press, 1995)
  • Kershner, Frederick D. "From Country Town to Industrial City The Urban Pattern in Indianapolis." Indiana Magazine of History (1949): 327-338. online
  • Robinson, Robert V. "Making Ends Meet: Wives and Children in the Family Economy of Indianapolis, 1860–1920." Indiana Magazine of History (1996): 197-234. online
  • Sample, Bradford. "A Truly Midwestern City: Indianapolis on the Eve of the Great Depression." Indiana Magazine of History (2001): 129-147. online

External links[edit]