Vanderburgh County, Indiana

Painting of NW territory governor Arthur St. Clair
NW territory Governor Arthur St. Clair (public domain)


Vanderburgh County is the place of my birth, and so I share below some historical information on the man for whom the county is named. An additional note: Governor St. Clair, in his written opinions on slavery tended, as did many early leaders, to rely on English Common Law, and its well-known emphasis on property rights. He could be passionately in favor of states formed from the Northwest Territory being free, and yet fall back on the argument that laws can’t fairly obtain retroactively, a great truth in and of itself. But to claim that therefore, to emancipate slaves belonging to settlers in the territory prior to the Ordinance of 1787, would be unjust unless they received compensation—as would be correct in expropriation of actual property—is to use a narrow legal focus to evade confronting the higher injustice. This question rested on an ethical issue, one that must supersede any property claim, and nullify any representation of fair exchange. That slavery is inherently wrong, that human beings cannot be property, sat uneasily, in the political environment of post-colonial America, next to the notion that an infant government, to hold its power, must respect the individual rights of its citizens. And like many officials, the “fathers” seemed to have hoped attrition would solve the conflict.



In the summer of 1794, Judge Turner, who had gone to Vincennes to hold court, became involved in an extensive quarrel with Henry Vanderburgh, who was then probate judge and justice of the peace for Knox County, and Captain Abner Prior, of the United States Army, who was supervising Indian affairs on the Wabash. Several matters were in controversy and bitter feelings were produced. In the midst of this a negro and his wife, held as slaves by Vanderburgh, applied to Turner’s court for emancipation by writ of habeas corpus, instigated possibly by Turner. That Turner would have held that the ordinance* freed them is beyond question, for he expressly declared that they were “free by the Constitution of the Territory”, but before the cause came on for trial the negroes were seized and carried away by a party of men who, as Turner alleged, were employed by Vanderburgh. Turner then had the kidnappers arrested, though some of them resisted, and one threatened the sheriff with a knife. Complaints from all parties were made to St. Clair, who, though declining to adjust the difficulty, took sides against Turner and proceeded to give him some information as to the meaning of the Ordinance, which will be noticed later. The French settlers were greatly excited over this attempt to release their slaves. The grand jury of the county found a presentment against Turner, and later on, the citizens preferred charges against him which were submitted to Congress as grounds for impeachment, but, on the suggestion of the Attorney General, the House of Representatives recommended a trial in the courts as preferable.


Jacob Piatt Dunn, Indiana, A Redemption from Slavery, 1888, c. renewed 1905 and 1916.



Some years previous to these transactions Hugh McGary, a Kentuckian and a sturdy pioneer, had emigrated from his native state to the new territory and settled in what is now Gibson County. In 1812 he purchased from the government the land on which the city of Evansville now stands, and leaving his inland cabin pushed his way to the bank of the river and there established his home.

McGary’s place was not central, but when the commissioners appointed to make the selection were assembled at the old Anthony mill, he presented the claims of his location in the best light possible. It was not the first choice, but was finally selected. At the direction of the court of the new county, the town was laid out, and officially designated as Evansville, in honor of General Robert M. Evans, a distinguished soldier and citizen of Gibson County.

McGary became very enthusiastic over his prospects and confidently felt that his town was destined to be a metropolis at no very distant day. His hopes, however, rested on a weak foundation. By the formation of Posey county in the southwest corner of the territory the boundaries of Warrick county were so altered as to place Evansville at one extremity of its river border, and before the town was three months old, the legislature enacted, September 1st, 1814, that the seat of justice for the county should be moved to a place subsequently called Darlington, and situated some four miles above the present site of the neighboring town of Newburgh, and about one mile from the river.

In those days it mattered little what natural advantages a town possessed or what resources lay about it undeveloped; all its hope for prosperity was based upon its being the seat of justice for some county. The founder of the village set about with great zeal and industry to supply this desideratum. As the first step he enlisted the active interests of Gen. Robert M. Evans and James W. Jones, both of Gibson county, by conveying to them on June 20, 1817, for $1,300, 130 acres of land, being all that part of fractional section No. 30 which lies above the center of Main Street in Evansville, except thirty acres previously conveyed to Carter Beaman. On the 17th of July following, these three gentlemen, Evans, Jones, and McGary, prepared a plan for a town, ignoring that previously laid out. What they platted appears on the maps of the present time as the “original plan” and is bounded by Water and Third, and Chestnut and Division streets. The combined exertions of these three men were now set forth to accomplish the end already adverted to. The greatest obstacle to their success was the opposing influence of Col. Ratliff Boon, a man of more than ordinary ability, a courageous patriot and pioneer leader whose influence was not confined by the limits of his own county.

Enthusiastic and deeply in earnest in the contemplation of his favorite theme, Col. McGary did not allow his courage to weaken, and his complaints of Col. Boon were full of bitterness. His address was not displeasing, and his conversations on the subject of the ultimate greatness of his embryonic city, sparkling as they did with genuine ardor, were deeply interesting. About this time Gen. Joseph Lane, afterward of national repute, known as a wise and upright representative in the state legislatures, a hero of the Mexican war, a member of congress, and governor of Oregon, then a young man, figured in the drama beginning to be acted by becoming the means of bringing the weightier men together. Young Lane was engaged with others in rafting logs near Darlington, and floating them to Red Banks, where J. J. Audubon, later the foremost of American ornithologists, had erected, somewhat in advance of the times, a steam sawmill which afterward failed. When rowing back to his home, he stopped on the banks of the river near McGary’s house to spend the night, and then fell a victim to the enthusiastic and pleasing manner of the sanguine Colonel, walking with him over the site of the hoped-for city, then wild with forest trees and underbrush, hearing without resentment the bitter speeches of his companion against Col. Boon, whom Lane admired and counted among his best friends. Lane was soon afterward employed in the clerk’s office in Warrick county, and there suggested to Col. Boon the opportunity in his power of making valuable friends by assisting in the formation of a new county and yet leaving Warrick county large enough to serve his own purposes. Whether or not this suggestion brought the chief actors together, it is true that during the next session of the circuit court at Darlington, an informal conversation was held in the clerk’s office, which led finally to the consummation of McGary’s hopes.

The force of these arguments [in favor of dividing the territory into counties for jurisdictional efficiency] was conceded, the only objection being that Darlington would receive a fatal blow by such legislation, because the relocation of the seat of justice would necessarily follow. At length a plan satisfactory to all was agreed upon. It provided for the organization of two new counties with boundaries so fixed that Evansville and Rockport, then called Hanging Rock and not yet the site of a town, would be the most favorable points for the seats of justice. Darlington was to be left to continue its struggle for existence as best it could deprived of all public support.

In shaping these deliberations and leading to a conclusion, personal interest was doubtless a controlling factor. But be it said to the credit of the actors that private gain was not made at public expense, for great permanent good to the communities affected was the result.

Thus Vanderburgh county, as an organic unit, owes its existence more to the unyielding perseverance and untiring zeal of Hugh McGary in his efforts to maintain the village of Evansville, than to any other single agency.

It mattered little to McGary what name was given to the new county. If any was suggested or agreed upon in the conference which determined the question of its formation, it was abandoned for reasons of policy. Judge Henry Vanderburgh was worthy the honor conferred upon his memory, but he was in no way identified with the formation or development of the county.


History of Vanderburgh County, 1889 [compilation with no single author]. The paragraphs above are extractions of key information from a longer narrative.



The above selections have been lightly edited for punctuation.


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