Friday, February 20, 2015

Whetzel's Trace

It's my considered opinion that the first man to make a left turn in Marion County was a guy named Jacob Whetzel.

Today, they make those turns at 140 mph. Jacob Whetzel was a bit more cautious than that.

What a car race has to do with the history of Fairfield is a matter of connecting dots. From there, you draw your own line.

Who was Whetzel? (Or Wetzel, depending on your search results.)

Indian fighter, scout, adventurer, family man, landowner, regular all-around guy for the first quarter of the 19th century. But enough has been written about him and his brother Lewis to legitimize the story.

The W(h)etzels were from Pennsylvania and had resettled in the area around what would become Wheeling, W.Va., during the years immediately prior to the American Revolution. A year after the war began, the British, in an effort to disturb the colonial cause, had struck a deal with several tribes, including the Shawnee and the Wyandot.

An archived biography of Lewis Wetzel by James P. Pierce explains:

"Indians captured Lewis from his home on Wheeling Creek when he was 13. It was 1777, the second year of the Revolutionary War. The Wetzels, along with most of their neighbors, were holed up at nearby Fort Henry waiting out that season's spate of Indian raids.

"Wyandot raiders captured Lewis and his younger brother Jacob as they were working with their father and their older brother George. Their father and brother had, uncharacteristically, left their guns back in the cabin when they had all gone out to the fields that morning to hoe crops."

What followed was that the boys, going back to retrieve the weapons, were abducted. Inevitably, the two escaped and began a life in the forest, learning Indian ways and dedicating themselves to avenging the attack. The brothers became notorious among the tribes for their ruthlessness.

Shortening the story to its pertinent parts, the Whetzel brothers landed in Indiana and were part of William Henry Harrison's campaign to defeat the Shawnee-led federation at Tippecanoe.

After the war, Lewis went one way, Jacob went the other. Evidently, Jacob was given land by Harrison as part of his loyalty in the Tippecanoe battle. The problem was, it was in a place that was to become Morgan County. Um ... pretty far from anything, since there really wasn't anything. One assumes that Jacob Whetzel craved his privacy. No other white settlers were known to be in that area of the territory, save for a few French trappers.

The Fairfield connection is somewhat tenuous, but the story is interesting ... so, work with me.

Whetzel, in order to claim the land, had to go to Brookville to the federal land office, where he put down his "X" on a document and became a Hoosier. One other problem: You can't get there from here, Jacob.

In order to enter the land, he had to go down the Whitewater, down the Miami, down the Ohio, clear to the Wabash, back up the Wabash to the White, and back up the White to the Eel, rowing upstream about half the time. All this with a box full of cookies and a washboard. And some bacon, beans and cornbread mix. A couple of magazines. His laptop. And a 50-box of Crayola.

This, Jacob realized, was not an optimum plan. So, the story goes, he was staying in Fairfield trying to drum up a strategy. Most great ideas happened in Fairfield. Well, maybe he was living in Laurel ... but it's a better story this way.

It came to him. Overland. Right across the state.

So he and his son Cyrus, 18, and a few other hardy souls (Thomas Howe, Thomas Rush, Richard Rush and Walter Banks) went to a place that would someday become Laurel, and started hacking away at trees until they had gone across an area a few miles south of present-day Rushville, past what would become Shelbyville, across the area just south of the site of Indianapolis to a spot where Waverly is located.

This was in 1818.

He had gotten permission from the Delaware tribe to cut the path, which became known as Whetzel's Trace ... the first "highway" in Indiana. From Waverly it was a short canoe ride to the home place, and Jacob staked a claim on it.

The Trace, which cut across an area known as the New Purchase, became a central path for settlers heading into the state's interior for a number of years until new and better roads were cut toward Indianapolis, which was laid out as the state capital around 1824. The Trace was instrumental in the decision.

Along the way, Shelbyville and other settlements sprang up and the population of Indiana began to grow exponentially. As an aside, a man named James Wilson, one of the founders of Fairfield, moved his family into the Shelbyville area around that time, taking the Whetzel's Trace.

The importance of the Trace to Franklin County was that the introduction of settlers in the central part of the state meant moving the federal land office from Brookville to Indianapolis. The impact that had on the economy of Franklin County was ... well, it mattered. A lot. Moving the land office was central to the plan to build the capital. One way to get people to move to a town is to offer something that they have to have. A federal land office was a big deal in 1818.

The 1818 exploration connects to the founding of Fayette County in 1819. The Trace was close enough to Connersville to visibly impact its economy and population.

For a time, Jacob's land at Waverly was considered as the site of the new state capital. Had they had a sufficent speedway, perhaps ... .

Jacob's grave is in Morgan County at the "Whetzel Cematary."

Brother Lewis died in Mississippi and is interred near Wheeling, W.Va. A county in West Virginia is named for Lewis Wetzel despite a reputation that modern scholars deem cruel and barbaric. In those early years, his exploits were legend.

Pierce, author of the Wetzel article, writes:

"As was then the custom in the South, he was buried in the front yard of his cabin. His cousin's wife insisted that his rifle be buried with him, saying that a gun that had killed as many as that one had would haunt any house it was kept in." (It was Wetzel's name on the silver plate on the rifle that eventually helped identify the body when it was exhumed.)

One assumes that Jacob was at least as vicious as his brother.

Whetzel's Trace disappeared in the middle 1820s and no evidence of it exists. A state legislative attempt to reimburse Jacob for his worth was rejected. He probably didn't complain much.

Nope, not a lot of Fairfield connection, but it's a cool story all the same. -- John

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