First Governor of Indiana Territory “The Scion of Berkeley” and a Frontier Officer
William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773, at Berkeley, the family estate near Richmond, Virginia. He was the third son of Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and three-time governor of Virginia. Educated in Virginia, Harrison later went to Philadelphia to study medicine under Dr. Benjamin Rush. However, when his father died in 1791, he gave up his medical studies and joined the Army. He received a Commission as Ensign in the First U. S. Regiment of Infantry.
He was assigned to the western frontier, arriving at Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati, Ohio), in time to witness battered American troops returning after “St Clair’s Defeat” at the hands of allied Indian tribes. Harrison impressed senior military brass, and by 1792, he served as the aide-de-camp to General "Mad” Anthony Wayne fighting in the Ohio Indian Wars. He distinguished himself in the campaign and at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. He was promoted to the rank of captain and became commandant of Fort Washington.
There he courted Anna Symmes (1774-1864), the daughter of Judge John Cleves Symmes (1742-1814). Judge Symmes had been a member of the Continental Congress from New Jersey, who later migrated to Ohio, the owner of large tracts of land in southwest Ohio, known as the “Miami Purchase.” Symmes also served as one of
three original judges in the Northwest Territory, making him one of the most powerful, influential and controversial figures in the Old Northwest.
A Young Family and a Meteoric Rise to Power
Captain Harrison and Anna Symmes were married in November 1795, over the objections of Judge Symmes, who questioned whether a professional soldier could provide the kind of life that he intended for his daughter. By 1798 Harrison had resigned from the Army to accept a position as Secretary of the Northwest Territory, the number two official under the territorial governor. His tasks were to keep records of territorial laws, list land claims and surveys, tabulate then-Governor Arthur St. Clair's acts for Congress, and to substitute for the absent Governor.
The Harrisons acquired land at North Bend, Ohio, with a four-room log cabin and moved in with their first two children, Betsy and John Cleve Symmes. The cabin was later expanded and covered in white clapboard to become an attractive, commodious home, but it was always referred to as “The Cabin.”
In 1799 Harrison was elected a territorial delegate to Congress. He succeeded in making it possible for settlers to buy a quarter section of land, instead of a whole section, thus making purchasing land affordable. He also successfully advocated that the Northwest Territory be divided into two parts, rather than three, as others wished. The two sections included what became the state of Ohio and Indiana Territory. The Indiana Territory included a vast area encompassing what are now the states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and the southern portion of Minnesota.
Harrison was the natural choice to be appointed the first governor of the vast new western territory of Indiana on July 4, 1800, by President John Adams. Vincennes was selected as the new territory’s capitol.
Vincennes in 1801
The new Governor Harrison arrived in Vincennes in January 1801, and he immediately gathered his three judges, and the men began gathering precedents from existing legal code to write the first laws for the new territory and to appoint essential public officials.
Vincennes had been a permanent settlement since 1732, and before that, a rendezvous point at the intersection between great buffalo traces and the Wabash River. The French fur traders lived side-by-side and inter-married with the Piankeshaw and other regional Indians, developing a strong blended culture of rugged frontiersmenship.
Vincennes was important to the trading route between Quebec to the north and New Orleans to the south, but it was so remote that it largely went untouched and unnoticed in frontier politics until George Rogers Clark and his Virginia militiamen marched through the Ohio Valley in 1778-1779, taking Vincennes and its short-lived British garrison, Ft. Sackville. This action essentially prevented a western front from opening up during the Revolutionary War and opening the way for the American “conquest of the west.”
When Harrison arrived in Vincennes, he found a pacific population of French-speaking residents, many of whom would stay, while others sought only to prove their land claims and sell to the wave of American Revolutionary War veterans, who were migrating west. It is this rugged mix of American pioneers and French voyageurs, who continue to serve as the cultural bedrock of Vincennes’ rich cultural history.
Learn more about Vincennes’ cultural diversity and historical heritage by discovering Grouseland’s “First Families” program.
Governor Harrison, His Family, and the Indiana Territorial Period
Vincennes was centrally located and the most populated area of the Indiana Territory when it was made the capital. Harrison served as governor from his appointment in 1800 until 1812. In addition to his appointment as governor of the Territory, Harrison was also appointed the federal Indian commissioner, a position for which he was accountable to the Secretary of War. In this latter capacity, the governor became the primary agent for implementing the newly-elected President Jefferson’s Indian policy.
When Harrison arrived in Vincennes, he built a home worthy as a governor's residence that could also serve as a fortress for protection. He bought 300 acres along the Wabash which featured a large walnut grove. Grouseland’s design was inspired by the Harrison family's home in Virginia, Berkeley Plantation, a Georgian style plantation on the James River.
A mason from Pennsylvania, Samuel Thompson, was hired to build the first brick house in the Indiana Territory. They used handmade material: bricks (400,000 of them), hand-forged nails and the lumber sawn from virgin cypress, walnut, poplar, chestnut and pine trees. Other materials were imported from the East or England. The imported material came either by river via New Orleans, Pittsburgh, or overland. The house, finished in 1804, consisted of a two-and-a-half-story great house and a one-and-a-half-story dependency in the rear and was said to have cost $20,000.
Anna Harrison spent her time at Grouseland attending to her large and growing family. In the eleven years the Harrison lived in Vincennes, five of their ten children were born (four were born in Grouseland in eight years, 1804 - 1811). The first child born at Grouseland in October 1804, was John Scott Harrison, a key player in the Harrison family’s ongoing legacy. John Scott, who later served in Congress from Ohio, is the only man in American history, who is both the son of a president, and the father of a president. His son, Benjamin Harrison, became the 23rd President of the United States.
President Benjamin Harrison carried on his family’s long tradition of public service and leadership, first, as a general in the Civil War, and then as the “Centennial President,” being inaugurated in 1889, one hundred years after Washington. His home, the President Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, can be visited today in Indianapolis.
Frontier Diplomacy and Warfare
One of Harrison's tasks was to obtain land to be ceded to the Federal government. Almost 48 million acres were acquired during the twelve years of his governance. Harrison’s time as governor followed the years of conflict between the burgeoning American republic and allied Native tribes, which culminated with the Battle of Fallen Timbers and the Treaty of Greenville (1795). Harrison’s mandate was to continue westward territorial expansion through this period of relative calm.
Harrison was also charged with fortifying the western frontier as a buttress against the re-emerging power of Napoleonic France in the frontier. As it turned out, Napoleon needed cash more than he needed a North American empire, leading to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. As the interim administrator of the “District of Louisiana,” Harrison traveled to St. Louis in 1804 to begin establishing federal government structures as the United States pushed even farther to the West.
However, many Native Americans were not pleased. In particular, Tecumseh, a Shawnee chieftain who felt Indians should unite to stave off the white intruders, and his brother, a religious leader called The Prophet, came to Vincennes to meet with Harrison. They sought to end the land loss and contested the treaties signed as illegal. With equal vehemence, Harrison rejected their arguments. The two worldviews would prove ultimately incompatible.
Tecumseh went south to influence other tribes to join in his confederacy of tribes gathering at their new settlement, “Prophets Town,” near present-day Lafayette, Indiana. In September 1811, Harrison mustered a 1000 man army, including many local militiamen, some eager Kentucky volunteers, and units of the 4th United States Regiment of Infantry, at Ft. Knox (II) in Vincennes. They marched to present-day Terre Haute, constructing Ft. Harrison, before marching to the center of the Indian confederacy at the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers. The Prophet, in a religious fervor, was pressured to attack Harrison's troops and did so, despite Tecumseh’s warnings against resisting the American army. Harrison and his troops defeated the Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe, but losses were heavy. This victory made Harrison a national hero, and earned him the nickname "Old Tippecanoe."
At the outset of the War of 1812, Harrison resigned as Governor and sent his family back to North Bend. He was named a brigadier general and designated commander of the Army of the Northwest. At the same time, Tecumseh had joined with the British to try to rid the West of the invasive Americans. Harrison and Tecumseh met again, first at Fort Meigs, Ohio, and finally at the Battle of the Thames in Canada. It was in this battle that Tecumseh was killed.
The Unlikely Road to the White House
After the War of 1812, General William Henry Harrison continued his life of public service in between stints of retirement on his North Bend farm and various business ventures. He continued to serve as a federal Indian commissioner and treaty negotiator; served Ohio in the United States House of Representatives (1816-1819), Ohio State Senate (1819-1821); and in the United States Senate (1825-1828). In 1829, President John Quincy Adams appointed Senator Harrison to be the minister (i.e. ambassador) to the newly independent Republic of Columbia, which was ruled with an iron-fist by its legendary liberator, Simon Bolivar. This is one of more colorful episodes in Harrison’s storied career.
By the time Harrison’s political allies drafted “Old Tippecanoe” to run for president in 1836, he had fallen on hard times personally and economically, struggling to support a large extended family of widows and orphans left behind by the untimely deaths of many of his adult children in a short time. By then, Harrison had become an elder statesman, a symbol of rugged frontiersmanship, and a direct heir to the revolutionary generation. Harrison’s military exploits became the stuff of legend in his own time, and his myth grew, as the opponents of Andrew Jackson and his party, sought both reform and republican revival.
Though Harrison lost the 1836 election, four years later, especially after the depression of 1837, America was ready to embrace their hero as their president. The 1840 election of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” against the incumbent, Martin Van Buren, is widely considered the first “modern” presidential campaign. The imagery, slogans, songs, rallies and souvenirs that were inspired by the campaign live on in our American political and historical imagination. This legacy comes alive at Grouseland in the many campaign related artifacts on display in Harrison Mansion.
Ask most Americans what they know about William Henry Harrison, and they will likely mention his extremely short term in office, 31 days. Anna Harrison lamented that she had wished her husband’s political friends would have left him alone in retirement, and her concerns proved well-founded. The story of President Harrison’s untimely death is shrouded in legend, as the belief has persists that the new president’s nearly two hour inauguration speech led to his fatal bout with pneumonia. Some scholars have questioned whether or not the “speech killed him” as the story has been told. Regardless, President Harrison’s short term in office is most significant, because the honor of becoming president attests to the dedication to the cause of liberty and democracy and his lifetime of public service that preceded and included his ascendency to the highest office in the land. President was also the first president to die in office, leaving to his successor, John Tyler, the task of establishing the precedents involved in vice presidential succession.