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Knightstown, Indiana, Its Early History
Nathan H. Ballenger
(1823 – 1905)
His Paper Read Before the Henry County Historical Society 31 Oct 1899
My subject today is of necessity, essentially local, and will not therefore be alike interesting to all my hearers. But to me it has many points of deep interest. While it is not the place of my birth, it is the place of my childhood, youth and manhood. Here is the place of my early contest with nature in its rude attire. Here I saw the forest melt away before the axe man’s unrelenting arm, saw the first rude cabin reared and demolished afterwards to give place to the stately mansion of the well-to-do pioneer.
Here I entered the primitive of schools the county, taught in log cabins with puncheon floors and greased paper for windows. Here I gave chase to the wild boar, deer and turkey, all of which have given place to the onward march of civilization. Here my father toiled late and early for his family’s comfort and happiness and passed to the beyond in a good old age. Here my mother sat up late beside the little wheel and distaff, drawing the flaxen thread that became web and wool of my Sunday suit. Oh, hallowed places of my hearts fondest recollections, how shall I forget that?
All history at best is but a shadowy picture of the past, a mere skeleton, lacking the life and spirit of the present happening.
In the summer of 1821, a part of the land near Knightstown was bid off at the land sale at Brookville. Among the purchasers were the following named; Samuel Ferguson, Walter M. Carey, Abraham and Daniel Heaton, William Macy, Jacob Parkhurst, Thomas Estell, Henry Ballenger, Japhet McCrey, Samuel Goble, John Dailey, John Freeland, Ebenezer Goble, Charles Smith, Edmund Lewis, John Lewis, with nearly all of whom I had the personal pleasure of a personal acquaintance.
There were very few settelers near Knightstown prior to the sale of the land. A man by the name of Jackson had squatted at a spring a little south of Raysville on the old Indian trail leading between White Water to White River, with whom my father put up while prospecting for land in that part in 1821, about whom he felt best to be on his guard, as Jackson piloted him around in search of land with gun in hand. We have no further history of this man. He probably kept abreast of civilization for reason easily surmized.
Tradition speaks of John Dille as having squatted on the same trail, now the old State road, some two miles southwest of Knightstown, of whom William Lewis, of Knightstown, had some acquaintance in Virginia, and that he had eluded the laws of the State, taking his chances among the Indians long before any other white man located in these parts, that he had visited his father once in 1822, and afterwards we heard of him no more.
The first permanent settlers in Wayne Township were near, but not in the present site of Knightstown. Daniel and Abraham Heaton and John Lewis, on the east side of the river, Samuel Furgason, Samuel and Ebenezer Goble on the west side. Samuel Furgason seems to have platted a town at the mouth of Montgomery creek on the old State road, one mile southwest of Knightstown, which has long disappeared, and no vestige of it now remains. This place was called “West Liberty.” A compound word full of meaning to them, as it was at this time the extreme west of civilization, and which the utmost liberty of occupancy prevailed, with no one to dispute rights to land or forage. The creek was named after the brave Montgomery, who gave his life for his country’s liberty.
Aaron Maxwell and Allen Hiatt had corner lots, and sold goods to the first settlers, taking in exchange coonskins and ginseng. Mr. Cole, Mr. Winecup, James Silvers, Samuel and Waitsel M. Cary were early accessories to the village. Waitsel M. Cary, afterwards prosecutor of Knightstown, started a hatter’s shop there, which was the first in Henry County. Samuel Cary built a sawmill on the creek nearby, which was the first mill of that kind in the county. Cary was found dead in his mill, supposed to have been struck on the head by the downward motion of the saw sash.
Levi Stratton was the first blacksmith and Levi Griffith the first stonemason and bricklayer. Abraham Heaton built what was called a gristmill near the Buck creek, now the site of the White mills. This was the first mill of this kind erected in the county. I have a very vivid memory of my first trip to this mill with a two-bushel sack of corn on horseback. We had learned to divide the grain so as to balance it on the horse’s back and not use a stone in one end of the sack and grain in the other. John Anderson (afterward judge) dug the Heaton millrace, and received as compensation eighty acres of land, platted a town on it and called it after Governor Ray—Raysville. Edmund Lewis, Japhet McRay. William Hatton, William Colgan, James Fort, Charles Smith and Henry Conklin formed a settlement north of Knightstown along Montgomery creek. Jacob Parkhurst, Ebenezer Goble, Mr. Wilson and Mathew McKinnie formed another settlement north along Blue River. These settlements were in 1821, 1822 and 1823.
The first surveys of the “Cumberland Road” were made in 1827, and went one-half mile north of where Knightstown now is relative to Indianapolis, where it was finally located.
Waitsel M. Cary entered the land where Knightstown is situated, and was proprietor of the place. Waitsel M. Cary with others, brushed out a road going west, crossing Blue River near where the railroad bridge is, thence angling up the Blue river bluff to where Main Street now is. Mr. Cary erected a rude building and began entertaining travelers, and enjoyed a monopoly of the business for many years. Mr. Cary was a man of solid, sober demeanor. He and his family of seven children made a marked impression on the character of the coming city.
Levi Griffith and Isaac James were first in the dry goods business. Allen Hiatt and B. Cole were also merchants quite early in the same business. Robert Woods came to Knightstown in 1829 and turned his hand to many kinds of business, amassing quite a fortune. John H. Bales started a saddler’s shop in 1830 and made the first saddle in the county, which is still in existence.
Dr. Joseph M. Whitesell of Liberty came in 1830 and practiced medicine more than fifty years in the community. He was a faithful physician during the cholera plague of 1833, which was the most severe affliction that ever came upon this place. Well do I remember the terror that took hold of this place and community. Many fled the town, leaving everything behind. My father’s house was filled with his fugitive children giving us great apprehension of bringing the plague, as we called it.
Robert Butler was a doctor of great promise in Knightstown’s early history, but death’s shaft struck him in the opening of life, lamented by all. Harvey Bell had the first hardware store on the corner nearest the river, which is no longer a business point. Humphrey Dillon was a marked hotelkeeper in its early history. James Wood was the most successful merchant, and rose to be the wealthiest man in the county in his day. Issac James, Wm. and Elijah Ballenger were prominent merchants. Alfred M. Brittam was the first pork packer, and failed on pork that he paid $1.50 per hundred for, net, being slaughtered in the country and delivered to him.
The Presbyterian and Methodist were the first in the religious work. I remember the Methodist camp meetings just south of the village, how a storm came upon it one night and blew much timber upon the tents and wagons, but strange to say, no one was hurt. God’s hand seemed to control the falling timber.
Of the erratic and eccentric characters in those days I may mention Green McCall and Alexander Paston, blessed by nature with more than ordinary talent.
There were many encounters on election days, as many early settlers imbibed freely, one of which has passed into history between Joseph Kellur and Isaac Davis, lasting nearly a quarter of an hour with no satisfactory close. The men of renown in those days were those of physical powers either in battle or labor. Mark Coon, a tall, sunny Virginian, stood as number one as a grain cradler, and was very near up to our modern harvesters, at least I have followed him as a binder when he cut an acre of wheat to the hour. Many envied him for his reputation.
The Byrkit settlement two miles north of Raysville was nearly all of one connection, so peculiar in character that no pen can give just picture of it, and could only be appreciated by having been seen. Orr Scovell, A. M. Brittain and Henry Ballenger were included in this settlement. Scovell was taken captive when a lad, at the Wyoming massacre, the horrid scenes of which I have heard him relate. He almost answered to the poet’s Gertrude.
Henry Ballenger saw the Guilford battle for our independence in 1780 between Green and Cornwallis, the story of which he often related. What a span of history father and son have grasped. It seems more like fiction than reality.
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