General History of Owen County, Indiana

Text compiled by Roger Peterson

This history was prepared primarily by copying and modifying portions of History of Clay & Owen Counties, Indiana; edited by Charles Blanchard, 1884 and Owen County, Indiana, a History; Owen County Historical & Genealogical Society, 1994.

Owen County, Indiana was created by the State Legislature effective January 1, 1819. It was named in honor of Col. Abraham Owen who lost his life at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. The boundary of the new county was quite different from today, containing about twice the current area. That portion of the county in which Gosport lies was in Monroe County; and where Quincy is, was in unorganized territory; the western border joined Vigo Co. It was not until April 1825 that the current borders were fixed.

Migration to the county had begun several years before as Indiana had become a state in 1816. Tradition claims the first settlers were John Dunn, General Bartholomew, and the Beems who came in the fall of 1816, and Philip Hart who came in October 1816. " Dunn commenced cutting logs for a cabin; assisted by Philip Hart and James Bigger, they got up the walls and a roof of clapboards on in a few days. They scraped the snow out of the cabin, built a fireplace and chimney of cat and clay, built a big fire and moved in on the dirt floor, with neither door, nor window shutter."

Many settlers came during the next decade, most in allied family groups, migrating from some southern Indiana, Kentucky or North Carolina County. These groups were intermarried and were of one or two faiths. The Fulk, Fiscus, Hauser, Spainhower group came from near Winston-Salem North Carolina to Jefferson Township. The Montgomery County N.C. families containing 18 surnames; Beaman, Langdon, Nichols, Jordan, Haltom etc. settled in the northwest portion of the county. The Abrell, Barnes, Brinson, Evans and Stogsdill families from Pulaski County, Kentucky settled in the southeast part. The last of these great migrations occurred around 1850 and consisted of families from the adjoining Ohio counties of Coshocton, Holmes, and Tuscarawas taking up lands in Jefferson, Lafayette and Marion Townships. Most, but not all, of the early residents were in one of these family groupings. Some others came as clerks, scribes, professionals or businessmen coming to the new lands to improve their chances. Men such as Benjamin Freeland, James Galletely, Valentine Croy and Orren Gallup were among them.

The southern influence on the culture is demonstrated by the names chosen for the thirteen townships. Eight are named after statesmen or soldiers with southern ties. The others, with the exception of Jennings, were patriots of the American Revolution. Jennings was an early Governor of Indiana (1816-1822). It is unusual for an Indiana county to have all its townships named after individuals. What this signifies, if anything, is obscure. In 1820 the town of Spencer (named after Captain Spier Spencer who also was killed at the Battle of Tippecanoe) was laid out and the first auction of lots took place. A temporary log courthouse was built and was replaced in 1825 with a permanent brick courthouse which stood until it was replaced in 1910.

By 1850 the pioneering era was closed and the county was becoming more prosperous, as attested by the county record books, which are now kept in more expensive form. The treasurer's disbursement checks, once handwritten on small pieces of paper, became printed, and with each succeeding decade were more elaborate with engravings, culminating in the 1880's with the use of gold ink with a large engraving of an elk. Farm machinery was now available, a county agricultural fair was organized, a fairground built near Gosport, and the community could start to hope for a railroad.

In 1853 the railroad did come but only to a small portion of the county when the New Albany and Salem Railroad cut across the northeast part with a station in Gosport. Then in 1869 the Indianapolis & Vincennes opened for travel through the county. A route was built by the Monon from Taylor Township through Cataract, Jordan Village, and Patricksburg making its exit into Clay County. Other railroads and feeder lines were built to carry the limestone and coal now beginning to be exploited. During the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century the railroads, in addition to hauling goods, provided Owen Countians with easy, convenient access to the outside world. Before 1920, good highways were nonexistent but railroad travel was convenient. If a person lived near a line, it would be easier to get to Indianapolis than Spencer as the county roads were still not improved.

Optimism generated by the good times anticipated by the coming of railroads, prompted Gosport capitalists to organize two banks. Unfortunately, the optimism was not matched by business acumen, and both banks promptly failed. Later, in 1867, another bank was attempted which proved successful. Banks were also founded in Spencer at various times and in 1884 there were two.

Diseases such as ague (malaria), cholera, tuberculosis, milk sickness and those associated, with childbirth; physical ailments such as appendicitis, and cataracts; accidents caused by burns from the fireplace, a misjudged ax stroke, broken bones from bad luck with a horse were a constant threat. Folk medicine passed from mother to daughter, amulets worn, superstitions, potions, salves and herbal medicines, sometimes gave palliative relief to the sufferer. Doctors of which there were many with various theories of medicine while expensive were often ineffective. In 1860 the census recorded 34 doctors, two of which were women, one white (D. E. Dean), and one black (Biddy Harris). In 1882 46 medical practitioners were listed in the Physicians and Midwives register, including one woman, Rebecca Leonard of Cataract. In 1980 the number had fallen to one but by 1997 had increased to four.

The county was the primary administrative unit for carrying out policies dictated by state statues, and for administration of justice. The Commissioners appointed Superintendents of the Road for various Road Districts, to supervise laying out and repairing roads. Every male between 18 and 50 was liable to be called out to work on the roads. They also appointed a Superintendent of the River for the River Districts, Fence Viewers, Keepers of the Estray Pen, Overseers of the Poor for each Township and Listers (Assessors).

Justice was administered by an appointed Circuit Court Judge and two Associate Judges elected locally. The Circuit Court Judge was trained in law but the Associate Judges need not be. This system was abolished in the 1851 constitution. In addition to the Circuit Court, each township had one or two Justices of the Peace and a Constable for each Justice. Lesser matters were brought before the Justice who decided them. Appeals could be made when the Circuit Court Judge arrived.

Organized bands of thieves and robbers sometimes roamed the country preying on the isolated farms. Communication was so slow that it was impossible to get the aid of the sheriff until the culprits were far from the scene. In 1852 the Indiana General Assembly passed a law authorizing the formation of local companies of not less than ten and not more than one hundred persons with all the rights and privileges of constables to eliminate these gangs. One such group in Owen County was the Blue Hens, Chickens.

Since the road system was primitive and the waterways, except for White River, were not navigable, the settlers were isolated. Therefore, the history of the county is better told by referring to the townships. In the nineteenth century the township governments were quite powerful. At times the county was governed by a Board of Justices consisting of all the Justices of the Peace sitting in a body rather than the three commissioners that were usual. The township functions included law and order, road maintenance, public education and poor relief. Furthermore, the township officials could claim to represent the popular will because they lived as close neighbors among the people who elected them.

Due to the high birth rate and continued immigration the population of the county grew until 1870 when the population reached its peak, not being equaled again for 120 years, in 1990. The figures are:

1820 - 838 1850 - 12,106 1880 - 15,901 1910 - 14,053 1940 - 12,090 1970 - 12,163
1830 - 4,017 1860 - 14,376 1890 - 15,040 1920 - 12,760 1950 - 11,763 1980 - 15,848
1840 - 8,359 1870 - 16,137 1900 - 15,149 1930 - 11,351 1960 - 11,400 1990 - 17,281

As late as 1925 the townships were responsible for about 45% of the roads, the county for 50% and the state for the remaining 5%. Each had its own needs, method of financing and constituency. The Owen County History book of 1884 has little to say about roads except that "the county needs to build good substantial macadam and gravel roads as soon as our people think they are able to do so." With the exception of a macadam road then being built in place of the old Ellettsville Road, "the roads of Washington Township occupy nearly their original course, and in the winter the wayfarer finds them in a condition much resembling their original state. At times they are nearly useless and are a standing premium for profanity and a disgrace to a civilized community." In 1885 the State Legislature gave County Commissioners more control and in 1893 allowed them to hire a Road Superintendent. This power was used in Owen County when in 1885 the Commissioners began issuing bonds for road construction. The pace of change to Owen County was quickened by the introduction of electric power. In 1890 a steam driven dynamo was installed in Spencer for carbon arc street lights. Gosport installed a system in 1897. By 1908, when the incandescent light had been sufficiently improved it was used to light businesses and homes where power was available. Most rural residents were without power provided by a central station. Some rural residents, before the REMC lines reached them, obtained electricity for lighting from batteries charged by gasoline generators. In 1939, after the 1936 Rural Electrification Act had been passed, the Morgan County Rural Electric Membership Corporation was organized. The same year it began construction of lines in Owen County. These first lines were energized in August 1940, and construction continued until 1942, interrupted by WW II, resuming in 1946. By 1953 the entire County had service. The southwestern part of the County experienced similar development but by the Utilities District of Western Indiana. Telephone service was introduced into some towns prior to 1900. A number of telephone companies were organized and by 1910, one of these companies The Farmers Telephone Co., was reported to have 600 telephones on its system.