By Mary Giorgio

Within a few years of establishing the state’s capital at Corydon, Indiana government officials realized that it would be more advantageous for the capital city to be located in the middle of the state. They pulled up stakes, moved northward, and established a new capital city in Indianapolis. Sounds simple, right?

The harsh reality was that the first settlers to arrive in what would become the new state capital almost didn’t survive the adventure. Some historians speculate that, had the unthinkable occurred, Indianapolis may have been abandoned before it was ever much more than a speck on a map.</h3>

In 1820, the Indiana General Assembly voted to move Indiana’s state capital from Corydon to a more central location. The move was made possible by the Treaty of St. Mary’s (1818) in which the Delaware tribe ceded a large swath of territory to the United States. The land obtained in the treaty included the site that was ultimately selected for Indiana’s new state capital. The new capital was named Indianapolis.

Indianapolis, 1852

As it turned out, packing up the entire state government and moving it north, largely through an uninhabited wilderness, was the least of the state’s concerns. They had just chosen a completely unpopulated swampland for their new capital. Undaunted by the challenge, by 1821, Alexander Ralston had platted Indianapolis as a town of one square-mile. It was roughly bounded by present-day North, East, South, and West streets. By the end of the year, Marion County had been established with Indianapolis as its county seat. It would be several more years, however, until the town’s development was far enough along for state government to officially relocate to Indianapolis.

While state officials were busy planning and plotting the development of Indianapolis, the first settlers were arriving to the area. In 1820, several families claimed homesteads immediately northwest of the future town. Among the first to arrive were George Pogue and his family, Robert Barnhill, along with his wife and 12 children, brothers John and James McCormick, and Revolutionary War veteran Isaac Wilson. The Pogue family settled along a creek that came to be known as Pogue’s Run. The McCormicks settled along the White River. The areas initially chosen for settlement were low-lying, swampy land. Had the families considered the fact that there had been no prior indigenous settlements in the area they had chosen to build their homesteads, they might have realized that the land was unlikely to be suitable for habitation.

1922 cartoon

At first, everything was going along swimmingly. That changed in the summer of 1821 when heavy rainfall made living conditions along Indianapolis’s waterways particularly unbearable. As is often the case during rainy periods, especially in marshy areas, mosquitoes soon became an obnoxious problem. The community began to see isolated instances of febrile illness┬áin the early summer months.

The situation escalated rapidly, however, following a community gathering on August 10 to assist a newcomer, Mathias Nowland, in building a log cabin. As was common practice for the era, when a member of the community needed to build a home or barn, everyone would come pitch in at a big “house raising.” Shortly after the house raising, a mysterious illness spread like wildfire through attendees and their families. The illness (now thought to be malaria) sickened many members of the community with a high fever and flu-like symptoms. Soon, afflicted people began to die. The settlers began to refer to the illness as “the plague.”

DISCOVERED PLAGUE GRAVE

Deceased persons were buried in unmarked graves on a grassy knoll close to the homesteads of Robert Barnhill and Isaac Wilson. It is believed that eight or nine victims of the epidemic were all buried there, including Barnhill and his son. The cemetery was later nicknamed “Plague Cemetery.”

Meanwhile, unafflicted residents, fearing for their lives, began to question whether they should flee the area. It should be noted that in Indiana’s history, numerous prosperous towns were abandoned in the early 1800s due to fears of contagion from outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, cholera, and smallpox.

Such a fate might have befallen Indianapolis if not for the timely arrival of Dr. Isaac Coe. Coe, who graduated with a medical degree from Rutgers College in 1815, had a bit of a checkered past. Apparently, he had been involved in some shady business dealings in New York and had left the state to escape the clutches of creditors. He eventually landed in Indianapolis where residents were blissfully unaware of his past and desperate for a savior.

Dr. Isaac Coe

Coe proved to be a competent and effective physician. Using a mix of calomel and mercurous chloride as a purgative, Coe nursed the afflicted residents back to health. Many physicians of his day initially thought him crazy – the potent mix of chemicals he used on his patients would be considered an insecticide today. However, no one could argue with his results and soon Coe found himself warmly welcomed in his new home. Coe went on to establish a successful medical practice in Indianapolis, earning the respect of the local medical community and even serving as chairman of the Indiana State Medical Association.

Coe saved Indianapolis, but the area directly northwest of the state’s new capital remained a pariah for generations. After the area’s earliest settlers had all relocated, no one attempted to live in that part of town until the 1850s. Even then, settlement was scarce. In the 1870s, many of the area’s tributaries were filled in, and engineers redirected Fall Creek directly into the White River.

With those changes, the area became a little drier and more habitable. Widespread settlement didn’t occur, however, until the early twentieth century. By then, Indianapolis was desperately short on affordable land, and many immigrants and African-Americans settled in the area for lack of other options. The northwest side of Indianapolis, especially the 500 block of Indiana Avenue, became a cultural center for Indianapolis’s African-American community.

Today, the homesteads of Indianapolis’s earliest residents are long demolished and forgotten and the land on which many once sat are now part of IUPUI’s sprawling campus. One of the few remaining signs that they ever existed can be found just outside the Van Nuys Medical Science Building, where a historical marker commemorates the site of the famed Plague Cemetery.

Photo credited: Devry Becker Jones, April 19, 2019