You’ve probably never heard of David Agnew, but he deserves to be remembered.
David Agnew wasn’t a genius. He wasn’t wealthy. If he wrote a sonnet, no one has ever read it. He did not invent a tool or lead a cavalry charge. And no building has ever borne his name.
Agnew deserves to be remembered because, on the last night of his life in 1835, he fought like hell to stay alive. As hard as any man has before or since.
On that April 4th evening, an unexpected snow storm swallowed up the plains of Northwest Indiana. David Agnew and his in-laws, the Bryants, had been following one of the Potawatomi trails west, from the tiny settlement of Tassinong to the Bryant’s new cabin in Pleasant Grove, just south of what would become Lowell.
Agnew’s oxen plodded along with the furnishings for his unbuilt home. The hardest trail building had been done centuries before by the feet of Native-Americans and, before them, by the Indiana bison. Agnew’s in-laws were miles ahead of him, but he had little to worry him. The weather was pleasant, the way was clear, and at the end waited David Agnew’s pregnant wife, Nancy Bryant Agnew.
A little rain fell in the afternoon, but as the hours passed, the clouds thickened and the temperature dropped. Although most of the family made it to the cabin before the snow fell, Agnew and his brother-in-law Simeon Bryant were both caught in open country. Simeon huddled up at Hickory Point, next to the Porter-Lake County line. He built a bonfire large enough to keep the cold at bay then huddled by the flames and waited for David.
Hours passed. David never showed.
This might terrify modern Americans, but not early Indiana settlers. Compared to the dense, dark forests of Appalachia, northern Indiana’s flat marsh and prairie mix hardly seemed a challenge. Neither Simeon Bryant nor David Agnew were greenhorns. Simeon knew his brother-in-law possessed sense enough to crowd a fire in the snow storm and the bright bonfire was easily seen from the trail. Simeon piled a mountain of split logs on the fire, just in case David did come along. Then he turned west and slowly trekked the ten miles to the Bryant cabin at Pleasant Grove.
Hours later, Simeon stumbled into the cabin, panting with exertion. The warm, salty smell of smoke and coffee filled the tiny Bryant cabin, but Simeon only had eyes for the fireplace. His hands shook so badly he had to wave away the offered coffee.
Snow plopped to the floor. A musty pile of wool and furs puddled on the ground at his feet. Mighty Simeon, a regional legend of strength and size and stamina, shivered like a puppy in ice.His teeth chattered like castanets. He lurched to his knees before the fire and when control of his mouth returned, he searched the half-dozen faces staring at him.
“W-wait,” he said. “Where’s Duh-David?”
Simeon’s sister and David’s wife, Nancy Bryant Agnew, turned to the cabin’s door and cried out.
David was still out there.
The next morning, the three Bryant brothers (David, Simeon, and Wayne Bryant) emerged from their mostly entombed cabin. The sun beat down on the snow, first leaving a dense layer of fog and then drenching the Indiana prairie in blinding white. The storm had passed. Northwest Indiana was snow-covered but passable.
This cheerful news had no momentum. The brothers’ morbid task—finding David’s body—cast a dark shadow on the bright morning. They had little hope of finding him alive. Even if he had found shelter by Simeon’s fire, the snow and wind would have snuffed it out after a few hours. The brothers retraced Simeon’s still-visible path from the night before.
The brothers had liked David, but thought him a little weak for the frontier life. Their friendly taunts stopped just short of cruelty…usually. David had taken it all in stride. As the three brothers searched for their brother-in-law, they remembered each shameful joke and jab.
David Agnew had reached the fire Simeon left behind. The oxen remained alive, a little stunned from the hard night, but alive. Most had sheltered into the snow itself, folding their legs and hunkering down. The Bryants kicked at the snow around the fire and found the chained line of wooden yokes and bows. David had brought them near the fire, then removed their tackle and let them go. And he had taken the time to feed them, leaving a few twists of oats near the oxen.
David’s smartest move would have been to coax the oxen close to the fire, then shelter himself with their warm bodies. Quickly hobbling them with a length of leather would keep them in place all night like walls made of musky furnaces. This could have risked the animals’ lives, sure, but it would have saved his own.
Instead, David hurriedly removed the harnesses, fed the beasts, then loosed them on the flat prairie and marsh. None had wandered far and all had survived the night.
Then, unbelievably, David had decided to wade through the storm to the Bryant cabin, following Simeon’s trail in the snow. Each step took him further from the warm bonfire and the oxen. The brothers could see where his leg plunged into the holes left by Simeon’s boots, although his shorter gait would have made that awkward and tiring.
The steps told them David’s story. At first his booted foot had fallen firmly into each track, making it difficult to distinguish the two prints. Then, after a few miles, the prints became uneven at the edges. David had still been marching along, lifting each leg in a wide arc to kick off the snow, and then plunging it forward. The effort quickly eroded the frontier strength he had.
Soon, the Bryant brothers found the deep imprint of a knee in the snow where David had rested every 20 or 30 steps. Then a knee imprint every dozen steps. Then every few. Their stomachs cringed sickly.
David’s sense of direction hadn’t been far off. Even in the opaque curtain of snow, he had made a gentle curve toward the cabin. Had their brother-in-law been able to see just a little in the storm, he might have made it back. Maybe with the loss of a few toes or fingers, but alive. That didn’t happen.
The stumbling tracks came to a copse of poplar and white cedar trees. David had collapsed to rest at the base of the closest tree, leaving a large dent in the snow. Then he had found the energy to get back to his feet. The will that must have taken! To shake off his screaming muscles and keep going.
The Bryant brothers saw that it was here his survival strategy seemed to have changed. Instead of trying to reach the cabin alive, David had simply tried to stay alive. A dozen of the small trees were girdled with shreds of fleece lint from David’s coat. Trenches the width of two adult feet ringed the base of these trees. To beat his stiffened muscles back to life, David had lurched and stumbled in clumsy circles around the trees. This would have kept his heart pumping and prevent him from wandering out into the unbroken snow. Of course, every single step would be agony, but agony meant he was still alive.
The Bryant brothers followed these deep trenched tracks from tree to tree, finally emerging on the other side of the copse to—
In the near distance, a dark bundle hunched over in the snow. The three men slowly approached the motionless shape as if it were sleeping. As they came closer, Wayne stated the obvious: “It looks like a dead body.”
A few steps closer and they saw David’s familiar face, now stiff and blue in death. Frostbite had blossomed in dark black patches on his nose and cheeks. Although there was no question their brother-in-law was dead, they were surprised to see him sitting up. As they got closer, they saw his hands were still clutching an eight-foot long branch, straight and strong enough to serve as a pole. He had pressed one end firmly into his belly and the other disappeared into the snow.
Now they noticed the wide, circular trench in the snow. It was over twelve feet in diameter, much larger than those tracks around the small poplars and cedars, but it had served the same purpose. He had jammed the end into the ground and walked in a circle holding the other end. Moving, but not wandering too far. Their brother-in-law’s wits had been there until the very end.
David had continued making his way to the cabin, but in an exhausting, corkscrewing path. He had made it only another quarter mile before his body had just given out. The will had been there, but the body had simply mutinied.
Even in death, his teeth were still firmly set and his hands throttled the pole as if choking it. This time, there were no signs of him trying to regain his feet after falling.
Like every human, he had come to his limit.
For over a century, Hoosiers considered David Agnew’s passing a tragic milestone in Indiana history: the first burial in Porter County. That has changed.
First, attention must be paid to the Native-American people that widened the trails first cut by bison hooves, trails then used by these early American pioneers. The ancestors of the Potawatomi and Miami tribes occupied Indiana soil hundreds of years before Agnew’s death. Thousands of years ago the Hopewell and Adena tribes built their burial mounds in the same territory.
Agnew was not the first burial or the first funeral. But it was the first of a kind: the first recorded frontier funeral in northern Indiana (probably).
The history of this history presents another problem in Agnew’s story. His tragedy trickled down through generations before Reverend Timothy Ball dutifully recorded it in his book ‘Northwestern Indiana from 1800 to 1900’. Although almost all accounts of his Agnew’s death are virtually identical, they differ greatly in the exact location of his grave.
Some writers insist the Bryants buried him very near their Lowell cabin where the three brothers discovered him. Other historians put him in a forgotten Porter County cemetery. Other accounts track his grave hundreds of miles away in Westville, Ohio.
Almost two centuries have passed since David Agnew’s death, erasing any physical trace of his grave and ending the argument. It makes little difference, because an early Indiana grave isn’t what made Agnew such a remarkable figure. As Reverent Timothy H. Ball wrote in 1904, his early years made little difference. His last few hours mattered. “How heroically Agnew struggled for life” Rev. Ball said, transformed David Agnew into a Midwest legend.
Want to Know More?
Here’s a great discovery! The Standard History of Lake County, Indiana and the Calumet Region, as collected by W.F. Howat, M.D. is a free pdf, tracing the history of Lake County from its early settlements to 1915.
Amateur historian Steve Shook has compiled a wealth of local history on his blog Porter County’s Past: An Amateur Historian’s Perspective. His work has helped me on several occasions and should be considered a benchmark resource for northern Indiana history.