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Capital of Indiana Territory by Richard Day

Indiana Historical Bureau serving the state since 1915
The Capital of the Indiana Territory
by Richard Day, historian, Indiana Territorial Capitol and other sites,
Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Vincennes

The Northwest Territory was divided in 1800. The western part became Indiana Territory, containing what would later be the states of Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, the eastern part of Minnesota and the western half of Michigan. The population consisted of some 12,000 Native Americans who did not participate in the territorial government, and about 6,000 settlers, mostly living in the southern part of the territory. Vincennes was selected as capital because it was in the center of the area of settlement.

Vincennes was the capital of the Indiana Territory from 1800 to 1813. During that time the legislature met in four places. In the first stage of territorial government, from 1800 - 1804, the legislature, called the Governor's Council, consisted of Governor William Henry Harrison and three territorial judges, all of them appointed by the president. The four councilors would have needed a room with a table and chairs, but where they met is uncertain. Probably it was at Col. Francis Vigo's house on the north corner of Second and Busseron streets. This was a frame structure, surrounded by a porch, painted white, with green Venetian blinds. It is reported that Vigo paid the builder twenty guineas to complete the house in time for the Governor's arrival in January 1801. Vigo offered the house to the governor, but Harrison only used the immense parlor, which was paved with a parqueted floor of alternating diamonds of black walnut and white ash. A portrait of President Thomas Jefferson hung on the wall. This house burned down about 1855.

In the second stage of territorial government, beginning in 1805, the legislature was called the General Assembly. It was a bicameral legislature, consisting of a House of Representatives of seven to nine men, elected by the adult free white male inhabitants, and a five-man Legislative Council, appointed by the president until 1809, and then elected by the people. The assembly employed a doorkeeper to unlock the place and see that it was swept and a fire going by nine o'clock. Each house employed a clerk to keep minutes and to engross copies of the laws.

In 1805 the legislature met in the house of Antoine Marchal, a French merchant, paying him $50 rent. It was a one-story, two-room frame structure, twenty by thirty feet, with porches along the front and back, similar to the Michel Brouillet house in Vincennes, which was built about this time. Marchal's house stood on the north corner of Second and Broadway streets. In 1806 Knox County leased the building from Marchal to use as a courthouse, paying him $100 per year, and the territorial legislature subleased the building, paying Knox County $50 The legislature also used the court house in 1807 and 1808, promising to pay Knox County $50 per year. In 1809 there was no official session of the legislature, due to confusion caused by the separation off of the Illinois Territory. In 1810 the legislature allowed only $20 for rent to Knox County.

Money seems to have been a problem. In 1811 Knox County drew up an account against the territorial government for $120 rent, which was not paid until 1812. The legislature convened in the Marchal house on November 11, 1811, four days after the Battle of Tippecanoe. There were just three dollars left in the treasury. On November 20 a motion was made that "the legislature now adjourn to a house provided by Mr. Beckes." The motion was rejected, but the next day, November 21, both houses resolved to "adjourn immediately to a red house near Mr. Beckeses." The legislature met at the "red house" from November 22 until its adjournment, December 19, 1811. Parmenas Beckes received $25 rent and Knox County was paid $11 for the 11 days the legislature occupied the court house at the beginning of the session. The Marchal house was torn down about 1830.

The legislature did not meet in 1812. The last session of the legislature to meet in Vincennes was from February 1 to March 12, 1813 at Mark Barnett's tavern. Barnett was paid $50 for providing two rooms and firewood. Barnett had leased Col. John Small's tavern, which stood on the northwest side of First Street, between Main and Vigo streets. Small's tavern was a two-story structure, built of vertical timber framework in 1788 for $1,500. It served as Knox County's first court house from 1790 to 1794. The old tavern was torn down in 1832.

Of the four meeting-places of the legislature in Vincennes only one remains: the "red house near Mr. Beckeses," used in 1811. This building is the one now on display at the Indiana Territory State Historic Site at First and Harrison streets. Originally the building stood on the southwest side of Main Street, about halfway between Second and Third streets. The structure was built between February 14, 1804 and July 26, 1806 for Daniel Black as a tailor shop.

It was built using a heavy hewn timber framework, pinned together with wooden pegs. The framework was assembled lying on the ground and then pushed upright using long polls. Wooden stakes were jammed between the uprights at six-inch intervals, giving a ladder-like appearance. Over these were draped large mud-pies, a mixture of mud and prairie grass kneaded to the consistency of bread dough. The French called this kind of insulation "bousillage," and examples of it can still be seen in the Michel Brouuillet house. As each piece of bousillage was draped over a stake, it was blended into the one below it. When the bousillage was dry, it and the timber framework was coated with a layer of plaster, the lime for which was made by burning mussel shells from the river.

Originally the house had one large double door and one large multipaned window facing Main Street. The tailor could sit on a platform in the window, using the available light for his sewing. On the second floor were two small "six over six" windows next to where the present larger windows are. On the back of the house were two small windows above and two small windows below, the same as now. On the gable end of the second floor is a door which was reached by a stair along the side of the building. The present inside stairway was added much later. The exposed ceiling beams with bead decoration carved along the lower edges are the originals, as is the tongue-in-groove upstairs floor. The building was apparently at one time painted red, judging from its name. This was confirmed during its most recent restoration when a piece of original yellow poplar siding was found, painted red.

In 1806 the building was sold to Thomas Jones, a rich fur trader who owned rental properties both in Vincennes and Cincinnati. Jones made his fortune selling trade goods and watered-down whiskey to Indians along the Wabash River, although sometimes a customer would complain about his drink: "Ugh, Tom, too muchee Wabash!" Jones lived in Vincennes with an Indian woman named Mary, daughter of Chief Fusee, and her two children, Nancy and Charlotte. In 1816 Jones was sued in Knox County court by an Indian chief named Ma-son-pe-con-gah, or the Owl, for ownership of a "Mulatto girl named Polly and a cross-cut saw." Since Polly was a common nickname for Mary, this may be the same woman. The case was not settled for forty years, by which time Jones and the Owl were dead and Polly and the cross-cut saw were long gone.

Jones apparently rented the "red house" to Parmenas Beckes, who owned the tavern, "At the Sign of Thomas Jefferson," directly across the street from it. Beckes's tavern was where out-of-town legislators stayed, popular for its drinks of whiskey and cherry bounce, "seegars," and games of five-card Loo and billiards. It was to Beckes that the legislature paid the rent for the "red house." Beckes was killed in a duel in 1813, and the "red house" passed through a number of owners. Over the years it was a store, a saddle-maker's shop, a tinsmith's shop, a tailor's shop, and a grocery.

In 1856 the building was moved nine blocks, from Main Street out to 917 North Third Street, near where the railroad had been built the year before, and made into a boarding house. It was probably at this time that all of the mud insulation was removed, to make the building lighter to move. Sometime after this, the present arrangement of windows and doors was made, an inside stairway replaced the outside one, and a shed roof added to the front, as can be seen in a photograph from 1887.

In 1919 the building was purchased by the Women's Fortnightly Club and moved to a location in Harrison Park, to be used as a museum. A few years before, Indiana had purchased the old State Capitol in Corydon, and this inspired the restoration of the Territorial Capitol. A major restoration was undertaken in 1933, under the direction of E.Y. Guernsey of Bedford, who had restored the Conner House and Spring Mill Park. In 1947, the Territorial Capitol was moved again, next to Governor Harrison's mansion. Two years later it was turned over to the state of Indiana, that now administers it as part of the State Museum and Historic Sites Division of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.