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November 20, 2013

ANDREA NEAL: W.H. Harrison shaped Indiana from Vincennes

Indiana home to White House of West

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016.

History remem-bers William Henry Harrison as the first president to die in office. Hoosiers should remember him as the man who shaped the Indiana Territory.

Indiana spent 16 years as a territory before it became a full-fledged state. Following a multistep process set out in the Northwest Ordinance, citizens first had to get practice at governing, grow in population, petition for statehood, be accepted into the union and write a constitution.

Like a conductor directing an orchestra, Harrison oversaw much of the process from his governor’s mansion in Vincennes, the territorial capital chosen because it had a sizable population and was conveniently located on the Wabash River. In the process, he negotiated 10 treaties with Native Americans, bringing the land firmly under U.S. control.

The Indiana Territory was much larger than what became Indiana. Carved out of the Northwest Territory in 1800, it included Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota and Michigan. At the time, some 12,000 Native Americans and 6,000 settlers lived there. By 1816, Indiana had been whittled down to its current size and had 64,000 residents.

Harrison was a native Virginian and a military man named territorial governor by President John Adams in 1800. He moved to Vincennes in January 1801 and got to work writing laws, appointing public officials, improving roads and directing Indian affairs.

In 1804, Harrison built a governor’s residence sturdy enough to function as a fort. It was the first brick home in Indiana and became known as Grouseland due to abundant game birds in the area.

As the pursuit of statehood progressed, power shifted away from a powerful executive, Harrison, to a democratic legislative branch. In 1811, the Legislature asked Congress for permission to write a state constitution and admission to the union. By this time, the territory hoped to be financially self-sufficient. It wasn’t yet, so plans were put on hold. War broke out, and statehood was further delayed.

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