Editor’s note: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016.
In 1975, Jessamyn West wrote a novel based on a true yet astonishing Indiana story. The Massacre at Fall Creek recounts the 1824 murders of nine Indians in Madison County and the ensuing trial and death sentences of the white male perpetrators. In the last chapter, a respected white preacher by the name of Caleb turned to his Native American acquaintances to reflect on the executions they witnessed:
“This will be remembered as a great day both for the red man and the white man. On this day for the first time white men punished their own kind for killing Indians ... Now we will live peacefully together.”
Caleb’s prediction, like West’s book, was fiction. The executions at Fall Creek were not long remembered nor did the case lead to lasting peace. It was a fleeting moment of frontier justice that received scant attention from legal scholars and historians.
Yet this is a story all Hoosiers should know because it reflects pioneer Indiana at its most enlightened. On the morning of March 22, 1824, a roving band of white men killed a peaceful clan of Seneca and Miami natives camped along Deer Lick Creek — a tributary of Fall Creek — near Pendleton.
Three of the victims were women and four were children. One of the men was a subordinate chief of the Seneca, “a person of great distinction and greatly esteemed among the Senecas,” according to Conner Prairie historians. The murderers presumed they could get away with their crime, a reasonable expectation considering cultural norms of the day.
Instead, they were hunted down by the citizens of Madison County. Although one suspect escaped, the others — James Hudson, Andrew Sawyer, John T. Bridge and his son, John Bridge — were charged, tried, convicted and given the death penalty. “It was perhaps,” writes Professor James H. Madison of Indiana University, “the first time in the history of the United States that the law worked with full recognition of Indian humanity.”