The Governor’s Palace At Vincennes, Indiana


William Henry Harrison, son of Benjamin Harrison, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was a ward of Robert Morris. The great financier op-posed the young man’s purpose to enlist in the Ohio campaign against the Indians that followed the war of the Revolution, but when young Harrison applied directly to Washington he was appointed ensign and sent to the front. This was in 1791, and the new ensign was but nineteen years old.

Gallant conduct during a campaign of four years under General Anthony Wayne brought to him promotion to a captaincy, the favor of his general, and the command of Fort Washington, at what is now Cincinnati, Ohio.

This post was resigned in 1798, when there seemed no further prospect of active service. Thereupon Washington appointed the twenty-four-year-old captain Secretary of the Northwestern Territory and ex officio Lieu-tenant Governor. When, in 1800, the Northwestern Territory was divided, he was nominated by Thomas Jefferson Governor of Indiana Territory, including what is now Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

Vincennes, one of the three white settlements in all this vast territory, became the seat of government. As Fort Sackville Vincennes had been made famous during the Revolution by the brilliant exploit of George Rogers Clarke, who took it from the British after an approach across Illinois and through the flooded valley of the Wabash, for which he will ever be remembered by a grateful country.

For thirteen years he was the autocrat in his remote outpost. To him were committed, in company with the Judge, all legislative powers; he was commander-inchief of the militia, and he had the power of treaty-making with the Indians. His signature became a valid title to lands in the Indian country. His care of the interests committed to him was so satisfactory that the legislature of Indiana asked for his reappointment. He was especially successful in dealing with the Indians. The victory at Tippecanoe became a rallying cry when, in 1839, he was nominated for the Presidency.

One of the most notable events of his career as Governor took place before his house at Vincennes. The Indian warrior Tecumseh, claiming that lands ceded by other tribes belonged to his own tribe, threatened vengeance on any who should attempt to settle on these lands. General Harrison sent for him, promising to give him a careful hearing and full justice. Accordingly, in August, 1810, Tecumseh came to Vincennes, accompanied by several hundred warriors. The meeting of the Governor and the Indians took place in front of the official residence. At one point in the conference, Tecumseh, being angry, gave a signal to his warriors, who seized their knives, tomahawks, and war clubs and sprang to their feet.

The Governor rose calmly from his armchair, drew his sword, and faced the savage. His bearing overawed the Indians, and when he told Tecumseh that he could have no further conference with such a bad man, the chief and his supporters returned to their camp.

The house that looked down on this scene was probably the first house of burned brick built west of the Alleghenies. It was erected in 1804, at a cost of about twenty thousand dollars.

The walls of the basement are twenty-four inches thick; the upper walls are eighteen inches thick. The outer walls are of hard red brick. The doors, sash, mantels, and stairs are of black walnut, and are said to have been made in Pittsburgh.

The basement contains the dining-room, the kitchen, in which hangs the old-fashioned crane, a storeroom in which the supplies of powder and arms were kept, and four servants’ bedrooms. At one side of the large cellar is the entrance to a tunnel which led to the banks of the Wabash, some six hundred feet distant. This was built, so tradition says, that the Governor and his family, if too closely pressed by Indians, might escape to the river and continue their flight in canoes. This would be useful also for the carrying in of water and food during a siege.

On the first floor a commodious hallway communicates on the left with the Council Chamber, where notable visitors were received. This was also the chamber of early territorial lawmakers. Here, in 1805, by Rev. Thomas Clelland, was preached the first Presbyterian sermon in what is now the State of Indiana.

In the shutter of a room facing the rear is the mark of a bullet which, it is said, was fired by an Indian who was attempting the life of the Governor, while that official was walking the floor with his little son in his arms.

Today the house is cut off from the city by railroad tracks and is surrounded by factories. Until 1916 it was owned by the Vincennes Water Company, which proposed to raze it to the ground, that they might have room for extension. Learning of this purpose, six members of the Francis Vigo Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution begged the City Council to buy the house and preserve it. When the Council announced that the way was not open to do this, a number of patriotic women, led by Mrs. Frank W. Curtis, raised the sum necessary for the purchase of the property.

Under the direction of the Francis Vigo Chapter, the house has been restored, and opened for visitors. It is the intention to maintain it for the inspiration of those who visit Vincennes to look on the scene of the wise labors of the first Governor of the Indian Territory.