A Brief History of Dearborn County

By Chris McHenry

Hundreds of years before white settlers approached Dearborn County, a mysterious group of Native Americans lived here, in a hilltop fortress.

No one knows exactly who these people were, or why they disappeared long before the Indian tribes with which we are familiar arrived in the Ohio Valley.

Early settlers describe the fortress as having been enclosed in a wall at least eight feet high, with a stone plaza in the middle, and with a rounded tower at one corner. The only entrances were through the tower, allowing for efficient defense in case of attack. The whole thing covered about 12 acres of land.

Recently, archaeologists have found exciting evidence of an even older culture who lived along what is now Ridge Avenue in Greendale.

Long after these intriguing first residents disappeared, the more familiar Miami, Delaware, Shawnee and other mid western tribes traveled back and forth through Dearborn on their way to the hunting grounds in Kentucky.

Early explorers sailed past on the Ohio River, including Celeron, a French Canadian who reportedly buried a lead plate claiming the land for France near the mouth of the Miami River.

George Rogers Clark and explorers from Virginia and Pennsylvania passed by on their way up or down the Ohio River, but none made permanent settlements.

In August of 1781, on their way to present day Louisville, Kentucky to join George Rogers Clark, Col. Archibald Lochry, with 104 Pennsylvania militiamen, were attacked by a smaller group of Indians led by Chief Joseph Brant near the mouth of present day Laughery Creek. The Americans were low on ammunition and were totally defeated. Many were killed, including Col. Lochry, and the rest carried into captivity. A monument to their bravery at Riverview Cemetery overlooks the battle site.

Less than ten years after the end of the Revolutionary War, new settlers began taking up land in Dearborn. They were squatters, that is, they did not own their land, since the Federal government did not begin land sales until after 1800.

When the land was put on sale, some families, like the Hayes, Guards and Millers, were able to purchase their farms. Others, like the Morrisons, were not so lucky and lost everything. Among those first settlers were at least 50 to 75 veterans of the Revolutionary War, following the American dream of finding a better future for their families.

Those first settlers faced Indian hostilities, and had to produce with their own labor nearly everything they needed to stay alive. They cleared the forests, one tree at a time, lived at times in huge hollow trees, hunted for their food and then made their clothing from the skins of the same animals.

In 1802 Army Captain Samuel Colville Vance bought the land on which Lawrenceburg now stands and founded a town named for his wife’s maiden name. At that point, Lawrenceburg wasn’t even in Indiana, but was part of Hamilton County, Ohio.

Vance undoubtedly took advantage of his friendship with William Henry Harrison, also a retired soldier, to get Dearborn County set off as soon as it became part of Indiana. Harrison also named Lawrenceburg the new county seat, even though at that time the county stretched all the way to present day Wayne County.

Settlers began pouring into Dearborn, first building their homes near the river, and then gradually working their way up the Whitewater, Tanners Creek, Hogan Creek and Laughery.

Six hundred and 16 men over 21 were counted in 1807, but a few years later, families began fleeing to Kentucky when Indians joined with the British in the War of 1812.

Three companies of militia were raised in Dearborn, and were put to use patrolling the frontiers. Blockhouses for the protection of settlers were built in several locations.

James Dill of Lawrenceburg, was appointed General by Governor Harrison, although his troops never saw actual battle conditions.

The end of the war and the threat of violence brought a flood of new settlers.

More communities were founded: Edinburgh, now part of Lawrenceburg known as Newtown, was established in 1809; Hardentown was laid out in 1815, and Aurora in 1819. Present day Ohio County was then part of Dearborn, and Rising Sun had been founded in 1814.

People had begun arriving from other countries, as well as New England other eastern states and Kentucky, to buy the low cost government land available to them.

Schools and churches and stores (as well as distilleries) began to operate and Dearborn County farm products were shipped by flatboat to the south.

By 1830, the population of Dearborn County was 14,573, and it was the second biggest county in the state.

No longer a frontier outpost, Dearborn County was a thriving center of agriculture and business.

With the arrival of the 1830s and 1840s came several waves of German immigrants.

In the main, Catholic immigrants tended to settle in the northeastern part of the county, and in Lawrenceburg and Aurora, while Lutherans gravitated toward the southwestern part of the area, along with the two biggest towns.

While these thrifty farm families were adding their successes to those of earlier residents, a dark cloud began growing over the United Sates, and its effects were felt in Dearborn County.

By the 1830, opposition to slavery was increasing throughout the northern United States, and anti-slavery societies were being formed.

One of the earliest in Indiana was at East Fork Methodist Church, founded, and mostly attended, by hardy English immigrants who believed in supporting their beliefs with action.

Like-minded residents soon joined them in Lawrenceburg, Aurora, Manchester and Moores Hill.

Because of its location right across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave state, Dearborn County was logical place for escaping slaves to find help on their way to Canada.

The white residents who helped to operate this Underground Railroad were joined in Lawrenceburg by Elijah Anderson, a light skinned African-American blacksmith. Legend has it that he would wait until the coast was clear and then beat out a signal on his anvil to tell escaping slaves waiting on the Kentucky side that it was safe to come to Lawrenceburg.

He would then help to hide them and move them along to the next station on the Underground Railroad.

It is estimated that he helped as many as 1000 people escape from slavery before he fled to Ohio.

There he was arrested for violating the Fugitive Slave Law and died under suspicious circumstances in a Kentucky jail.

In Aurora, the Underground Railroad was led by the Wymond family from England, who hid the escapees in a secret room of their house, the former Dearborn Country Club.

From there they were transported to the Manchester and Guilford area, where members of the Hansell, Collier, Platt and Ewbank families provided further transportation north.

As the drumbeat of opposition to slavery grew louder, it became inevitable that the controversy could not be settled peaceably, and in 1862, southern forces fired on Fort Sumter, setting off one of the country’s bloodiest wars.

In Dearborn County, young men rushed to volunteer. So many of them in fact, that one whole company led by Aurora Mayor Frederick Slater, arrived in Indianapolis after the quota for that call had been filled. Not one to waste manpower, governor Morton sent them to help fill out the Kentucky ranks, and they served throughout the entire Civil War as part of the 11th Kentucky Regiment.

Dearborn County men, both black and white, fought in every major battle of the war, including those along the rivers, where many local men worked on the riverboats and other naval craft.

Dozens lost their lives and hundreds more were inured or contracted serious illnesses.

Then, in the summer of 1863, the war came to Dearborn County.
John Hunt Morgan led his Confederate troops across the Ohio River near Corydon and began a march toward Ohio, stealing horses, cutting telegraph lines, destroying bridges, and terrorizing residents as they went.

By the time they reached northern Dearborn County, they were hotly pursued by Federal troops who were encamped at Sunman. In mid July, Morgan and his men were in full flight as they galloped through Dearborn County on what is now North Dearborn Road, pausing only long enough to burn the bridge across the Whitewater River as they entered Ohio.

They were later captured in Ohio.

For years afterward, aging residents told stories to their wide-eyed grandchildren about how they had been forced to bake biscuits or provide directions to Morgan and his men, and farmers throughout the county were paid reparations for the livestock and horses they lost.

The raid also created a new name for a little settlement in Caesar Creek Township called Opptown. Although it turned out that Morgan never came near the place, farmers in the area took their horses to the woods around the town, for safekeeping. To this day, the community is known as Farmers Retreat.

By the end of the Civil War, no less than eight men with ties to Lawrenceburg and Dearborn County had achieved the rank of General.

Don Carlos Buell, the only one to attend West Point, grew up in the home of an uncle in Lawrenceburg.

George Buell was Don Carlos’ cousin, and was credited with inventing and constructing pontoon bridges, which made it possible for Union troops to travel quickly through the South, even after permanent bridges had been destroyed.

Ebenezer Dumont, born in Vevay, lived as a young man in Lawrenceburg and served as county treasurer in addition to maintaining a law practice.
James H. Lane, also known as the Liberator of Kansas, was the son of early settler Amos Lane, and served in Congress. He moved to Kansas where he began fighting to do away with slavery, and then served in the Civil War.

Thomas J. Lucas, the son of an officer in Napoleon’s Army, ran a jewelry and watch business in Lawrenceburg before entering the service. He later served as Postmaster in Lawrenceburg.

John C. McQuiston, born in Madison, Indiana, lived in Lawrenceburg during his teens and early twenties, before joining the new railroads under construction in the 1850s. He later moved to Greensburg.

Benjamin Spooner was a member of a prominent Lawrenceburg family. He lost an arm at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain while riding in front of his troops urging them to continue fighting.

John Thomas Wilder is associated more with Greensburg than Lawrenceburg but he did live here for several years prior to the war.

For a small Indiana town, having a total of eight generals is a record to be proud of.

During the last part of the 19th Century, Dearborn County became more than just a collection of small hardscrabble farms.

Pork packing and shipping became a big industry for Lawrenceburg, and there were furniture factories, woolen mills, and of course, distilleries. Even tiny New Alsace had its own breweries. For about ten years, Lawrenceburg produced more cigars than anyplace west of the Alleghenies.

In the 1830's, the Whitewater Canal had been built, opening up the interior of Indiana to the possibility of shipping to Lawrenceburg and then on the Ohio River. Its usefulness was short lived. Spring floods washed out the banks over and over and eventually the Canal, and almost the State of Indiana, went bust.

In the 1850's, not one but two railroads were built through Dearborn County. One went from Lawrenceburg northwest through Guilford to Indianapolis, and the other came west from Cincinnati, through Aurora, and then through Milan and on to St. Louis.

In 1854, an enterprising resident of Moores Hill proposed that a real college be established in the town. He found ready backing and soon Moores Hill College was producing generations of ministers, teachers, doctors and other well-schooled professionals. It also produced some fiery supporters of women's suffrage, most notably Florence Burlingame Adkinson, an 1867 gradualte who edited magazines and was known through the United States for her spirited defense of the rights of women.

Moores Hill College was already suffering from financial problems when its main building burned to the ground in 1917. The institution never recovered, and the college was moved to Evansville, where it was renamed Evansville College, now the University of Evansville.

Dearborn County's young men marched off to battle in the Spanish-American War and again in World War I.

Industry was flourishing, and the distilleries offered well-paid jobs, until Prohibition took effect in 1920. Production came to a halt, and hundreds of men were without jobs. Not only did it affect those who worked in the distilleries, but also the coopers who supplied barrels and the farmers who sold their grain to the whiskey makers, even the railroads that transported the finished product.

Families who lived on farms told of relatives from town who managed to exist mainly because they could get free vegetables, eggs and meat from their country cousins.

It was with great relief that residents heard of the end of prohibition and the silent distilleries re-opened for business. Because of this, Dearborn was prosperous during the 1930's when much of the country was suffering under the Great Depression, but ominous clouds were gathering over Europe and by 1940 young men from Dearborn were once again preparing for battle.
Thousands of young men and women served from Dearborn County, and more than 60 gave their lives for their country.

Aurora native Elmer Davis was named to head up the Office of War Information. He was a highly respected newscaster.

When the survivors came marching home again, they found a booming economy. New industries arrived, a new power plant was built, and Dearborn County finally got together to build a hospital in the 1950's.

War once again loomed on the horizon, as the United States became a "Police Action" in Korea.

A few years later, Dearborn County was once again called on to send her young men and women, this tome to Vietnam. Eleven of them died.

School reorganization eliminated forever the rivalries that once existed among the county's six high schools. When it was all over, there were only three: East Central, Lawrenceburg, and South Dearborn.

Prompted in part by the construction of I-74 and I-275, residents of Hamilton County, Ohio began discovering the beautiful hills of Dearborn and soon were moving here by the thousands, changing the political landscape and bringing about huge growth to the Sunman-Dearborn School District.

And in the 1990's after a hard fought battle at the polls, Argosy Casino located at Lawrenceburg, offering more than a thousand new jobs, and attracting new hotels and other businesses. Argosy also added millions of dollars to the city and county governments.

Today our young people are once again engaged in a fight for freedom, and Dearborn County is looking toward a bright future of growth combined with an appreciation and preservation of our 200-year-old historic heritage.