S1E13 - The Yankee Diaspora: Vandals of the Midwest

Brian & Lyman continue discussing the early settlement of Indiana by a curious mix of yankees and southerners. In this episode, learn about Indiana's unfortunate history with infrastructure projects, how Indiana narrowly avoided becoming a slave state, and how Indiana nearly had a significantly more awesome name.

Oh, and I believe we're done with the incessant Hoosier slander. For now.



L: You’re listening to Episode 13 of Migration Nation with Lyman Stone and Brian Hudson, a Podcast about the history of migration in America.

B: I’m a social studies teacher and Lyman’s an economist. For this and the far more episodes than we initially expected, we’re going to continue exploring the migrations of Yankees and the settlement of the midwest. This time, we will actually get to some Yankee migrations!

L: And, fittingly, we’ll also be talking about the sack of North Africa by the barbarian peoples known as the Vandals.

B: And while you might think Lyman is joking, well, he is… but we will mention it. More to the point, we’re talking about a people even more barbaric than the Vandals of old: Hoosiers.

L: Glad to see you really embracing the Indiana-trolling, Brian. I wasn’t sure if you were gonna get on board.

B: Well since I spent my whole childhood staring across the Ohio River at them, I feel like I actually have a better excuse for Hoosier-trolling than you do.

L: That’s likely, but I’m also usually the trolly-er of us. Really nice to have help.

B: Aaaaanyways…. Let’s get on to today’s episode about Vandals and, of course, one of the most disastrous infrastructure plans in American history.

L: Oooo boy!


L: So my assumption is that Indiana is… well I want to assume the state is not named Indiana just because there were lots of Indians there.

B: Errrr….. Yeah, actually, it’s named Indiana because there were so many Indians there.

L: Ouch.

B: Yeah…. And they drove them off their lands…

L: Not a great look.

B: No. And honestly, look, I get people may be fond of the name, but the reality is that people from Indiana don’t even call themselves Indianans. They call themselves Hoosiers. Even they recognize that, at a very basic level, their state name is not that great.

L: I mean, it’s certainly no Kentucky.

B: Right. And, even sadder, it could have been amazing. Indiana could have been named… Vandalia.

L: That is so much better. But… isn’t that also a city in Illinois? Or Ohio?

B: Both! But anyways, the earliest usage of “Indiana” to refer to any plot of land actually referred to a piece of West Virginia, granted via a royal charter to a group called the Indiana Company. After a series of wars with the natives and legal changes, they merged with the Ohio Company. “Indiana” as a place name was absorbed into the larger “Ohio” family.

L: Still not seeing where we arrive at Vandals.

B: Right, so, before the Revolutionary War, land-grant holders throughout most of modern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky got together to form a new colony and they named it after Queen Charlotte of England.

L: ...Charlottesville?

B: Uh, no, that city wasn’t part of this colony. No, Queen Charlotte allegedly traced her ancestry to the ancient Vandals, as in, the barbarians who torched and burnt their way through Roman Gaul and Hispania, conquered North Africa, and conquered Carthage right as poor old Saint Augustine was dying. She was apparently fairly proud of this ancestry, so it was widely known and recognized. Thus, “Vandalia” became a tribute to Queen Charlotte. So this Appalachian colony wanted to be called “Vandalia.”

L: I feel like that would have gone poorly for Appalachians, to have their demonym be “vandals.”

B: Yeah… so it’s probably not a terrible thing that Virginia and Pennsylvania crushed these efforts. Of course, not long after, the same area would try again to form the state of Westsylvania.

L: Oh right! I forgot about those guys! If you want more of this story, go back and listen to our Birth of Bourbon episodes!

B: Yeah, and then, after that project fails, nearly 100 years later they finally broke away to form West Virginia, which, thinking on it now, that’s still not a very creative name. I kinda feel like a letter-writing campaign to change West Virginia’s name to Vandalia is in order.

L: So… how does this relate back to actual Indiana?

B: Well, the original Ohio Company didn’t survive the American Revolution, but it had nonetheless produced maps, scouting reports, and a wealth of information about the territory. It had also made a first attempt at applying place names. The name “Indiana” certainly occurred frequently on their books and records and, although we don’t know for sure, it seems likely that some Ohio Company booster at some point appropriated the name Indiana from its original usage in West Virginia to apply to the western Ohio territory, and the name stuck.

L: And if only that anonymous label-maker had appropriated “Vandalia” instead, then there’d be no Indiana full of Hoosiers, just a Vandalia… full of Vandals.

B: Which would be pretty cool actually.


B: With Indiana named, it may be worth telling the story of how it almost became a slave state.

L: Huh? But it’s a Northwest Ordinance territory. Slavery was banned, albeit by accident, as we discussed two episodes ago.

B: Yes, it was banned-- but Governor Harrison was a southerner who wanted to enable slavery. The French settlers who predated American control kept slaves as well, and Indiana’s plantations and quarries along the Ohio River routinely leased slave labor from the other side of the Ohio. So it’s not like Indiana was a pure free-labor system.

L: Right, and they made special provisions for the people enslaved by the French settlers, as a thank-you to them for support during the Revolution. But surely they weren’t looking to implement large-scale slavery?

B: Harrison really was. Harrison got Congressional permission for Indiana to decide its own status, and in 1803, 1807, and 1809 tried to get slavery legalization bills passed. A 10-year moratorium on implementing the slavery ban was successfully passed as well. Indiana’s first congressional representation was pro-slavery. And the only reason Harrison’s proposals to the state legislature to approve slavery failed was that he disagreed with the pro-slavery faction on other issues about territorial administration, which sank the negotiations.

L: Wow. So they really did almost become a slave state. I guess that’s that southerner influence there.

B: Well, yes and no. Slavery wasn’t a huge issue in Indiana’s early days, so pro-slavery leaders weren’t selected because they were pro-slavery; they just happened to be. And by the mid-1800s, a movement began to form to oppose slavery in Indiana. Now, a pseudo-historical myth says that Thomas Jefferson noticed what Harrison was doing, and sent political agents and ministers to begin clandestinely organizing an anti-slavery movement. But the actual evidence for Jefferson’s direct involvement is pretty thin.

L: Yeah, that would seem strange.

B: Well, Jefferson was a slaveholder, but he also wanted to uphold the Northwest Ordinance, and he opposed slavery’s expansion in most instances. So while his direct involvement may be fiction, it’s not implausible to think he may have opposed Indiana becoming a slave state. Whatever the case, one way or another anti-slavery Baptist churches got founded throughout southern Indiana. Eventually, a local Hoosier anti-slavery coalition would emerge, led by a coalition of ministers, aging Revolutionary war veterans, a former southern plantation-owner who freed his slaves before moving to Indiana named James Pennington, and an alcoholic Presbyterian lawyer named James Jennings, who would become the state of Indiana’s first governor.

L: That’s a weird political coalition.

B: No kidding! But in 1807, responding to Harrison’s pro-slavery moves, this coalition gathered in a small French trading town in Clark County, and made an anti-slavery declaration worth quoting in some detail. It reads: ...a great number of citizens, in various parts of the United States, are preparing, and many have actually emigrated to this Territory, to get free from a Government which does tolerate slavery ... And although it is contended by some, that, at this day, there is a great majority in favor of slavery, whilst the opposite opinion is held by others, the fact is certainly doubtful. But when we take into consideration the vast emigration into this Territory, and of citizens, too, decidedly opposed to the measure, we feel satisfied that, at all events, Congress will suspend any legislative act on this subject until we shall, by the constitution, be admitted into the Union, and have a right to adopt such a constitution, in this respect, as may comport with the wishes of a majority of the citizens.... The toleration of slavery is either right or wrong; and if Congress should think, with us, that it is wrong, that it is inconsistent with the principles upon which our future constitution is to be formed, your memorialists will rest satisfied that, at least, this subject will not be by them taken up until the constitutional number of the citizens of this Territory shall assume that right

L: So, basically, they’re saying that many of the southerners who moved to Indiana did so explicitly to escape slavery?

B: Yeah. Which I think really fits nicely with what you were saying last episode about Hoosiers being southern in origin, if not what we think of as southern in culture: they were the anti-slavery southerners who moved north because they just couldn’t stomach slavery. And that’s why, despite being southern in some social regards, Indiana never became particularly southern in its political affinities in the antebellum period.

L: Because on the issue of slavery, they were a self-selectedly anti-slavery group.

B: Exactly. And though we also have historic records showing early Hoosiers were stridently opposed to Indiana ever becoming “another Yankee state,” it also seems clear that, to them, this didn’t mean they wanted slavery. It meant they didn’t want other aspects of Yankee culture.

L: Ah, and, actually, on that note, it might be worth mentioning how Indiana’s first big attempt at a large-scale Yankee-style state infrastructure project actually turned out.


L: So we’ve said that a typical “Yankee” characteristic is a growing commitment to an organized and involved public life, or a greater willingness to use the state. Until the 1830s, Indiana of course had public works of various kinds, but it rapidly acquired a reputation for being a kind of midwestern backwater, a less-civilized place, not least because it was less intensively cleared, surveyed, and covered in public works than Ohio or, eventually, Illinois was.

B: And you’re saying that may be because the southern-origin settlers were less interested in these products?

L: Well, I want to avoid too much political essentialism here, but I would definitely say that the lack of Yankee-led advocacy for internal improvement probably explains some of the difference. This seems especially likely given Indiana’s history with infrastructure. Remember that, by the 1820s and early 1830s, a wave of Yankee migrants had begun to arrive in northern Indiana. Though less numerous than southerners, they were still numerous enough to be the dominant cultural group as late as the 1850s along all the northern-rim counties.

B: So then we might expect that the 1830s would start to see a political shift towards more Yankee-friendly political priorities.

L: Right! And, as a matter of fact, that’s what we do see. In 1832, we get a Whig governor replacing the independent governor. Several Indiana governors had nearly been impeached after being accused of corruption related to attempted infrastructure projects, and that independent governor lost his popularity because he tried to encourage railroad construction, which was deeply unpopular.

B: So, as late as 1832, it seems like while there are pro-infrastructure elites, the typical Hoosier was much more skeptical of large public works projects.

L: Right. Now, everybody knew some kind of internal improvement was needed, but there was disagreement about how bold, big, and expensive government investments should be. But from 1834 to 1838, Indiana’s legislature was dominated by more Yankee-friendly anti-Jackson legislators, while there was a Whig anti-Jackson governor. The result was the 1836 Indiana Mammoth Internal Improvement Act.

B: Mammoth? That’s a creative adjective to use.

L: Yeah, I didn’t add it, that’s the actual name of the act.

B: Wait, what? Seriously? They called it the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act?

L: Yep.

B: So I’m guessing it was a pretty big, bold plan?

L: You betcha. It was enormous. Now, to be clear, two previous infrastructure plans had ended in bankruptcy and scandal, saddling Indiana with excess debt. This new plan was bigger than both previous plans combined, and then some. I’ve got a map of proposed improvements on the blog. It included a canal linkage from Lake Erie to the Ohio River, several long roads, and two long railroad lines. The bill included at least one infrastructure connection for every city in the state. Which tells you all you need to know about how the bill got passed.

B: Pork.

L: Yep. See, the Whig faction was leading, buoyed up by a growing Yankee population in the north and east, but Indiana’s Whigs were never truly a Yankee-dominated group. They had to appease culturally southern interests too. That meant getting infrastructure-skeptical legislators on board. And that meant pork, and pork meant greatly increasing the price tag.

B: In a state with two bankrupted projects already under its belt.

L: Yeah. A point raised by one James Whitcomb, who basically said, um, guys, this is dumb and we’re gonna go bankrupt. Curiously, Whitcomb was actually born in Vermont, so he’s a Yankee, but he grew up in Cincinnati and was educated in Kentucky. He became known throughout his social circles for having adopted more southern-style manners, clothing, and habits: so he was a southerner by adoption, if not genetics. And after the Mammoth plan fails horribly, he will be made governor, usher in a new constitution, right Indiana’s abysmal finances, and lay the foundation for fiscal success for generations to come.

B: Um, spoiler alert much? So, the infrastructure plan fails?

L: Oh, right, yeah. Horribly. The only part to be completed is the canal, and at way more than the budgeted cost. Then a financial panic hits the state and the economy collapses. The whole project goes bankrupt and the half-complete assets are sold off. Most never turn out to be worth very much as investments, and even the completed canal closes by 1870. Blowback from this failed proposal is so strong that Whigs are locked out of the governorship until the civil war, and only control the legislature for 5 years out of the next 20.

B: But that doesn’t sound like just generic southern opposition to big spending projects.

L: No, it doesn’t! See, that’s the thing. The governor who proposed this plan was southern-born. The guy who opposed it, and made a name for himself opposing it, was Yankee-born. The leaders of the anti-slavery movement in Indiana were mostly southerners. Indiana actually turns all our stereotypes about these “American nations” on their head!

B: So then… Indiana really is backwards?

L: Hah! Right. Well, I mean, yeah, it is, but more to the point, I think it’s important to note that a state experiencing 3 different rounds of bankruptcy so dire it requires constitutional changes may have as much of an impact as where the initial settlers were born. If you want to explain Indiana’s conservatism today by appealing to historic factors, appealing to southern origins may be hard since they were anti-slavery southerners.

B: But appealing to the shared, statewide experience of repeated policy failure early in the state’s history might be more useful.

L: Especially since the Yankee-settled counties today have essentially the exact same voting records as the southern-settled counties today. That seems important to me.

B: I’ll buy it!


L: And with that, we complete the 13th episode of Migration Nation. Thanks for listening in, and we hope you’ll join us again next time as we keep slowly marching westward, and talk about Illinois. If you’d like more information about what we’re doing here, or would like to offer us your support, join us on the web at migrationpodcast.com, where you can find transcripts of our episodes, bonus nerdy materials from Brian and me, and maybe even a look ahead at episodes we have in the works, if we ever get around to doing pre-release material.

B: As always, don’t hesitate to contact us with your questions or critiques! We love to hear from you! You can reach us @migrationcast or @lymanstoneky or @bphudson, as well as on Facebook at facebook.com/migrationpodcast. You can also email us at migrationpodcast@gmail.com. And if you like the show and want to troll your Hoosier friends and family, share it!