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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Authors Capture Dreams of Southern Indiana History

Not being a native of southern Indiana, I am impressed by its rich history and the ardent attempts to keep that history alive. One such effort comes from the Reitz Home, through a free monthly lecture series entitled "Sharing Our Past." In addition, local and national authors continue to shed light on our area's collective past.

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder and the New Madrid Earthquakes by Jay Feldman (Free Press, 2005) is a marvelous popular history that entwines the massive earthquakes of 1811-12 with the perils of early river travel, the invention of steamboats, frontier settlement, the Indian Wars, and the politics of slavery.

The series of quakes near New Madrid, Missouri remain the largest ever to strike the continental U.S., affecting an area of 1.5 million square miles, with one quake estimated to have reached a magnitude of 8.3. Due to sparse settlement, only 100 people died, but many lost everything to flooding and were forced to relocate.

The tremors resulted in a resurgence of the tribal unification movement led by Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. The powerful Indian orator had promised a reluctant gathering of Creeks and related tribes in late 1811 that he would send them a sign that the "Great Spirit has sent me." He was leaving for Detroit and, when he arrived, he would "stamp his feet and shake down every house in Tuckhabatchee" (a Creek village). Eerily, the first quake hit on December 16, the calculated date of Tecumseh's Detroit arrival.

One quake also revealed, in a collapsed chimney at the Rocky Hill Plantation in Livingston County, Kentucky, the burnt skull of a slave murdered in anger by a nephew of Thomas Jefferson. Eventually, after being charged with murder, Lilburne Lewis died in a suicide pact with his brother.

Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad as Told by Levi Coffin and William Still, edited and with an introduction by George and Willene Hendrick (Ivan R. Dee, 2005) is a collection of essays drawn from two important Underground Railroad histories. Both reveal remarkable bravery by both abolitionists and fleeing slaves.

William Still, born in New Jersey, was the son of former slaves. Self-taught, he read everything he could find, and eventually went to work for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, becoming the "father" of the Underground Railroad.

Coffin was a white abolitionist who lived most of his life as a businessman in the Quaker settlement of Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana. He and his wife Catharine turned their comfortable home into a vital station on the Underground Railroad.

The Coffins' most memorable rescue involved fleeing slave Eliza Harris, the heroine of Harriet Beecher Stowe'sUncle Tom's Cabin, who accepted shelter in their home after her hazardous crossing, baby in arms, over the drifting ice of the Ohio River.

Slaves , Salt, Sex & Mr. Crenshaw: the Real Story of Old Slave House and America's Reverse Underground R.R. by Jon Musgrave (IllinoisHistory.com, 2004) reveals the dark fate that awaited many fleeing, and even freed, slaves – namely, being captured and sold back into slavery.

The John Hart Crenshaw Hickory Hill Mansion near Shawneetown in southern Illinois is more infamously known as the Old Slave House. This house wasn't a haven for runaway slaves. Instead, on the third floor were twelve small cells where kidnapped men, women, and children were chained until being sold to southerners.

Journalist and teacher Musgrave painstakingly chronicles the house's historical record, being careful to distinguish between fact and lore. In the process we learn about the national importance of the saltworks in southern Illinois, the meaning of being a border state, and the shifting slope between slavery and indentured servant status.

Musgrave has been instrumental in the effort to reopen the Old Slave House after its closing in 1996. The state of Illinois just last month allotted money to renovate it.

Thunder From a Clear Sky: Stovepipe Johnson's Confederate raid on Newburgh, Indiana by Raymond Mulesky, Jr (iUniverse, 2005) is the fascinating account of how a skilled former Indian fighter gathered a few Kentucky rebels and "woke up" the slumbering Indiana home guard.

Mulesky sees the humor in a motley contingent stealing an unguarded cache of weapons from a riverfront warehouse owned by one of Newburgh's leading citizens (without a shot being fired), but also focuses on divisions between neighbors in Civil War border states such as Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky.

IF YOU GO
"Follow the Drinking Gourd: the Path of the Underground Railroad through Evansville"
Lecture by Rob Spear
Monday, February 27, 7 pm

"Slaves, Salt, Sex & Mr. Crenshaw"
Lecture by Jon Musgrave
Sunday, March 12, 2 pm

Reitz Home Carriage House. Call (812) 426-1871 for reservations.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.