In the earliest days of Indianapolis, young John Wilkins was a favorite of the ladies. He arrived from Ohio in May 1821, and built himself a one-horse carriage, the first of its kind in Indianapolis. Despite a complete lack of ornamentation, Wilkins’ novel conveyance was still the most fashionable carriage in the pioneer settlement, and an invitation to ride with Wilkins was, according to historian John Nowland, viewed as a great compliment by the town’s single women.
All that changed in 1825, when Wilkins returned from a visit to Ohio with a new bride on his arm. Within a year, Eleanor Wilkins gave birth to their first son, William Henry. A daughter named Sarah Ann was born 18 months later.
The Wilkins’ happiness was shortlived, however. In 1830, both their children would die — William at three years of age and Sarah at one. That same year, Eleanor would spend thousands of hours stitching a pristine white quilt.
Eleanor Wilkins’ quilt was recently discovered in a trunk in California, the date “1830” stitched on one corner. Pinned to another corner was a yellowed note that read “Made in 1830 by Mrs. John Wilkins, an earlier settler of Indianapolis.”
My curiosity was piqued when I stumbled across the quilt on ebay in early July. At the time, I didn’t know anything about John Wilkins and had no idea whether the quilt was authentic, so I bookmarked the link to the auction and made a mental note to do a little research. Then I promptly forgot about it.
Last Friday night, I was surfing ebay and went back to check on the auction of the quilt. It had sold on July 12 for an astounding $1,875.
Even though I wouldn’t have paid that kind of money for a quilt, I still felt a little queasy wondering whether I had passed up a once-in-a-lifetime chance to own an authentic piece of our pioneer past — or at least connect it with someone with deeper pockets who would bring the quilt back home to Indiana.
After conducting about five minutes of research, my fears were confirmed. John and Eleanor Wilkins were important figures in the development of the city. So important, in fact, that it would not be an overstatement to call John Wilkins one of the founding fathers of Indianapolis.
John Wilkins arrived in Indianapolis while the town was still being laid out. He participated in the first sale of land in October 1821, and the following year, opened the city’s first tannery with Daniel Yandes. The partnership would last for 38 years.
After the deaths of William and Sarah, the couple went on to have four more children, two of whom would also die in childhood. But they also threw themselves into community work, helping to organize many of the civic, charitable and educational institutions that laid the foundation for modern-day Indianapolis.
For example, John Wilkins was one of five men who were elected as town trustees when Indianapolis was first incorporated in 1832. This initial group of elected town officials was responsible for putting in a place a system of local ordinances that turned the pioneer settlement into a civilized society by – among other things – making it illegal to fire a gun within town limits, exhibit a stallion on Washington Street, or ride a horse on the sidewalk.
Wilkins was appointed a director of the first State Bank in Indianapolis in 1834, was a founding trustee of the county library in 1844, and served on the first school board in 1850.
He was a strong advocate of higher education of women, and was a trustee of the Indiana Female College until it was folded into Indiana Asbury University (now Depauw), where he also served as a founding trustee until his death in 1868. At his funeral sermon, the bishop said that “the women of Indianapolis were more indebted to John Wilkins than any other, for their admission to the University.”
Eleanor was no slouch, either. In 1859 her friend Calvin Fletcher wrote in his diary that Eleanor — then age 54 — was among a small group of five “elderly” women who together had “[d]one more good works than any 5 persons with whom I am acquainted.”
But John and Eleanor Wilkins may be best remembered for their charitable and church work. Together, they helped establish the city’s first charity, the Benevolent Society, and in 1849 helped found the city first orphan asylum. In John Wilkins’ obituary, the Indianapolis Journal wrote that “the poor of the city have in him lost one of their best friends.”
The couple became active with the Wesley Chapel in 1829, and John later went on to become a charter member of Roberts Chapel, where he served in so many leadership positions that he earned the informal title, “the Bishop of Roberts Chapel.”
The Wilkins’ home on East Market Street was always open to circuit preachers, who traveled on horseback and had little money for lodging. Eleanor’s 1889 obituary in The Indianapolis News notes that over the years, she acquired “almost a national reputation for Methodist hospitality.”
John Wilkins died unexpectedly on June 5, 1868. Although he had been in poor health, he had attended a prayer meeting the evening before and was working in his garden an hour before he died quietly in his chair.
As John Nowland recounted in his 1870 history of Indianapolis, John Wilkins’ “life went out like the flame of a candle that had burned until there was nothing left.”
It’s difficult to uncover the true essence of a person by reading how people saw them more than 150 years ago. Nowland called John Wilkins “a plain, unpretending man” who had died “without giving trouble to any one.” The Journal said that “one of his peculiarities was his cheerfulness” and that he “had won to himself a universal love by all.”
Yet John Wilkins also seemed to have a mischievous side. A young man who worked at Wilkins’ tannery was a Millerite, a religious sect that believed the second coming would occur on October 22, 1844. Dicky Weeks’ repeated exhortations that the world would soon come to an end apparently become annoying because one or more of his acquaintances decided to play a trick by sneaking into Weeks’ house at night and leaving mysterious gifts of food that were supposedly left by supernatural visitors. Although a trio of young wags was blamed for the incidents, J.P. Dunn wrote in his 1910 history of Indianapolis that Wilkins, who “had a marked vein of humor,” was the more probable culprit.
Like other pioneer leaders, John Wilkins was honored by having a street named after him. Wilkins Street was laid out one block south of Ray Street and two blocks south of McCarty. Only scattered stretches of Wilkins Street remain today, broken up by the interstate.
There are no monuments to Eleanor Wilkins. Other than her obituary and a few entries in Calvin Fletcher’s diary, little has been written about Eleanor’s life. Instead, her good works stand as her testament, along with the remarkable white quilt that she made in the year that she lost her two oldest children.
Last Saturday I contacted the ebay seller in hopes that Eleanor’s quilt was coming home to Indianapolis. She told me that it had sold to an unidentified buyer in New York.
I want to thank Xenia Cord for sharing her knowledge of quilts with me as I was researching this article. More information about the history and tradition of all-white quilts, known as Marseille work, is available online from the International Quilt Study Center and Museum.