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Indianapolis in 1820 by Alois E. Sinks – showing the point where Washington Street crossed Meridian.

Who was the True Founder of Indianapolis?

Shrouded in Controversy…
And a Mysterious Death…

In almost 200 years, the city of Indianapolis has grown from a single square-mile plat envisioned by noted architect and surveyor, Alexander Ralston, to the 12th-largest city in the United States, encompassing 369 square-miles. But before the state government was moved from Corydon in 1824, this densely forested river valley was relatively serene and unpopulated — except by fat fish and wild turkeys.

It’s generally believed that a man by the name of Jacob Whetzel and is son Cyrus were the first to secure permission from the Delaware Indians to cut a trail from Franklin County to the White River. The land was officially off limits for settling until an 1818 treaty opened it up to would-be settlers, who called the area “New Purchase.”

John McCormick (1791-1825)
Into this wilderness came pioneer John McCormick. He left his residence in Connersville, Indiana, in 1820, leading his family and nine employees along the Whetzel Trace to the confluence of Fall Creek and the White River. The family’s oral history contends that the 12 men of the group raised a cabin (on the east side of the White River, at present day Washington Street) the very same day they arrived: February 26th. The McCormicks staked out their claim as “squatters,” taking their chances on government land, hoping that eventually their homestead would be translated into a legal title at the 1821 land sale.

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John McCormick

The McCormick family worked hard in the brutal environment and flourished despite the area’s and era’s primitive circumstances, abundant mosquitoes, and relative lawlessness. John McCormick built and operated a sawmill and also ran the tavern that hosted a very important meeting in June of 1820; a gathering that would decide the location of the new state capital.

The site of the McCormick log cabin is today marked by a plaque, installed on a rock that’s located in White River State Park.

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George Pogue (1765-1821)
A “blacksmith in a place with no horses to shoe,” by the name of George Pogue arrived on the scene in March of 1819 (though detractors contend it was 1820). He built a double-size cabin for his wife and family of five. The Pogues also hailed from Connorsville, cutting a trail in line with present day Brookville Road on their way, and finally settling in the spot where  today, Pogue’s Run crosses Michigan Street.

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Alexander Ralston’s original plat map. Pogue’s Run was named for George Pogue after his disappearance. Before that time, it was called Perkins Creek after a squatter named Ute Perkins. Some oral histories contend that Pogue assumed Perkins’s abandoned cabin, rather than building his own.

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Pogue’s Run as it crossed the original one-square-mile Indianapolis plat map. (The irregularity must have made Ralston crazy!)

In his book, Greater Indianapolis (1910), author and historian Jacob Platt Dunn examined evidence and family oral histories, finding a great many discrepancies in story telling. Dunn concluded that McCormick was likely the first permanent settler in the White River-Fall Creek area, whereas Pogue was probably the first to settle permanently within the boundaries of the “Congressional Donation Lands.”

However, there was no doubt that Pogue was the first founder to die… or so it is believed… because his body was never recovered. Or was it?

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“Surveyors mapping the new capital in 1820” by Thomas B. Glessing. The stream depicted is probably Pogue’s Run.

The curious tale of George Pogue’s disappearance begins with an Indian by the name of Wyandotte John — an outsider who lived in a hollow sycamore log just outside the settlement. One cold night, Wyandotte John appeared at Pogue’s cabin and invited himself to stay. During dinner, conversation centered around the whereabouts of the recently-stolen Pogue family horses. In those days, a stolen horse was no small matter. One of the most vital resources a pioneering family had was its horse stock. Without horses, travel was slow, plowing was impossible and getting your perishable goods to a far-off market was a hopeless proposition.

When Wyandotte John offered up information about some iron-shod horses he had just seen at an Indian camp near Buck’s Creek, Pogue set out to locate them.

That was the last that George Pogue was ever seen — giving him the dubious double-honor of being the last white man to meet with death [presumably] at the hands of Indians, in central Indiana, and the first recorded murder victim in Indianapolis. Speculation and rumors ran rampant after his disappearance. One of Pogue’s sons claimed to have seen a Delaware Indian wearing George’s clothes not long after he disappeared. Someone else said that the Indians cooked and ate the Pogue family dog that had accompanied George.

Indiana’s oldest cold case…
In May of 2013, a “very old” human jawbone and finger bone were discovered in Garfield Park. Speculation and rumors again ran rampant: Was it a Civil War soldier? Was it remains from a Delaware Indian burial ground? Could it be George Pogue? According to researchers in the Indiana State Archives office, the location where the bones were found corresponds with the place Pogue was headed when he was last seen.

It’s exciting to think that the almost-200-year-old case could finally be solved — but one has to acknowledge that the evidence has been compromised, over the years. Flooding, for example, might have moved bones from a cemetery, down creek. It could be an unmarked Indian grave, or a family member of one of the area’s early farmers. And, there is a just the slight possibility that Pogue may have already been found; a newspaper article from 1905 mentions an unearthed skeleton near that same spot.

What do you think are the chances that jaw belonged to Pogue?

20 responses to “Friday Favorite: Which Came First, the McCormick or the Pogue?”

  1. Jon says:

    My mother is a Pogue by birth, so I am biased in the argument. I think that George is either my fifth or 6th great-grandfather. If they need any DNA comparison for the jaw-bone, drop me an email. I did some research on the Pogue/McCormick debate in college and Dunn was the primary source. It’s a chicken/egg question that won’t ever be definitively answered.

  2. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Hello Jon! As I wrote this article, I wondered if there would be any descendants still in the area.

    I used eight sources for this story from among the many available — including Dunn. It appears that the opinions were fairly even on either side, depending on what criteria was used.

    Then, there was the outlier, Ute Perkins, who was here and settled before either the McCormicks or Pogues arrived on the scene, but he didn’t stay long. And, of course, there were the Indians — but they didn’t found the city. Theirs was a different way of life tragically ended before the city was born.

    One thing seems indisputable to me: though he paid a huge price for it, George Pogue’s story is the most enduring. Almost 200 years after his disappearance, we’re still looking for him.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Duane Palmer says:

    Lisa,
    One of my 4G grandfathers was Samuel Drennan McCormick, brother (and brother-in-law!) of John Wesley Jr. The whole “who was first” question seems to have been more important in the early twentieth century, when the centennial was being planned. The obviously McCormick-influenced centennial pageant depicts the McCormicks emerging from their established cabins to greet the Pogue family upon their arrival to the area!
    Adding fuel to the fire was Mrs. Pogue’s recollection that they had arrived after the McCormicks, which differed from her children remembering they were here prior to the McCormicks. Another factor was that the McCormicks had huge families. I remember my grandfather having a tattered newspaper clipping from the early 1900s describing the last family reunion; the family had become so vast that having any more gatherings was impractical. Thus, there were many voices proclaiming their point of view.

    I would like to think that in those pioneer days the two families were glad and grateful to have each other as neighbors, regardless of who was here first.

  4. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Hello McCormick friend!
    Thanks for writing, Mr. Palmer. It’s great to hear from you. I agree with you that the original settlers were likely far more concerned with day-to-day survival than the question of who arrived first. On the bright side, this fairly good-natured controversy has certainly secured their place in history! Long may your families prosper. Thanks for reading!

  5. Christopher Frey says:

    This is a comment that I suppose could be applied to just about any founding story written in the Midwest, but I must take issue with your description of the area as “unpopulated”. Central Indiana was home to thousands of Native Americans, it was neither empty nor wilderness. It was already a complex cultural ecosystem that was destroyed by the people who came after the men you write about. Pogue or McCormick didn’t ‘arrive first’ – they were the first to take over land that had only been very relunctantly given up by a few Native ‘leaders’ two years earlier by the Treaty of St. Mary. Why do we celebrate colonialism in this way, but we get up in (metaphorical) arms when Russia invades Ukraine, or Serbs try to push out Kosovars? What’s different? I don’t understand.

  6. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Christopher, it’s right to remember our history (from all perspectives) so that mistakes aren’t repeated. Thank you for your comments.

  7. Tom Davis says:

    Lisa, I just noticed that the oft seen imaginary view of Indianapolis in the 1820s is the work of Alois Sinks. Many years ago I found this out about Sinks, probably most of it from J.P. Dunn.

    Alois E. Sinks (October 5, 1848 – July 3, 1881) Buried in the National Cemetery. Continue past the Gothic Chapel on the south side of the National Cemetery. Near the road before the sign reading “On fame’s eternal…” is a seemingly out of place non-military marker reading “A. E. Sinks.”

    Outspoken Alois E. Sinks continues to stand out today. Walking along the road past Morton’s grave, as you go by the many marble veterans monuments in the National Cemetery, one monument near the road makes itself known by being different. It is granite, not marble; it is squat and angular, not tall and rounded. Shorter in the midst of many monuments of uniform height, it almost appears to be sinking into the ground. It is the monument of Alois E. Sinks.

    Sinks was born in Dayton, Ohio. When the Civil War broke out, he ran away from home to be a drummer boy and rose to a position on General McConnell’s staff before he was honorably discharged as a result of being wounded. He went to New York City to study art and for the rest of his life he painted dreamy, romantic, and imaginative pictures of moonlit castles and Greek temples. But he did not paint them very well. In the words of William Forsyth, “he was not master of his dreams.” He himself must have been aware of the limits of his talent, for he quickly began to devote himself to being an art critic and not just an artist.

    He arrived in Indianapolis around 1875, marrying Elizabeth Wickard not long after getting to town. Sinks was not terribly impressed by the state of art here, but he saw that as his opportunity. In his words, “the sad state of the art of painting was not due to the lack of artists, but rather to the want of a competent art critic— and now Indianapolis was no longer to suffer on that account” because he was going to work as the art critic for the Saturday Herald.

    While there is no evidence he himself improved the local art scene, he certainly left an impression. According to J.P. Dunn, “he was as genuine a bohemian as ever reached this place, and was a perpetual source of entertainment to John W. Love, who maintained that Sinks was out of his proper setting anywhere but in the Latin Quarter in Paris.” (Dunn, p. 481) Forsyth described him as a “rather small, smooth shaven man, his face framed in a shock of long, brown hair, with a large soft hat over it, and always, weather permitting, wearing a cloak. … He was a picturesque and interesting figure, and when in the mood, quite entertaining.” (Art in Indiana, p. 8, quoted in Peat, p. 191)

    But if he didn’t personally improve an already rising art scene, his sometimes scathing criticism certainly helped publicize its goings on. One work was a “violation of nearly every principle of art. … We have only to say most truthfully and solemnly that if any man did pay $500 for this picture [which was being rumored], he paid just about $450 too much.” He found one portrait so bad that the subject “appeared to most flattering advantage with the face turned prone to the wall.” (Saturday Herald, February 27, 1875) But he did admire Jacob Cox and thought the young T.C. Steele of his day showed enough promise that with proper training he might develop into a real talent.

    Meanwhile, Sinks’ own life was falling apart. He and his wife’s one child, a boy, died in infancy, and Sinks began drinking heavily, eventually bad enough to hurt his reputation. On July 3, 1881 he died after an unexplained fall out a second story window. He was buried amongst his Civil War comrades, his tarnished reputation thus restored.

  8. Christy Scofield says:

    Let us know, won’t you, when the analysis of the bones dates them.

  9. Christopher Frey says:

    Lisa,
    I’d like to apologize for my rather strident tone in my earlier comment, and I do see that you mentioned several American Indians, and the complex relationships that characterized those moments in the history of the development of Indiana. I am triggered by words that make invisible the inhabitants of the White River Valley and other places, and I must say that my criticism of your piece came out of a deep respect for the fine historical work on this blog. Now that I have my wits about me, I hope that you continue to write about this important period in Indiana’s history, and consider how celebrating the ‘founding’ of cities like Indianapolis might look to the people who were already here. Thank you.

  10. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Tom: Love this. Fascinating stuff!

    Forgive my ignorance; when you say “National Cemetery,” do you mean Arlington or is that a section of Crown Hill?

    Thanks!

  11. Lisa Lorentz says:

    I will, Christy. I’m fascinated by the story. I could not find any information on them up to now but I will continue seeking the information.

    I’m not sure how quickly bones can be dated, nor how high the priority is for the case. If any reader hears the results, please post them for us here!

  12. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Christopher: No apology necessary! Having participated for two summers in Indiana archaeological projects, I am intrigued by and have a natural curiosity about the Indian populations native to this state. When those groups were moved out of the area as a result of various treaties, a whole way of life just… ended, in this area.

    I did try to choose my words carefully with regard to a very specific time period and without making commentary on what happened previous to the “settler era,” because the “pre-settler” era deserves to be addressed by more than an a portion of an article of about 1000 words (and probably by someone more expert in the subject than I am).

  13. Tom Davis says:

    Yes. There are actually two National Cemeteries in Crown Hill, one started in 1866 for Union Soldiers and one when the confederate POW’s graves were moved from Greenlawn in 1931. http://www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/crownhill.asp

    In the past couple of years the government also took responsibility for the soldier’s graves immediately behind the Gothic Chapel. There is actually one Revolutionary War veteran buried there, at least one from the War with Mexico, numerous Civil War, Spanish-American, WWI, WWII, and Korean Veterans buried there.

  14. Lois (Pogue) Grubb says:

    My maiden name is also Pogue. I live here in Portland, Indiana and also wonder if I’m a possible descendent of George Pogue and would be willing to have DNA testing. We constantly search our family tree.

  15. DAVID HASKELL says:

    IS THIS THE CHRISTI SCOFIELD WHO TAUGHT AT VAN BUREN ELEMENTARY IN PLAINFIELD, IN?

    THANKS,
    DAVID

  16. Darryl Rice says:

    Great article!

  17. Richard Toumey says:

    Is it possible to make your articles more printer friendly?

  18. Cora reilly says:

    John Wesley McCormick Jr. is my 7th great uncle. The McCormick’s were known as the family of twins.. I did a bit of research on my family and dating back to 1757 until 2020 I have counted 34 sets of twins. As far as my understanding my sister and I are the second to last set of twins.. I’m sure there are twins.

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