Nowland Avenue
Location: near Spades Park, near east side
Named For: Matthias Nowland, original settler of Indianapolis; and John H.B. Nowland, Indianapolis author and historian

Matthias Nowland was one of the original settlers Indianapolis, arriving in 1820. His son, John H.B. Nowland was one of the foremost experts on Indianapolis history and was the author of Early Reminiscences of Indianapolis and Prominent Citizens of 1876, two of the most cited books on Indianapolis.

His father, Phillips Nowland, established and edited the Manchester (England) Chronicle, who counted Thomas Paine as a frequent contributor. Phillips was very sympathetic to the cause of the colonists and championed their efforts in England. After the war, the Nowland family moved to America, landing in Philadelphia, but eventually settling in Dover, Delaware where Matthias was born. Around the same time, Phillips was a VIP at the inauguration of George Washington as the nation’s first president.

When his wife Elizabeth died, he moved to Kentucky. He eventually went to Texas to fight against the Mexicans, but was taken prisoner by the Mexican army and executed on the plaza in Mexico City. Another son, John R. Nowland was killed alongside Davey Crockett at the Alamo while trying to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the Mexicans.

Matthias was on his way to Illinois from Kentucky and passed through Vincennes in early 1820. At the time, the state was preparing to select a new state capital in the center of the state and appointed 10 commissioners to complete the job. Matthias was convinced to come along. Upon arriving in Indianapolis (following the White River), Matthias, who was not a commissioner, apparently recommended the confluence of Fall Creek and the White River as the ideal place for the capital. He promised to go back to Kentucky and permanently move his family to Indianapolis and encourage his neighbors to do the same. He followed through on his promised and moved the family in November 1820.

Matthias was the first brick maker in the new city and also opened a tavern on Washington Street between present day Missouri and West streets. In fact, the first sale of plats in Marion County were held there on October 8, 1821. Matthias was also tasked with selecting the site of the city’s first cemetery along with fellow settlers James Blake and Daniel Shaffer. Ironically, Shaffer died about a week after selecting the site and was the city’s first interment. Nowland himself would join Shaffer in the cemetery when he died November 11, 1822, leaving his widow and several children including John H.B. Nowland, who was only nine.

John was born October 12, 1813 when the family still lived in Frankfort, Kentucky. His maternal grandfather was a captain in the Virginia militia during the Revolutionary War.

John came to Indianapolis with his father and was the last member of the family to arrive on November 4, 1820. In Indianapolis, he attended the first school and the first Sunday school. He grew up in the young city and later went to college at Indiana University where one of his classmates was future Governor James Whitcomb. At age 19, to he served as private secretary to Jonathan Jennings, the first governor of Indiana and a seven-term Congressman.

As an adult, he was appointed to a position in the administration of President John Tyler and moved to Washington for seven years, where he was a popular contributor to the Washington Star. While in Washington, he was a contemporary of Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, Henry Clay and other luminaries of politics.

In 1840, he married Amelia T. Smith at the Christ Church, making it the first church wedding in Indianapolis. Her father, Justin Smith, owned the first wholesale house in the city. Her great-great grandfather was president and the oldest member of the King’s Council in Massachusettes.

He eventually moved to a home along Washington Street, between Meridian and Pennsylvania streets, the third brick house built in the city. They also brought the first keel boat to Indianapolis which brought supplies to the city via the White River. Eventually they moved to what is presently Dearbon Ave. on the near eastside. He died August 1, 1899 having seen the city grow from three log cabins to a thriving metropolis.

Photos courtesy Sergio Bennett

7 responses to “What’s in a Name: Nowland Avenue”

  1. basil berchekas je says:

    What is interesting is that there is an historical plaque (sign) in the 1800 block of Nowland Avenue (just off Brookside Parkway South Drive near Spades Park) that points out that there was an early inn and traveler’s tavern in front of a house with a bigger-than-average yard for this neighborhood (apparently in Windsor Park). This inn served as either the first or last inn prior to arriving in Indianapolis, depending on whether one was entering or leaving Indianapolis. Apparently this particular section of Nowland Avenue was part of an early pike running east-northeast from Indianapolis…

  2. Terry Shumker says:

    Is it possible the brick making business he owned could have been the source of brick for Tomlinson Hall? Terry Shumaker

  3. Louis Mahern says:

    The confluence of White River and Fall Creek mentioned as the founding place of Indianapolis is not where the confluence is today.. There was a branch of Fall Creek that ran south and through the current location of the IUPUI campus. It formed the mill race that powered McCormick’s mill and continued south until it ran just to the east of the pump house current headquarters of White River State Park. The mill race took a sharp right hand turn and ran across the southside of the pump house driving the turbines still located in the pump house before emptying into White River. This southern branch of Fall Creek was subsequently filled in. The mill race can be found on older maps of the city.

  4. Sam Crimmins says:

    I enjoy these “What’s in a Name” articles. So,
    what/where is/was “the city’s first cemetery” where he is interred?

  5. Libby Cierzniak says:

    Nice article about the Nowland family. Some years ago, I found an invitation to the Anniversary Ball at Washington Hall that had been sent to John Nowland and his wife in 1850. On the invitation, someone (I assume Nowland) had made notes next to the names of the organizing committee for the event. I like to think that the notes were for one his early histories of Indianapolis, although I haven’t found any reference to the Anniversary Ball in either book.

  6. Tom Davis says:

    Sam Crimmins,

    The first cemetery was a plot of land just outside the mile square where South Street and West Street intersected overlooking the WhiteRiver. As it gradually got more and more surrounded by railroads and industry etc, family members sometimes moved their loved ones to other cemeteries around town and eventually those not moved by their families were moved later as the cemtery closed. Floral Park has a small section of monuments originally in Greenlawn Cemetery, one of the names the original tract was eventually called. In the early 1900s, most of those left were moved to an unmarked section in Crown Hill’s northern section, in a part of the cemetery now noted as the Pioneer section where several other smaller cemeteries were moved more recently. The last known burials to be moved en masse were the confederate prisoners, who were moved to Crown Hill in the early 1930s, though the large monument for them went to Garfield Park. But I can recall not too long after I moved to town in 1982 a casket or two being unearthed as work was done in the area where the cemtery had been.

  7. basil berchekas je says:

    This is for Louis Mahern; he’ll be interested in this one about the South Side (no doubt he already knows this though) ; after Pogues Run ran under the original Union Station (where the future Mayor Tom Taggart ran a restaurant after emigrating from Ireland), the creek turned southward and continued south along approximately Missouri and West Streets, emptying into the West Fork of White River north of Raymond Street. When Pogues Run was storm sewered below East New York Street, it was deflected west to empty into White River at about Kentucky Avenue, and the downstream section, not taking the flow it used to, was deflected into nearby storm sewers, and “disappeared” from “view” on the South Side. Just trivia!

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