I’m in the last week of what I hope will be my final semester at school, one that’s occurring at breakneck speed due to a series of compressed, eight-week courses. My rhetoric class has me writing a persuasive paper on -you guessed it- the importance of preserving old courthouses. While scouring various databases for sources, I came across a great case study about the courthouses in one rural North Carolina county. What started as a simple place to house the courts and other social events there eventually grew into an elaborate and labyrinthine structure once cotton speculators elected themselves to office, something that the author suggested was symbolic of the new government’s disconnect from its poor, rural, constituents1. Against public opinion, that old building was retained and restored after its replacement was built in the 1970s, which was purported to demonstrate the continued power of the area’s old-money influencers.
We’ve occasionally dealt with that type of authoritative wrangling here, particularly with regards to Fowler in Benton County and Albion in Noble. But if there’s a courthouse left in Indiana that signifies the spirit of our early government buildings before they got enormous, ornate, and convoluted; it absolutely has to be the 1816 Harrison County Courthouse in Corydon, a 40×40 foot stone structure done up in the federal mode and adorned with a simple cupola. That courthouse isn’t familiar for only serving Harrison County, though- it’s more famous for another role it played. From 1816 to 1825, the modest structure also served as Indiana’s first state capitol2! Today we’re going to talk about it, some other buildings, and a famous tree stump. Oh boy!
Let’s start with the basics. Want to impress some nerds at a party? First determine that you’re at an event where this sort of thing might be appreciated. Ask them what Indiana’s first capital was, precisely like that. They’ll sputter and gasp and hem and haw, but the answer is Vincennes, which acted as Indiana’s territorial capital from 1805 to 1813 when the government moved to Corydon. The title of the first capitol building in Vincennes technically belongs to three buildings rented by the legislature during their time there, but a small, two-story building known was the “Red House,” originally a tailor’s shop, is generally given the credit3. You can still go there and see it today at the Vincennes State Historical Site on Harrison Street. Can’t miss it. It’s a lot of red.
Harrison County was organized in 1808, and Corydon itself was established by none other than William Henry Harrison, the hugely influential territorial governor and general who later became a punchline after dying just 31 days into his only term as president. Although his home base was in Vincennes, Harrison’s political domination spread across the Indiana Territory. In 1804, he purchased land adjacent to Indian Creek and set about founding Corydon4. As one of the most prominent stops on the road to Vincennes, the town grew. It wrested capital status away from Vincennes when Harrison’s opponents demanded that a more centralized city, away from his direct control, be established for that purpose5. State officials scrambled eastward and soon stuffed Corydon’s existing log cabin courthouse with territorial representatives.
There’s that pesky word again- “territorial”. In 1815, a petition for statehood was approved and sent on to Congress. Delegates were soon elected, and in June of 1816, they met at Corydon to complete a constitution- a process done in sweltering heat. To try and get some relief, officials met under a fifty-foot tall tree with a 132-foot spread that later became known as the Constitution Elm6. The shade the elm provided must have worked, since Indiana’s constitution was completed in just nineteen days. Jonathan Jennings was elected governor, and James Madison officially granted Indiana statehood on December 11.
The significance of this event meant that a proper capitol would be necessary to administer an entire state’s worth of government, so one was completed at a cost of $3,000. But Indiana didn’t pay to build the statehouse- that duty fell to Harrison County, who actually loaned the building to the state for use. A brick structure, built in 1817 and still standing today as a private home on the northwest corner of Walnut and Elm streets augmented the courthouse’s use as a state office center, with areas for the treasurer and auditor7. It all worked out for a while, but Corydon’s status as Indiana’s state capital wouldn’t last long since the government moved to central Indianapolis in 1825, the result of more counties being formed to the north.
Corydon’s old capitol didn’t dry up and rot just because the state government skipped town. Remember, this was still the Harrison County Courthouse, after all, and the locals needed governed too. But the courthouse was a small building- 3200 square feet. That’s a third larger than my parents’ 1979s saltbox, or about the size of a well-equipped Starbucks. A Starbucks! Just imagine legislative sessions delayed by buggies of representatives in line waiting for their macchiatos and cake pops. Thankfully, Harrison County officials were prescient enough to avoid the issue by adding a brick office building to the site during the 1840s.
In 1859 a huge meteor hit the county near Buena Vista8, exploding across four miles just southwest of the courthouse. Four years later, Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan crossed the Ohio River into town as part of what’s now known as Morgan’s raid. Corydon was captured, ransacked, and looted in a mess that left four dead and twelve injured8. Morgan and his band of scary men were later captured in Ohio after a month and a half of terror, but the courthouse and ex-statehouse remained unscathed.
A new county office building -two brick stories with a cupola- was completed in 1882 and officials continued business as usual, mercifully without any meteors or raids. Thirty-five years later, state officials came back to town not to relocate the capital back from Indy, but to buy the old statehouse outright with the intention of preserving it as a museum. Documents were signed and hands were shaken, giving Harrison County four years to vacate the building and secure a new courthouse. No one’s quite sure where courts were held after 1921, but one thing’s for sure: they weren’t held underneath the old Constitution Elm, which died of -you guessed it- Dutch Elm disease in 1925. Today, most of the tree’s trunk is preserved a block northwest of the old courthouse within a stone temple in someone’s front yard.
Trials probably took place at the Harrison County Office Building directly east of the old courthouse until 1928, when the current courthouse was built and the former statehouse was officially ceded to Indiana’s government. At that point, the 1882 county offices were demolished so as not to overshadow the solemn, reflective environment of the square. For its part, Harrison County’s replacement courthouse was built in a simple, neoclassical mode across a closed Cherry Street north of the capitol in an attempt to minimally detract from its consequential environs.
More than two centuries in, Corydon remains an intriguing place, one that I regret not stopping in for anything more than Burger King’s “Extra Long Cheeseburger” on a hoagie roll and the courthouse itself. I’d been there once before on the way to Holiday World, but I can easily see another trip to the town, hopefully on a weekday so I can venture into some of the landmarks that call the old state capital home.
Harrison County (pop. 39,163)
Corydon ( pop. 3,119)
Cost: $3,000 ($42,216 in 2016)
Style: Federal/Coffee Mill
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville
Height: 40 feet with cupola
Current Use: Non-governmental
1 Durrill, W. K. (2002). A tale of two courthouses: Civic space, political power, and capitalist development in a new South community, 1843-1940. Journal of Social History, 35(3), 659+. Retrieved 4/16/20.
2 Enyart, David. “Harrison County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/29/20.
3 Day, Richard. “Capital of Indiana Territory” Indiana Historical Bureau. Indiana Department of Natural Resources [Vincennes]. Web. Retrieved 4/29/20.
4 Frederick P. Griffin. The Story of Indiana’s Constitution Elm, Corydon, Indiana, June 1816. [Corydon]. 1974. Print.
5 Barnhart, J.D., & Riker, D.L. eds. (1971). Indiana to 1816: The Colonial Period. The History of Indiana. Indiana Historical Bureau and the Indiana Historical Society [Indianapolis]. Print.
6 Frederick P. Griffin. The Story of Indiana’s Constitution Elm, Corydon, Indiana, June 1816. [Corydon]. 1974. Print.
7 “First State Office Building. Indiana Historical Bureau. Indiana Department of Natural Resources [Vincennes]. Web. Retrieved 4/29/20.
8 Shaffer, Nelson. “Meteorites in Indiana”. Indiana Geological Survey. Indiana University. Web. Retrieved 4/29/20.
9 Funk, Arville (1969). A Sketchbook of Indiana History (Revised 1983 ed.). Rochester, Indiana: Christian Book Press.