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Harrison County

African American Settlements Documented: 1

Harrison County has been home to African Americans from as early as Indiana's territorial period.  The county was established in 1808.  Corydon was Indiana's territorial capital from 1813-1816 .  It served as the state’s first capital from 1816-1825.  Indiana was a part of the Northwest Territory and although slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, it was tolerated.  Many of Indiana's earliest white settlers, largely from the slave states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky,  brought enslaved people to Indiana.  Indentured servitude was used to circumvent anti slavery laws.  Thus, the status of free African Americans in Indiana and in Harrison County was tenuous.  In her book, The Negro in Indiana Before 1900, Emma Lou Thornbrough cites the 1810 census in Harrison County as listing 21 slaves and 12 free persons of color.

A few years after this early census, ca. 1814, a large enclave of about 100 African Americans migrated into Harrison County with an elderly white couple, Paul and Susannah Mitchem, who eventually freed them.  Their story is very unusual since the freedom seekers comprised such a large group and were accompanied by their benefactors who settled among them.  Most of those who came into Harrison County with the Mitchems took the name Mitchem.  Other family names included Finley, Carter, and Cousins.  These new agrarian settlers became land owners, business owners, and one, Littleton Mitchem, was a physician.  Also, there is no evidence to suggest the settlers were coerced into signing indentures.  Due to the size of the Mitchem Settlement, the families fanned out throughout the county, but most stayed in or around Corydon.  The townships where the African American population was located include Harrison, Boone, Webster, and Heth.

Perhaps, the most notable among the Mitchems was a man who came to free territory with this enclave but ended up settling in St. Louis, Missouri.  His name was John Berry Mitchem and according to a first person account, he purchased his freedom from Paul Mitchem and then earned enough money to walk 700 miles to Virginia and 700 miles back to Kentucky to purchase his father's freedom.  After marrying an enslaved woman from Kentucky, he followed her to St. Louis after her master took her there.  John Berry Mitchem is listed as one of the early settlers of St. Louis who contributed to the state of Missouri's development.  He distinguished himself as the minister of a large Baptist Church in St. Louis and as the founder of a freedom school that was conducted on a Mississippi River vessel since it was illegal for African Americans to attend school in Missouri.

After the Civil War, another in-migration of African Americans relocated to Harrison County, most of who came from Meade County, Kentucky, which is the closest Kentucky county to Harrison.  These families settled in various areas of the county, but most eventually migrated into Corydon, where a downtown church/school combination had been built about 1851.  Other churches, Collins Chapel, which was also a church/school, one unnamed on the South Hill, and St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (organized about 1882) drew the African American population into Corydon.  Today St. Paul AME has more white members than African American. Collins Chapel, founded in 1868 in Boone Township, no longer exists.

In 1891, the Corydon Colored School , a public school for African American elementary and high school students was built by the Corydon Schools.  The high school was discontinued in 1925 due to a lack of high school age students; however the elementary school was continued until 1950.  It closed because there were not enough elementary-age students to constitute having a teacher unit.  Now called the Leora Brown School, the building was rehabilitated over twenty years ago as an historic site and educational and cultural center.

Most of the Mitchem Settlement members were buried in Corydon in Cedar Hill, the historic town cemetery that was begun in 1808. Many of the early settlers’ graves are at the front of the cemetery. The cemetery is not segregated.  In addition, there are three small Mitchem family cemeteries. 

Bibliography

Brown, Maxine. “Mitchem Family and Settlement, Free Men of Color in Harrison County, Early 1800's." Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Spring, 2009

Bulleit, F. A. Illustrated Atlas and History of Harrison County, Indiana.  Corydon, IN F. A. Bulleit (1909)

Griffin, Frederick P. "Black Families Residing in the Four Corners South of Corydon – Southeast
Harrison Twp., Southwest Webster Twp., Northwest Heth Twp., Northwest Boone Twp." [An annotated map reflecting successive generations and presumably descendants of Mitchem migration living where four townships meet. (ca. 1882-1906)].  Frederick Porter Griffin Center for Genealogy and Local History, Corydon, Indiana.

Griffin, Frederick P. Cedar Hill. An annotated map reflecting African American property owners of long standing in Harrison County, Harrison Twp., west of the Cedar Hill Cemetery (ca. early 20th century). Frederick Porter Griffin Center for Genealogy and Local History, n.p.

Mitchem Property Record.  U. S. Census 1850 for District 45 Harrison County, Indiana.  NARA Roll:  M432__149, pg. 440A  Image 564.

Saulman, Earl O. Blacks in Harrison County, a compendium of information about Harrison County's Black population (1999, revised 2002). Frederick P. Griffin Center for Genealogy and Local History.  Corydon, IN.

Thornbrough, Emma Lou, The Negro in Indiana Before 1900: A Study of a Minority. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Vol.: Reel 0014-1820.  Crawford, Delaware, Dubois, Harrison, Jennings, Knox, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, Owen, Perry, Scott, Switzerland, Vanderburgh, Vigo, Wabash, Washington.  Accessed on Aug. 22, 2014.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 0027- 1830.  Cass, Johnson Dubois, Harrison, Jennings, Dearborn,
Franklin Counties. Accessed Aug. 22, 2014.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 0082 – 1840.  Hamilton, Hancock, Harrison, Counties. Accessed on August 22, 2014.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 00149 – 1850.  Harrison, Hancock Counties. Accessed on August 22, 2014.

Bureau of the United States, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 00264 – 1860.  Harrison County.  Accessed on August 23, 2014.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 00321 – 1870.  Harrison County. Accessed on August 23, 2014.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives and Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, V volume:  Reel 00264 – 1880.  Harrison County. Accessed on August 23, 2014.

By Maxine Brown, October 4, 2014