History of Shelby County

Shelby County, Indiana

Shelby County was not officially formed until 1821, although settlers were here as early as 1818. Before railroads, Michigan Road was the main transportation route, which helped establish Fountaintown, Freeport, Marion, and Morristown. After the county’s first railroad arrived, Shelbyville became the population center. It gained fame as the "Furniture Capital of the Midwest" due to its many furniture makers.

Shelby County, and in fact all of Indiana, might not be part of the United States had history gone differently. In 1783, when a commission met to fix the boundaries between the newly independent colonies and the English territories, there were two proposals: one, the Great Lakes, and the other, the Ohio River as the northern border. It was the foresight of John Adams that prevailed.

Shelbyville and Shelby County are a part of a large territory known as the New Purchase, which the Delaware and other tribes of Indians ceded by treaty to the United States on Oct. 3, 1818, in St. Marys, Ohio.

Before the treaty was signed, Jacob Whetzel, brother of Lewis Whetzel, known for his dislike of Indians, and of Susan (Whetzel) Goodrich, one of Shelby County’s pioneering settlers, had permission from Chief Anderson of the Delaware to mark a wagon path from Franklin County in eastern Indiana to the Bluffs on White River, south of present-day Indianapolis.

Within a week after the treaty had been concluded Whetzel and a few friends blazed the wilderness trail known as the Whetzel Trace. The route crossed Shelby County in a northwesterly direction a few miles north of present Shelbyville.

It was by way of the Whetzel Trace that many of Shelby County's first settlers came to make new homes. Here is the testimony of an eyewitness: "Witness money, and without the assistance which money brings, they had come here to make war upon nature in one of her most forbidding forms. Where now we may see broad fields and wide pastures of open wildland, then thickly stood the great oak, the poplar, the beech, the maple, and the ash, their limbs and branches so closely intertwined that, when clothed in their summer verdure, a shade so deep and dark was produced as to shut out the sun from May to October. The forests were checkered over with the trunks of prostrate trees, some sunk half their diameter in the oozy soil... rich as it was and is in organic matter mixing chemically with the watery element, rendered the paths and woods almost untraversable for man or beast."

One of the settlers, a squatter by the name of James Wilson, with the help of three of his older sons, erected the county’s first cabin in late 1818.

In January 1819, the Wilson family, 11 in all, moved from Franklin County to a one-room cabin to become the county’s first settlers. In 1821, the state legislature at Corydon, then the state capital, authorized the organization of Shelby County.

The name Shelby was assigned to the new county in honor of Isaac Shelby, twice governor of Kentucky and a famous Indian Wars soldier under whose leadership many of the pioneer settlers had served.

The first frame house in Shelbyville was built by Francis Walker on the lot at the northwest corner of Washington and Tompkins streets. The first county jail stood on the Public Square. Built of logs in 1823, it cost about $200. The original City Hall building located on West Washington Street cost $2,800 and at one time housed the community’s fire engine. The first courthouse, built of brick in 1825, was 50 by 60 feet and had one large room below and four above. It stood at the center of the Public Square and cost $3,300.

The first newspaper, notably titled The Argus after the hundred-eyed creature of Greek mythology, was begun in 1832. By 1876, there were three newspapers: The Independent, The Volunteer and The Shelbyville Republican, the last of which would eventually become today’s The Shelbyville News.

In July of 1834, Judge William J. Peasley, local railroad enthusiast, built and put into operation at Shelbyville the first railroad this side of the Allegheny Mountains. It was an experimental horse-drawn train on wooden tracks. It extended only 1.25 miles east of town to a picnic area on Lewis Creek. Soon it was abandoned.

Shelbyville was incorporated on Jan. 21, 1850, by a special act of the legislature. The city charter received at the time was destroyed in a fire at City Hall in January 1928.

One Shelbyville citizen, Thomas A. Hendricks, after serving as governor and in other elected offices, became vice president of the United States in 1885. The Shelby County Historical Society has rebuilt his original log home at the Shelby County Fairgrounds. And local citizen Charles Major acquired fame with his novels. A statue of Balsar, a character from Major’s "The Bears of the Blue River", stands in Shelbyville’s Public Square.

Shelby County Points of Interest

The Grover Museum

Shelby County Historical Society
52 West Washington Street
Shelbyville, Indiana 46176

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