Leavenworth, Indiana

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Leavenworth is a town in Jennings Township, Crawford County, Indiana, along the Ohio River. The population was 353 at the 2000 census.



Foundation and early settlement

Leavenworth was laid out in 1818 in an oxbow of the Ohio River, directly under a large bluff called Mt. Eden. The bluff forms part of the Indiana Ridge and faces directly across the river toward Kentucky. A spectacular panoramic view of the valley can be seen from the top of the ridge. "Old Leavenworth" (the original town, now practically abandoned) was almost completely wiped out by the huge 1937 Ohio River flood, as it was built directly on the floodplain.

The town’s founders came from Connecticut. Born in 1792, Zebulon Leavenworth moved west to Cincinnati and studied law in Chillicothe, Ohio. He then taught for a year in Cincinnati before joining a government surveying expedition to the Illinois frontier. Returning to Ohio to enter into a business with his brother Seth, a printer and school teacher, Zebulon Leavenworth bought four hundred acres of public land in Indiana and laid out the town of Leavenworth in 1818-19 (he was then 26 years old.)[3] He met his wife, an eighteen-year-old girl from Delaware named Margaret Patterson, in New Albany, Indiana and they were married in 1821. Zebulon was a well-educated man and an elegant writer. On his fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1871, a year before his death, he penned a poem to his wife Margaret, which he read aloud at a dinner party. In light of the town's later destruction by a flood and its historic relocation to the ridge top, one stanza reads prophetically:

From the hill of Spring we started,
and through all the Summer land,
and the fruitful Autumn country,
we have journeyed hand in hand.
We have borne the heat and burden,
willingly, painfully and slow,
we have gathered in our harvest,
with rejoicing long ago.
Leave the upland for our children,
they are strong to sow and reap;
through the quiet wintry lowlands,
we our level way will keep.[3]

Margaret and Zebulon Leavenworth had nine children together. By 1825, Zebulon’s three older sisters back in Connecticut, Sarah, Rachel and Rebecca, had joined him in Indiana.

In 1824, a wood yard was established in the town to provide fuel to steamboats that were beginning to ply the Ohio River. Its proprietor, David Lyon, set up a boatbuilding industry in Leavenworth in 1830. Originally involved in the construction of flatboats for transporting farm products downstream as far as New Orleans, Lyon specialized in the building of handcrafted wooden rowing skiffs. Lyon’s business passed into the hands of his son and grandson, who built graceful wooden craft in Leavenworth well into the twentieth century.

A family of English immigrant brick makers passed through the town on their way west and stopped here, agreeing to make a large quantity of bricks for settlers who did not want to build with wood (brick was then a more prestigious building material). Leavenworth's Whitcomb brickyard later became a flourishing industry.

In 1820, Zebulon Leavenworth established a ferry across the Ohio River and built a schoolhouse. By the 1840s, Methodist, Universalist and Presbyterian congregations had taken root. The Crisis, Crawford County’s first newspaper, was begun in Leavenworth in 1839. (Seth Leavenworth had already started Indiana's first newspaper outside of Vincennes, the Western Eagle, in Madison in 1813.)[3]

In 1835, Zebulon started a stage line from Leavenworth to the new state capitol in Indianapolis, a route intended primarily for students going to the new State College in Bloomington (later Indiana University) and for boatmen returning from downriver. Seth eventually became a trustee of Indiana University while serving in the state legislature. The brothers also located and opened many of the early roads linking Leavenworth to other important towns in pre-Civil War southern Indiana, including Paoli, Orleans, Bloomington, and Fredonia.[3]

In 1827, Seth Leavenworth pushed the state legislature to establish a rail link between his town and the new state capitol (only recently relocated to Indianapolis from nearby Corydon), believing that railroads were more efficient and desirable than canals (though trains at this time moved not much faster than barges.) Crawford County residents, however, espoused a common concern of the time: that trains would run over their livestock and kill their children.[citation needed] (This was a concern widespread throughout America and Europe during the decades that saw the coming of trains to agrarian economies [4] ). As a result of his support of railways, Seth Leavenworth lost the 1828 state congressional election.

Riverboat men returning from New Orleans were thought to be carriers of the yellow fever and cholera epidemics that often devastated the Ohio Valley frontier. Seth Leavenworth advocated the construction of a marine hospital for the purpose of quarantine and medical treatment, which he hoped to build somewhere near the town of Leavenworth. The bill he put before the Indiana legislature was never enacted.[3]

The Leavenworth brothers sought to improve the navigation of the Big Blue River and established a mill twenty miles upstream at a place called Milltown around 1830. They constructed three stores here, a carding mill, a grist mill, and a saw mill. When the J.B. Speed lime kilns came to Milltown in the 1880s, that town began to surpass Leavenworth in population.

In 1843, Leavenworth had become so important that it supplanted Fredonia as the county seat. Leavenworth remained the county seat until 1896, when the county records were stolen by a mob in a notorious armed “courthouse war" against the town of English.

Seth Leavenworth eventually left Indiana and moved to Missouri, where he died in 1854. His son Zebulon, named after the boy's uncle in Indiana, became a famous riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River and was a friend of Mark Twain before Twain became a writer. Together, they piloted the steamboat Nebraska past Memphis at the outbreak of the Civil War, receiving gunshots across their bow as a warning to halt.

[edit] The Fields Murder and Execution

On June 7, 1846, a Crawford County man named James Fields fell under the influence of alcohol. Straggling back to his cabin, he ordered his mother to make dinner for him. When she didn’t respond quickly enough, he picked up a gun and shot her in the leg. She died four days later. Fields was charged with first degree murder and taken to the county jail at Leavenworth. Although he pleaded not guilty, the murderer was condemned to hang.

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