Historic Mythbusters: Though often Untrue, Myths have their Place

I tell people that my job as a historian is to prove myths or shoot them down. I want things to be fact-based and there are a lot of bad or ridiculous myths out there. However, occasionally a myth will come in handy to help prove a point. Myths can have a value in creating an identity (branding, if you will).

With the Indiana Bicentennial going on, there are a lot of myths being discussed, most notably the myth of the source of the nickname “Hoosier”. Right now, the best guess by most historians is that it probably was the name of an early minister in the area. Nevertheless, you still hear the story of someone knocking at a cabin door and having the occupant say “Who’s there?” (There is a livelier version from the rough towns along Ohio River, in which a tavern keeper is cleaning up after fight and asks “Who’s ear?”)

Allisonville Road Tunnels

I’ve had to deal with many Hamilton County myths over the years, some of which are quite well known. For example, there is the story about Josiah Polk naming the town of Noblesville for his sweetheart, Lavina Noble, and how she broke the engagement after she saw his garden in which had her name spelled out in vegetables. (Paula Dunn has done quite a bit of research on this in the Noblesville Daily Times.) Of course, the most likely explanation is that the town was named for Senator James Noble. Then there is the myth about the Germantown church steeple that can be supposedly be seen when Geist Reservoir gets low. As I explained in an earlier article, (“Fall Creek Atlantis”, HCBM, Feb.-Mar., 2012), Germantown never had a church.

 

Other Hamilton County myths include the tunnels that run under Allisonville Road which were allegedly used for the Underground Railroad. These tunnels do exist, but are connected to houses that were built decades after the Civil War and the end of the Underground Railroad. In reality, the tunnels were possibly built as a form of ventilation or even for bootleggers in the 1920’s. Finally, there is the myth of Chief Straw or Strawbridge for whom it’s claimed that Strawtown was named. He even has a monument that was built in his honor in the 1920’s. Unfortunately, there are no Native Americans by that name in the early records of the area. The name doesn’t appear in any documents until the 1880’s – sixty years after the Delaware Indians had left.

The Strawtown Story

As I said though, occasionally myths do serve a purpose. The one that I’m thinking of in particular is the myth that Strawtown just missed out on being the state capitol by one vote and that the vote was missed because the committee member was out fishing. It’s a cute story, but completely untrue. There are very good records from the commission that was created in 1820 and which met at William Conner’s cabin to decide the site of the capitol. Strawtown may have been discussed, but it was not central enough and it was too rough a town.

This myth is actually useful to me in explaining that Strawtown was a significant community in early central Indiana history. When people ask about this, it’s an opportunity to discuss why the myth would have grown up in the first place. It helps to make the “sale” that a now-obscure little town was once a crucial crossroads and an important jumping-off point for travelers. Strawtown was a thriving community when Indianapolis was just a word. I’ve covered this before, (“Strawtown: the Times Square of pioneer Hamilton County”, HCBM, Feb.-Mar., 2009). Being at the intersection of the Lafayette Trace and the road to Kekionga (Fort Wayne) meant that the town saw a huge amount of traffic for the very early 19th-century time period.

So, while myths are problematic to historians, the roots of a myth may be helpful. I try to never dismiss anyone who brings a myth to me. I do what I can to point them towards the facts, but I make sure to acknowledge that there is probably a reason why the myth exists. People may be misinterpreting the past, but at least they are misinterpreting it in the right direction. The fact that people are exploring their history is valuable in and of itself.

by David Heighway