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Port Commerce, Indiana

The Divine Architect of the Universe built a town site at the junction of White and Eel rivers. Owing to its advantageous situation it was named Point Commerce. It grew steadily and became the best town on White River. Stores were started, ferries established, shops were opened, saw-mills were located, boats were built and the pioneer village continued to thrive.

The first merchant was J. M. H. Allison, who settled there and opened a general store in 1835. Shortly afterward he was joined by his brother, J. F. Allison, who surveyed and named the village. In addition to a large general store the firm engaged extensively in the pork-packing business and in the purchase of the products of the farms, which they shipped to New Orleans. Sometimes the Allison. Brothers shipped twenty-five or thirty flatboat loads of pork, furs, lumber and grain to the southern market in one season.

They built a big pork-house on Eel River, near where it empties into White River. The farmers slaughtered their hogs and sold them, dressed, to the pork-packers. They also established a double ferry, where the rivers met.

Allison & Allison built a large hotel which was called the Junction House. It became a famous hotel among river men. There was an old saying: "The Junction House is good enough for Philadelphia." The old hotel was brought to Worthington in later years and now forms a part of the Commercial House.

J. M. H. Allison also erected a fine two-story brick house, which still stands and is now owned and occupied by Jasper Hutchinson. Mr. Allison was an adventurous speculator. It is said he sank a large fortune at Point Commerce.

In time more merchants came and other lines of business were established so that Point Commerce gave promise of becoming a great city. There were blacksmiths, wagon makers, tailors, tinners, a turning lathe, a cabinet maker, a tannery, a saloon (then called a "grocery"), a saw-mill, a grist-mill and finally a distillery and a powder mill.

Goods for the stores were bought in New York, shipped to Pittsburg, floated down to Louisville on flatboats and then hauled in wagons to Point Commerce.

Ferries were established. One ferry across White river was operated by Thomas Smith, about where the wagon bridge now spans that stream. Another ferry was started north of Point Commerce by Jonathan Osborn. Later, the village having become a thriving business center, a double ferry was started at the junction of the rivers. Another ferry was started across Eel River, where the wagon bridge now spans that stream.

Some years later a wagon bridge was built over Eel River, just above where the I. & V. railroad bridge is now located. The large rocks on the south bank of that stream formed a natural abutment for that end of the old wooden bridge. A wagon road ran along the ridge, now known as Hays' Heights, and descended to the bridge where the orchard of Herman Kautz is located.

In time a large brick Methodist church was built. Later it was razed and the brick used to build the residence now owned and occupied by Marcus Hays.

A two-story frame building was erected, the lower story being used as school room and the upper story as a Masonic Hall. Later this building was transferred to Worthington and used as a carpenter shop by Squire Riggs. It still stands, near the Water & Light Plant.

A grist-mill and saw-mill combined stood on the east bank of Eel River at the old "Indian ford." Later, a carding mill and subsequently a weaving department were added. Lumber was sawed, cloth was woven, flour, meal and feed were ground and shipped down the river to the southern market. That important industry was owned and operated, in later years, by Samuel Miller, father of F. N. Miller. There were two saw-mills on Eel River between the first wagon bridge and White River.

Later, another pork house was built on the east bank of Eel River, just above where the wagon bridge now spans the stream. It was established by E. H. Sabin who was a preacher as well as a pork-packer.

W. C. Andrews, father of W. C. Andrews, the hardware merchant, came in 1839 and opened a general store. Later, the firm became Andrews & Topping. In addition to conducting a large general store they did an extensive shipping business.

Among the pioneer business men and firms of Old Point Commerce were the following:

J. M. H. and J. F. Allison, general merchants
W. C. Andrews, general merchants
John Barekman, general merchants
Andrews & Toppings, general merchants
Mclntyre & Jaquis, general merchants
Joseph Miller, general merchants
William Bradshaw, cabinet maker
Wilson Helms, carpenter
T. Messick and J. Stanley, tailors
J. Barekeman, squir
John Beach and James Abbott, shoemakers
Sam and Alf Willy, blacksmiths
William Wooden, wagon make
Bob Leach, wood workman
Fount Gooley, harness and saddle-make
Isreal Car-roll, coffins and undertaking
Jesse Brazier, brewer and baker
Jesse Brazier, saloon
Sam Miller, saw-mill
Aaron Craigg, woolen mil
John Sanders, distillery
Jonathan Osborn, powder mill
William Bays, squire.

Mr. W. G. Sanders, of Point Commerce, whose grandparents were among the first settlers, recalled the names of merchants and other pioneers, besides many interesting events in the old flat-boat days, when Point Commerce was in her prime. Mr. Sanders remembers when his father had a distillery and made corn whisky, apple brandy and peach brandy.

Often he would haul a barrel of whisky to other points, in an ox-cart, and sell it at 12½ cents per gallon.

Mr. Sanders remembers Rev. Eli Farmer, pioneer circuit rider, who preached at Point Commerce. He was a great exhorter.

The first school house, which Mr. Sanders recalls was a small brick structure, which stood near where the residence of B. F. Hays is situated.

"In those days," said Mr. Sanders, "the people made the jeans and woolseys for their clothes which were all homemade. When I was a boy, drunkenness was much more common than it is now. The elections were then held in August. Several rough and tumble fist fights always occurred on every Election Day, as well as at all horse races or other public gatherings."

Before the first cabins were built by white men at Point Commerce, the last tepees of the red men had disappeared. But occasionally a roving band of Indians visited the place. They were peaceful and some of them could speak "broken" English. If on foot or on horseback, they traveled single file, and crossed Eel River at the old Indian ford. But more often they floated leisurely down the streams in canoes, stopping here and there to hunt and to barter with the whites.

In September, 1819, a band of redskins visited this region. They numbered 300, and belonged to a single tribe, probably the Piankeshaw. They were on horseback and passed along the old Indian trail and crossed Eel River at the old Indian ford, a fourth mile north of where the wagon bridge now spans this stream.

A few days later another band of Indians, numbering 200, floated down White river in bark canoes and camped at the mouth of Eel River. That was on Sunday, September 30, 1819.

The date of this last visit of the Indians is fixed by the fact that a wedding of a pioneer white couple occurred on that day. It was probably the first wedding solemnized in the old Point Commerce settlement. John Fires and Miss Martha Craig were married at noon that day by Alexander Craig, who had a grist-mill at the junction of White and Eel Rivers. The entire settlement had assembled to celebrate the first wedding.

Directly after the ceremony the wedding party was greatly surprised and terribly startled by the arrival of the big band of savages. Some feared a massacre. But the Indians were friendly.

The bride and groom and others of the wedding party walked down to the river to see the Indians. The chief was a young brave who only a few days previously had been married himself to a pretty Indian maiden of his own tribe. But on seeing the blushing young paleface bride, the chief was so pleased with her appearance that he offered to swap wives. The bride was very indignant at the Indian's presumption. She was but fifteen years old and quite comely. The audacity of the savage was further shown by the fact that he demanded a blanket and a bear skin to boot.

The next marriages which occurred in the Point Commerce settlement were the following:

Isaac Jackson and Elizabeth Griffith, by Rev. Hugh Barnes, August 9, 1821
David Smith and Mary Byson, by Squire Edmond Jean, October 25, 1821
Philip Silver and Sarah Lindley, by Squire John B. Kelshaw, January 10, 1822
John Fires and Patsy Craig, by Squire Edmond Jean, May 19, 1822
Eli Duncan and Rebecca Stevenson, by Squire William Clark, July, 1822
Peyton Owen and Rachel Griffith
Richard Wall and Mary Dyer
Herbert Sanders and Jessie Jessup
Samuel Dyer and Celia Arney
Aquilla Walker and Elizabeth Dyer
William Foley and Jane Osborn
Ira Danley and Olive Jessup
Joseph Smith and Sallie Jessup
William Huey and Sally Stanley
John Stanley and Mary Ball
Abram Shoemaker and Maria Morris
Obediah Winters and Hanna Duncan
Thomas Huey and Vasta Steward
Joshua Duncan and Maria Shoemaker
William Smith and Mary McKee

Before any churches or "meeting houses" were built, services were held in the cabins, by the circuit riders who rode from place to place on horseback. The services were always well attended and the pioneers were, as a class, religious. The singing was congregational and the hymns were lined-off by the preacher and then sung by the people, often with more force than melody. These services gave the settlers an opportunity to meet and greet each other, which they did in cordial manner. Good old fashioned "handshakes"' always followed the meetings in which the exhorters often stirred their hearers into shouting. The religion of that day was more demonstrative than that of the present.

Spelling schools were another meeting place for the people, and proved both beneficial and enjoyable.

The first saw-mills were very primitive, slow and laborious. The log had to be elevated. Then two men, with what is usually called a whip saw, cut it into boards. One sawyer stood on the log and the other under it. The lower position was disagreeable, on account of the sawdust falling into the sawyer's eyes, when he looked up to see his work, which was, of course, necessary.

For a time the nearest grist-mill was at Vincennes, and the settlers had to go there to have their corn and wheat ground. But later horse-mills and water-mills were built.

Land was cheap in those days and could be bought for from fifty cents to $2.50 per acre. What was known as "congress" land was valued at $1.25 per acre. The swamp lands could not then have been given away. By drainage it has become the most valuable now.

Wages were low. Farm hands were paid $5.00 and $6.00 per month. They worked hard and long.

The first settlement, for many years, was the best and always remained a model of thrift and enterprise. And when a town was later established there, it led all others in its progress and its advancement, in commercial activity, in education, in religion and in cleanliness. The place was often called "White Town," a name in which the inhabitants were justly complimented. The houses and other buildings and fences were kept neatly dressed in white-wash. To the voyagers, ascending or descending the rivers, to the "movers," ever passing, the little town of gleaming white on the hill, surrounded by the forest of green, was like a beckoning invitation to a haven of rest and comfort.

In this the village patterned after the town of Vincennes, where the mud houses of the pioneer French settlers were kept in spotless white, at all seasons, by a plentiful use of white-wash, made from lime, formed by burning mussel shells. The French women were models of cleanliness, neatness and industry, although so much can hardly be claimed for their husbands, many of whom were prone to idleness and inebriacy, caring more for fiddles and whisky than they did for wealth and education.

But this was not true of the men in the "White Town" community. They worked and developed the country; established ferries and bridges, mills and stores, schools and churches, more rapidly than their French "neighbors" had done at the "Old Post," on the Wabash.

The first grist-mills established in the Old Point Commerce settlement were operated by hand and were very primitive. Their product was a coarse "unbolted" meal. Then horse-power mills were started. Subsequently water mills were built. To secure power, dams were built across the streams.

It is claimed that Alexander Craig built and operated the first mill at Point Commerce. Then Thomas Clark started a "tub" mill on Clark's creek.

Later the Junction water mill was established by Daniel and Peter Ingersoll, at the Rock Ford, on Eel River. It became an important enterprise. People came there with their grists, for many miles around, often remaining two or three days, waiting their turns, fishing meanwhile in the mill-race.

Above its junction with Eel River, the "White River Mills" were established and a dam built, on the latter stream, and operated by Green Tally, Amos Owen and Ira Danley, successively, on the Haxton farm. A part of the old dam remains.

Game was so plentiful that the pioneers procured their meat with their rifles. Bears and deer were so often killed that their skins became a staple product of the land. Fur-bearing animals were so numerous that trapping was a profitable enterprise in the winter season. There being little money, skins and furs became a commodity of such regular barter that they were almost a "legal tender."

Owing to the ever-shifting habits of men who, even in that day, were moving westward, the travel overland was wonderful. And, as all merchandise was hauled overland, an almost constant stream of wagons were coming and going, when the roads were passable. Four and six-horse teams were the rule. The ferries as a result were busy all the day. Besides, the taverns along the "big roads" or principal thoroughfares were located at intervals and did a profit-able business. Owing to the frequent attempts at extortions, the rates were finally fixed by law.

Near Point Commerce is located the famous "Devil's Tea Table," an interesting geological formation, which has been called the "Plymouth Rock of Point Commerce." It is nearly one hundred feet high, and by its elevation and its location near White river, it forms a natural "lookout" and was so used by the Indians and by the pioneer whites. It is covered with the names of its visitors, carved upon its surface. Some were carved there nearly a century ago.

It is believed that this ancient landmark was used by the Mound Builders as a sacrificial altar.

Just below it, nearer the river, is the "Devil's Chair," a stone formation resembling an immense seat with a back, which has also attracted the attention of the sightseers.

In those earlier days there was no mail service. Mail routes were not established until about seventy-five years ago. There was a route from Point Commerce to Washington, which brought and received mail weekly. The postage on a letter was twenty-five cents, and was usually paid by the receiver. This was called "lifting" a letter. No envelopes were used. The letters were folded and sealed with wax.

From the first the settlers in Old Eel River Township showed an interest in the cause of education and maintained the best schools of the county.

The first school in what was Old Eel River Township was organized in 1821. It was taught by George Baber in a little log house which stood near the home of Caleb Jessup.

The pioneer teachers, in the order named, were: Henry Sargent, Ephraim Owen, Luke Philbert, William Bray, Joseph Saddle and Amos Roark. Each taught a subscription school for a short term in winter.

Later a school house was built. It stood near the home of Mr. Jessup. Then another school house was erected near the home of Mr. Sanders. In these, successful schools were taught.

Mr. Fletcher Griffith recalls the names of the following teachers in that community: Rev. Simpson, Carlos Kelsey, Fred Spooner, William Leach, Robert Taylor, Sam Kelshaw, John Curry, William Glover and John Buck.

In 1830 there were five school houses in Jefferson and Eel River townships. The schools grew in number and the course of study was improved year by year.

Finally the famous Point Commerce Academy was founded in 1869 by Prof. E. E. Henry and Rev. John Laverty, both of whom were able educators. Students came from the surrounding country and from distant towns. The higher branches were taught. Its course of study was similar to the modern high school.

For a few years Point Commerce Academy flourished. Then Prof. Henry accepted a position elsewhere and the school finally closed. Mr. Laverty later was a clerk in Dr. Squire's drug store in Worthington. The history of Point Commerce would be incomplete without a sketch of James M. H. Allison. He and his brother, John F. Allison, came from Spencer to Point Commerce in the fall of 1836, and opened a store. They bought land and laid off a town and named it Point Commerce.

In the following summer J. M. H. Allison erected the famous old Junction House, which stood on the corner on the east side of the street about where the little frame school house is now situated. His brother-in-law, Dr. David Shepherd, was the first landlord of the hotel. It was of frame, two stories and was a substantial building. The lumber was sawed by Mr. Allison at Spencer and floated down White River. The old hotel was brought to Worthington in 1880, by Tip Osborn, who started a hotel here.

A year later, in 1838, Mr. Allison brought his family to Point Commerce. They first occupied a frame cottage, which stood just east of the hotel, then moved into another home. Later, they lived in the hotel, until 1844, when Mr. Allison erected the two-story brick residence overlooking the beautiful prospect where the two rivers meet. The house still stands and is occupied by Jasper Hutchinson.

Jas. M. H. Allison was of British ancestry. He was born at Elizabethtown, Maryland, September 11, 1802. He was a large, portly man, weighing over 200 pounds, an ardent Whig, a faithful Methodist and a man of wonderful enterprise and generosity.

Mr. Allison was married twice. His first wife was Julia Ann Payne, who died childless, eighteen months after their marriage. In 1828, Mr. Allison married Julia Ann Applegate, daughter of a wealthy tobacco dealer of Louisville, Kentucky. To them were born thirteen children, two of whom survive, viz.: Squire Geo. F. Allison of this town and Dr. David E. Allison, dentist, of St. Paul, Minnesota. Mr. Allison died at Indianapolis, in 1877.

The firm of Allison & Allison did an extensive business as general merchants, pork-packers and dealers in produce, which they shipped down the river to New Orleans. Frequently they would have $40,000 worth of pork and produce in their warehouse and pork house, waiting for the river to reach boating stage. In addition of this the Allisons owned several hundred acres of land. Their possessions included that part of what is now Worthington north of Union Street, and extending northward to Johnstown; also west of what is now Worthington.

James M. H. Allison, the principal owner of the business and real estate, possessed large means and had great wealth at his command; but his generosity helped bring on a financial crash, which occurred in 1852.

His son, 'Squire George F. Allison, to whom we are indebted for much of the data in this chapter, says:

"My father was the principal contributor in building the first school house and the first Methodist church at Point Commerce. Without his aid neither would have been built. When any money was needed for church purposes, school expenses, or for some public enterprise, J. M. H. Allison always headed the list of subscribers and made up the balance, after the subscriptions of other citizens had been received. Usually the largest portion of the whole amount was left for father to pay. He paid the preachers and the teachers, the most of what they received. Many times my lather paid the taxes for his neighbors and then waited until they brought him their produce. Some of them never paid him. He was too generous for his own good. He donated to everything and assisted his friends in the hour of need. Then, when he lay sick and all thought he was on his death-bed, in the summer of 1852, some men whom he had befriended sent out false and misleading reports about him, which damaged his credit and brought on his financial ruin."

"I remember when my father chartered the steamboat 'J. B. Porter' at New Orleans, and loaded it with goods for his store at Point Commerce.

"In the spring of 1841 father loaded twenty-one flatboats with pork and other produce and shipped them to New Orleans. Two of the boats sank and their cargoes were lost, before reaching their destination."

'Squire Allison recalls the names of the old flatboat pilots: Anderson Harvey, James Harvey, Ky Gooden, Tom Archer, Joseph Osborn and William Kesterson.

Much of the hauling was then done in wagons, from Vincennes and from Louisville to Point Commerce. Mr. Allison recalls the names of the old wagoners, who used to drive four and six horse teams: Robert Fulton, Howard Crantz, James Buckner, Adam Stroops, Jonathan Peyton, Jerry Buckner, Samuel Chaney, George Rhinehard and Joseph Huey. He also remembers the names of some of the men who used to clerk in his father's store: Robert Howe, John Barekman, John Farmer. 'Squire Andrews and his uncle, John F. Allison.

The names of the preachers, which 'Squire Allison recalls, are as follows: Revs. Eli P. Farmer, John Williams, Abediah Winters, James Lathrop, William Mayson, W. F. Harned, ______ Ravenscoff, Sabin and John Hancock.

He remembers, likewise, when the street which passed in front of the hotel and his father's store, ran down to the wharf at the rivers' junction. Hundreds of heavily loaded wagons, drawn by four and six horse teams, were pulled up that steep incline every season. When he was a boy Point Commerce was a good business town. It was a busy place and there was bustle and action everywhere. Pork houses, grist-mills, cotton gins, carding mills, saw-mills, tannery, distillery, ferries, shops, stores, "coffee house," and all other pioneer enterprises were active. All expected that Point Commerce would one day become a great city. Its founder, J. M. H. Allison, had proudly spoken of it as the "Pittsburg of the West."

'Squire Allison remembers the times when other crowds assembled besides those who met for worship. He remembers when the voters came from the surrounding country to vote on election days and on Muster day. The spring, or local elections, were held in April, and the county elections in August.

The use of liquor was more general in early days than it is now. The records show that when public officials met to transact business that whisky bills were put into their expense accounts and allowed as necessities.

But whisky, then as now, was a great curse and finally the better class of people began to oppose its use and to stop drunkenness, which was alarmingly common. Every public gathering was annoyed by whisky-crazed men and often the meeting was broken up and ended in a drunken riot.

Finally a lodge of Washingtonians, a strong pioneer temperance society, was organized at Old Point Commerce. The members used to sing:

"The shouts of Washingtonians, are heard on every gale, they're chanting now their victory O'er whiskey, beer and ale."'

Yet another member of that family, who was a man of influence at Point Commerce and surrounding territory, was John F. Allison, a younger brother of J. M. H. Allison.

John F. Allison was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, July 10, 1814. His father was a man of wealth and the owner of many slaves, which he had inherited, but he did not believe that one man had a right to own another. Consequently he liberated his slaves; yet as Mr. Allison had been a humane master, some of his Negroes declined their proffered freedom and remained in the service of their former owner.

John F. Allison was the youngest of three brothers. Both of the older brothers were engaged in the mercantile business, Noah at Spencer and James, with whom the subject of this sketch was associated, at Point Commerce, where they had opened the first store on the 17th day of November, 1835.

Being a man of education and an experienced civil engineer, John F. Allison surveyed and laid off the town of Point Commerce and took an active part in its affairs. No other man had a wider acquaintance throughout this region than the younger member of the firm of Allison & Allison, of Point Commerce. He had the especial charge of the outdoor branch of their business, made frequent trips to New Orleans and occasionally journeyed to Louisville and to Pittsburg, besides covering, on horseback, by stage and by boat, the surrounding territory, which broadened his acquaintance until he was the best-known and most popular man in this region during his day.

Hon. John F. Allison was an ardent Whig. He served three terms in the State Legislature, two as Representative and one as Senator. He was first elected to the House of Representatives from Greene County, in 1839. Two years later he was offered the nomination to a seat in the State Senate, but declined and was soon afterward re-nominated and elected to a second term as Representative.

In 1844, Mr. Allison was elected Senator from the district composed of Greene and Owen counties.

John F. Allison was an orator and recognized as the best political speaker in this section of the State. In 1840 he stumped the State for William Henry Harrison and participated in the great political debates of his day, and was the relentless foe of slavery. His oratorical ability and his strenuous activity made Mr. Allison a leader in both House and Senate. He fought, with characteristic vigor, for the repeal of the law which allowed the imprisonment of men for debt. While in the State Senate he was one of the lead-ing advocates of the great compromise measure, known as the Butler Bill, which became a law and saved the State from bankruptcy.

But John F. Allison did not confine himself to political and commercial affairs alone. He was a leader in every public enterprise and made tremendous sacrifices of time and money, for the good of the community, and for internal improvements. He advocated the first railroad project, the great "Air Line," to which he gave twelve hundred acres of land, then valued at $8,000. It would now be worth $80,000.

Mr. Allison was also active in the first effort to build a railroad from Indianapolis to Vincennes. He served one year, without pay, as secretary of the board of directors, besides making a cash donation of $1,000. Later he assisted in promoting the I. & V. railroad, which was built in 1869 and donated $1,000 to the enterprise.

Johnstown, which was a place of considerable business in the old canal days, was named after John F. Allison. He opened the first store there. Mr. Allison died in 1885, at Indianapolis.

'Squire George F. Allison recalls the names of the teachers who taught at Point Commerce, in the little old brick school house, which stood north of the big brick church. They were: James Freeman, Miss Rowel, Thomas Rowark, Henry Grim, Mary Taylor, Ann Ritter, Hiram Hanshot and William Leach.


Source: Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. XII March, 1916 No. 1, Settlement of Worthington and Old Point Commerce, by Robert Weems, 1916

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