By Chris McHenry
Hundreds of years before white settlers approached Dearborn County, a
mysterious group of Native Americans lived here, in a hilltop fortress.
No one knows exactly who these people were, or why they disappeared long before
the Indian tribes with which we are familiar arrived in the Ohio Valley.
Early settlers describe the fortress as having been enclosed in a wall at least
eight feet high, with a stone plaza in the middle, and with a rounded tower at
one corner. The only entrances were through the tower, allowing for efficient
defense in case of attack. The whole thing covered about 12 acres of land.
Recently, archaeologists have found exciting evidence of an even older culture
who lived along what is now Ridge Avenue in Greendale.
Long after these intriguing first residents disappeared, the more familiar
Miami, Delaware, Shawnee and other mid western tribes traveled back and forth
through Dearborn on their way to the hunting grounds in Kentucky.
Early explorers sailed past on the Ohio River, including Celeron, a French
Canadian who reportedly buried a lead plate claiming the land for France near
the mouth of the Miami River.
George Rogers Clark and explorers from Virginia and Pennsylvania passed by on
their way up or down the Ohio River, but none made permanent settlements.
In August of 1781, on their way to present day Louisville, Kentucky to join
George Rogers Clark, Col. Archibald Lochry, with 104 Pennsylvania militiamen,
were attacked by a smaller group of Indians led by Chief Joseph Brant near the
mouth of present day Laughery Creek. The Americans were low on ammunition and
were totally defeated. Many were killed, including Col. Lochry, and the rest
carried into captivity. A monument to their bravery at Riverview Cemetery
overlooks the battle site.
Less than ten years after the end of the Revolutionary War, new settlers began
taking up land in Dearborn. They were squatters, that is, they did not own their
land, since the Federal government did not begin land sales until after 1800.
When the land was put on sale, some families, like the Hayes, Guards and
Millers, were able to purchase their farms. Others, like the Morrisons, were not
so lucky and lost everything. Among those first settlers were at least 50 to 75
veterans of the Revolutionary War, following the American dream of finding a
better future for their families.
Those first settlers faced Indian hostilities, and had to produce with their own
labor nearly everything they needed to stay alive. They cleared the forests, one
tree at a time, lived at times in huge hollow trees, hunted for their food and
then made their clothing from the skins of the same animals.
In 1802 Army Captain Samuel Colville Vance bought the land on which Lawrenceburg
now stands and founded a town named for his wife’s maiden name. At that point,
Lawrenceburg wasn’t even in Indiana, but was part of Hamilton County, Ohio.
Vance undoubtedly took advantage of his friendship with William Henry Harrison,
also a retired soldier, to get Dearborn County set off as soon as it became part
of Indiana. Harrison also named Lawrenceburg the new county seat, even though at
that time the county stretched all the way to present day Wayne County.
Settlers began pouring into Dearborn, first building their homes near the river,
and then gradually working their way up the Whitewater, Tanners Creek, Hogan
Creek and Laughery.
Six hundred and 16 men over 21 were counted in 1807, but a few years later,
families began fleeing to Kentucky when Indians joined with the British in the
War of 1812.
Three companies of militia were raised in Dearborn, and were put to use
patrolling the frontiers. Blockhouses for the protection of settlers were built
in several locations.
James Dill of Lawrenceburg, was appointed General by Governor Harrison, although
his troops never saw actual battle conditions.
The end of the war and the threat of violence brought a flood of new settlers.
More communities were founded: Edinburgh, now part of Lawrenceburg known as
Newtown, was established in 1809; Hardentown was laid out in 1815, and Aurora in
1819. Present day Ohio County was then part of Dearborn, and Rising Sun had been
founded in 1814.
People had begun arriving from other countries, as well as New England other
eastern states and Kentucky, to buy the low cost government land available to
Schools and churches and stores (as well as distilleries) began to operate and
Dearborn County farm products were shipped by flatboat to the south.
By 1830, the population of Dearborn County was 14,573, and it was the second
biggest county in the state.
No longer a frontier outpost, Dearborn County was a thriving center of
agriculture and business.
With the arrival of the 1830s and 1840s came several waves of German immigrants.
In the main, Catholic immigrants tended to settle in the northeastern part of
the county, and in Lawrenceburg and Aurora, while Lutherans gravitated toward
the southwestern part of the area, along with the two biggest towns.
While these thrifty farm families were adding their successes to those of
earlier residents, a dark cloud began growing over the United Sates, and its
effects were felt in Dearborn County.
By the 1830, opposition to slavery was increasing throughout the northern United
States, and anti-slavery societies were being formed.
One of the earliest in Indiana was at East Fork Methodist Church, founded, and
mostly attended, by hardy English immigrants who believed in supporting their
beliefs with action.
Like-minded residents soon joined them in Lawrenceburg, Aurora, Manchester and
Because of its location right across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave
state, Dearborn County was logical place for escaping slaves to find help on
their way to Canada.
The white residents who helped to operate this Underground Railroad were joined
in Lawrenceburg by Elijah Anderson, a light skinned African-American blacksmith.
Legend has it that he would wait until the coast was clear and then beat out a
signal on his anvil to tell escaping slaves waiting on the Kentucky side that it
was safe to come to Lawrenceburg.
He would then help to hide them and move them along to the next station on the
It is estimated that he helped as many as 1000 people escape from slavery before
he fled to Ohio.
There he was arrested for violating the Fugitive Slave Law and died under
suspicious circumstances in a Kentucky jail.
In Aurora, the Underground Railroad was led by the Wymond family from England,
who hid the escapees in a secret room of their house, the former Dearborn
From there they were transported to the Manchester and Guilford area, where
members of the Hansell, Collier, Platt and Ewbank families provided further
As the drumbeat of opposition to slavery grew louder, it became inevitable that
the controversy could not be settled peaceably, and in 1862, southern forces
fired on Fort Sumter, setting off one of the country’s bloodiest wars.
In Dearborn County, young men rushed to volunteer. So many of them in fact, that
one whole company led by Aurora Mayor Frederick Slater, arrived in Indianapolis
after the quota for that call had been filled. Not one to waste manpower,
governor Morton sent them to help fill out the Kentucky ranks, and they served
throughout the entire Civil War as part of the 11th Kentucky Regiment.
Dearborn County men, both black and white, fought in every major battle of the
war, including those along the rivers, where many local men worked on the
riverboats and other naval craft.
Dozens lost their lives and hundreds more were inured or contracted serious
Then, in the summer of 1863, the war came to Dearborn County.
John Hunt Morgan led his Confederate troops across the Ohio River near Corydon
and began a march toward Ohio, stealing horses, cutting telegraph lines,
destroying bridges, and terrorizing residents as they went.
By the time they reached northern Dearborn County, they were hotly pursued by
Federal troops who were encamped at Sunman. In mid July, Morgan and his men were
in full flight as they galloped through Dearborn County on what is now North
Dearborn Road, pausing only long enough to burn the bridge across the Whitewater
River as they entered Ohio.
They were later captured in Ohio.
For years afterward, aging residents told stories to their wide-eyed
grandchildren about how they had been forced to bake biscuits or provide
directions to Morgan and his men, and farmers throughout the county were paid
reparations for the livestock and horses they lost.
The raid also created a new name for a little settlement in Caesar Creek
Township called Opptown. Although it turned out that Morgan never came near the
place, farmers in the area took their horses to the woods around the town, for
safekeeping. To this day, the community is known as Farmers Retreat.
By the end of the Civil War, no less than eight men with ties to Lawrenceburg
and Dearborn County had achieved the rank of General.
Don Carlos Buell, the only one to attend West Point, grew up in the home of an
uncle in Lawrenceburg.
George Buell was Don Carlos’ cousin, and was credited with inventing and
constructing pontoon bridges, which made it possible for Union troops to travel
quickly through the South, even after permanent bridges had been destroyed.
Ebenezer Dumont, born in Vevay, lived as a young man in Lawrenceburg and served
as county treasurer in addition to maintaining a law practice.
James H. Lane, also known as the Liberator of Kansas, was the son of early
settler Amos Lane, and served in Congress. He moved to Kansas where he began
fighting to do away with slavery, and then served in the Civil War.
Thomas J. Lucas, the son of an officer in Napoleon’s Army, ran a jewelry and
watch business in Lawrenceburg before entering the service. He later served as
Postmaster in Lawrenceburg.
John C. McQuiston, born in Madison, Indiana, lived in Lawrenceburg during his
teens and early twenties, before joining the new railroads under construction in
the 1850s. He later moved to Greensburg.
Benjamin Spooner was a member of a prominent Lawrenceburg family. He lost an arm
at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain while riding in front of his troops urging
them to continue fighting.
John Thomas Wilder is associated more with Greensburg than Lawrenceburg but he
did live here for several years prior to the war.
For a small Indiana town, having a total of eight generals is a record to be
During the last part of the 19th Century, Dearborn County became more than just
a collection of small hardscrabble farms.
Pork packing and shipping became a big industry for Lawrenceburg, and there were
furniture factories, woolen mills, and of course, distilleries. Even tiny New
Alsace had its own breweries. For about ten years, Lawrenceburg produced more
cigars than anyplace west of the Alleghenies.
In the 1830's, the Whitewater Canal had been built, opening up the interior of
Indiana to the possibility of shipping to Lawrenceburg and then on the Ohio
River. Its usefulness was short lived. Spring floods washed out the banks over
and over and eventually the Canal, and almost the State of Indiana, went bust.
In the 1850's, not one but two railroads were built through Dearborn County. One
went from Lawrenceburg northwest through Guilford to Indianapolis, and the other
came west from Cincinnati, through Aurora, and then through Milan and on to St.
In 1854, an enterprising resident of Moores Hill proposed that a real college be
established in the town. He found ready backing and soon Moores Hill College was
producing generations of ministers, teachers, doctors and other well-schooled
professionals. It also produced some fiery supporters of women's suffrage, most
notably Florence Burlingame Adkinson, an 1867 gradualte who edited magazines and
was known through the United States for her spirited defense of the rights of
Moores Hill College was already suffering from financial problems when its main
building burned to the ground in 1917. The institution never recovered, and the
college was moved to Evansville, where it was renamed Evansville College, now
the University of Evansville.
Dearborn County's young men marched off to battle in the Spanish-American War
and again in World War I.
Industry was flourishing, and the distilleries offered well-paid jobs, until
Prohibition took effect in 1920. Production came to a halt, and hundreds of men
were without jobs. Not only did it affect those who worked in the distilleries,
but also the coopers who supplied barrels and the farmers who sold their grain
to the whiskey makers, even the railroads that transported the finished product.
Families who lived on farms told of relatives from town who managed to exist
mainly because they could get free vegetables, eggs and meat from their country
It was with great relief that residents heard of the end of prohibition and the
silent distilleries re-opened for business. Because of this, Dearborn was
prosperous during the 1930's when much of the country was suffering under the
Great Depression, but ominous clouds were gathering over Europe and by 1940
young men from Dearborn were once again preparing for battle.
Thousands of young men and women served from Dearborn County, and more than 60
gave their lives for their country.
Aurora native Elmer Davis was named to head up the Office of War Information. He
was a highly respected newscaster.
When the survivors came marching home again, they found a booming economy. New
industries arrived, a new power plant was built, and Dearborn County finally got
together to build a hospital in the 1950's.
War once again loomed on the horizon, as the United States became a "Police
Action" in Korea.
A few years later, Dearborn County was once again called on to send her young
men and women, this tome to Vietnam. Eleven of them died.
School reorganization eliminated forever the rivalries that once existed among
the county's six high schools. When it was all over, there were only three: East
Central, Lawrenceburg, and South Dearborn.
Prompted in part by the construction of I-74 and I-275, residents of Hamilton
County, Ohio began discovering the beautiful hills of Dearborn and soon were
moving here by the thousands, changing the political landscape and bringing
about huge growth to the Sunman-Dearborn School District.
And in the 1990's after a hard fought battle at the polls, Argosy Casino located
at Lawrenceburg, offering more than a thousand new jobs, and attracting new
hotels and other businesses. Argosy also added millions of dollars to the city
and county governments.
Today our young people are once again engaged in a fight for freedom, and
Dearborn County is looking toward a bright future of growth combined with an
appreciation and preservation of our 200-year-old historic heritage.