Traders Point and “the most famous man in America”: Henry Ward Beecher

view of elder farm from church school site

Many know that the first pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, Henry Ward Beecher, would go on to influence Abraham Lincoln and gain world re-known fame as a leader in the temperance movement.   Son of famed theologian Lyman Beecher, Henry was also the brother of Uncle Tom’ Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe.   Beecher and his wife were, interestingly,  the first passengers on the first train out of Indianapolis.  He would later see his reputation disgraced by a scandal when he was caught in a love triangle with his best friend’s wife in the late 1800s.   But we have recently discovered that “the most famous man in America” was known to have preached before the Civil War in a long-forgotten church situated on the knoll at the corner of Moore and Lafayette Roads in Traders Point.   This church predated the establishment of the village .

In the following story we will link his past with our neighborhood, thanks to the work of Marion County historian Berry Sulgrove and a map of the area from the 1800s.

Cows graze atop this triangular knoll today.   It’s a wedge-shaped parcel created by Lafayette Road on one side and Moore Road on the other.  By the late 1800s the Tolbert Moore Free Gravel Road was the preferred route from Traders Point to Zionsville.   Even today this winding cow path of a shoulder-less road is a popular scenic route.

So it is hard to imagine a time when a church and later a two-room brick schoolhouse stood here*.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)was once called the most famous man in America.   He preached in a church on this infamous pasture long before there was a school here and at least a decade before the creation of Traders Point, Indiana in 1855.  In 1884 Berry R. Sulgrove authored a comprehensive and well-respected history of Indianapolis and Marion County.   His account of Prospect Presbyterian Church where Beecher preached in Pike Township omitted its exact location.  A recent discovery of an 1855 map of the area included the words “Prospect Pr. Ch.” near this intersection.    All we know about Prospect Presbyterian Church is from Sulgrove:

Prospect Presbyterian Church was organized
about 1835, at Burns’ school-house, by the families of
Thomas Burns, Thomas McMannis, James Moore,
James Duncan, John Duncan, Joseph Patten, and
some others. In a few years after the organization
they built a house for worship on the northwest corner
of James Duncan’s land (where the Rural Academy
now stands), and the first preacher who occupied the
pulpit there was the Rev. Stewart, who continued to
preach for this church for a number of years. After
him the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (the noted Brook-
lyn divine) preached here, and he was followed by the
Rev. Reed, who preached for the church for a number
of years, and the Rev. Long, who was the last minister
of this church. As some of its leading members had
moved to the West, and others had died, the house
was sold for a school-house, and is now known as Rural

Who was Henry Ward Beecher and why was he once called the most famous man in America? In a review of Debbie Applegate’s biography on Beecher: The Most Famous Man in America, : “Now nearly forgotten, Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) was an immensely famous minister, abolitionist and public intellectual whose career was rocked by allegations of adultery that made nationwide headlines. In this engaging biography, American studies scholar Applegate situates this curiously modern 19th-century figure at the focus of epochal developments in American culture. Beecher’s mesmerizing oratory and fiery newspaper columns made him one of the first celebrities of the nascent mass media. His antislavery politics, though often tepid and vacillating, Applegate argues, injected a note of emotionalism into the debate that—with his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—galvanized Northern public opinion.”

Before Beecher was famous, and long before his fame was marred by scandal, he preached in Indianapolis for eight years.

Beecher, who was to become the subject of Thomas Nast cartoons and the idol of the thousands who each Sunday crowded into churches to hear his spell-binding preaching, first came west from New England to study at a seminary in Cincinnati and preach in Lawrenceburg, Ind. That’s where the Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis discovered him and invited him to the big city, which Lyman Abbott in Henry Ward Beecher: A Sketch of His Career, said was then a town of fewer than 4,000 souls where dog fennel grew wild and pigs ran wild through the streets.

That was May of 1839 and Beecher accepted the call. Beecher brought with him his wife and two sons. His wife Eunice Beecher, according to Claudene Atkinson’s account in the November 1980 edition of Indianapolis Magazine, enjoyed poor health.

Said Atkinson: As [had been the case] in Lawrenceburg, Eunice became the object of some discussion by locals. She was known as the boyish Beecher’s ‘ailing and wailing wife,’ and no one believed it for a minute when, eight years later, the family accepted the call to Brooklyn because of Eunice’s `illness.’

Yes, Beecher was in Indianapolis only eight years, but those were important ones for him, and for journalism.

Hungering both for a wider audience and for a way to help feed his family, Henry Ward Beecher founded the Indiana Farmer and Gardener, a semimonthly journal devoted to farm life. The financial backing for the periodical came from the Whig newspaper, the Indiana State Journal, and Beecher was given permission to reprint as much of the contents of the Journal as he wished. He advised his backers he would do so only insofar as he was allowed to identify the source of the materials, for he detested and often spoke about the prevailing practice of plagiarism.

Beecher did his writing and editing early in the morning, before breakfast.

According to Jane Shaffer Elsmere in Henry Ward Beecher, the Indiana Years, Beecher’s wife had long ago taught him the habit of rising early. As a result, Beecher said, “most of my work on the paper is done before my neighbors are up in the morning. His work included mostly information about gardening and farming, but Beecher never passed a chance to preach. In one passage quoted by Abbott, he told farmers it was very shiftless to build your barnyard so that every rain shall drain it; to build your privy and dig your well close together…

After spending eight years in Indianapolis, Beecher had developed a reputation for his skill as a speaker. In his sermons he vehemently attacked drinking and slavery. He also called for more political and legal rights for women. As the North and South grew further apart during the 1850s, some ministers condoned violence to settle the differences between the two regions. Following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, he sent rifles to anti-slavery forces participating in “Bleeding Kansas.” These guns became known as “Beecher’s bibles” because they arrived in Kansas in crates marked “bibles.” During the American Civil War, Beecher’s church equipped an entire regiment of Union soldiers. The entire Beecher family opposed slavery. Beecher’s sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe. She was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“And on the day (in 1847) when the railroad came at last to Indiana’s capital, bringing with it prosperity and fortune to those who had held on through so many years of hardship and patient faith, Henry Ward Beecher left, . . . the first passenger out of Indianapolis on the new railroad.”  (from Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait” by Paxton Hibben and Sinclair Lewis.)

Eighteen years later, in 1865, Traders Point, Indiana, was platted in the valley of Eagle Creek, a short mile from the church where Beecher had preached atop Lafayette and Moore Roads.

*The Rural Academy, or School # 12 as it was called by the Pike Township authorities, was a two-room school house where area farmers sent their children from the 1850s to the early 1900s.   A neighbor told the writer many years ago that the school’s water well pipe, with its handle still attached, was a familiar site to motorists long after the school had come down.    Evidently the highway department had removed part of the crown on this hill where the two roads came together.   Highway 52 (as Lafayette Road was called for a while) was carrying large amounts of traffic as the main route to Lebanon.   So in the interests of safety, a hill was softened but in the removing of the crown they left behind the odd sight of a lonely towering pump.


About Ross Reller

I am pleased you have expressed interest in learning more about the historic Traders Point area in Indianapolis, Indiana. From 1980 to 1982 I was employed in the PR department at Conner Prairie Museum in Hamilton County. There I learned about William Conner, an important figure in Indiana's pioneer days. A decade later I became interested in the history of the Traders Point area and was surprised to learn that William Conner had been the first land owner in the area. In 1823 he acquired, through the Federal land office in Brookville, a patent for an 80 acre tract carved by Eagle Creek and an Indian trail that was about to be named the first toll roadway through the township (Lafayette Road). Thirty years later a village took shape within this tract. A grain mill on the creek, houses, churches, stores, restaurants, and two gas stations would take shape here in the creek valley hamlet of Traders Point. By 1962 all improvements (except a farmer's co-op) had been removed by the Indianapolis Flood Control Board to make way for Interstate 65 and a new reservoir. This blog is dedicated to preserving evidence of this historic area but I will occasionally use it to discuss related topics. To activate this follow, simply click the confirm button below. If you don't want to follow, ignore this message and we'll never bother you again. I am also a member of the Old Pleasant Hill Cemetery, a non profit association still selling burial plots for those who would like to spend all eternity in Traders Point, and I am an officer in the Pike Township Historical Society and the Traders Point Association of Neighborhoods.
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