Prairietown’s Fate

Our fictional village of Prairietown is based on years of demographic and geographic research. The idea was to create a village that was representative of a newly-founded Indiana town in the 1830s. But would the town succeed, or wither away? What factors influenced its fate?

The Birth of Prairietown

In the simplest terms, towns either grew organically due to their natural advantages or were “proprietary towns” located and laid out by individuals or groups for gain. In early America, “organic” towns were those which grew because they were on a navigable river, or convergence of waterways, or ports. New York, Philadelphia, Charleston and Pittsburgh are examples of this. Proprietary towns were the second and third wave of town founding in America and their success was more subject to the economy, infrastructure, or available natural resources than organic towns.

Prairietown is an example of a proprietary town. It was “founded” by Dr. Campbell when he purchased the land, plotted the village, and started selling lots. Why there? In our story it is because it is near a river, part way between Indianapolis and Noblesville, and surrounded by good farm lands. He wisely made special offers to mechanics, like a blacksmith and woodworker, knowing that those businesses were needed to attract potential buyers.

Indiana map
1837 cartoon showing the effects of unemployment on a family that has Jackson's portrait on the wall.
1837 cartoon showing the effects of unemployment on a family that has Jackson's portrait on the wall.

Survive or Wither Away?

Would Prairietown have grown and prospered? A case can be made either way (after all, it is fictional). If Prairietown stayed exactly as we show it and didn’t attract any more neighbors or business, our belief is that it would not survive. Why? The Panic (or Depression) of 1837 would have been devastating to a brand new village. Lots would go unsold. Trade would diminish. The White River was not navigable by larger vessels, so steamship travel would not exist to help it grow. It was to be years before the railroad would come. In essence, the economy and lack of other advantages would force Dr. Campbell to give up his dream and Prairietown would wither to be reclaimed by the land and the forest.

If only Dr. Campbell could attract big business here! If only the state would fund a canal project in the area! So many factors could influence Prairietown’s survival. That’s why when you come to visit, you’ll notice that the citizens of Prairietown are eager to find new neighbors. They will be very curious about what skills and assets you might have, and are very likely to encourage you to settle in Prairietown. Be a part of determining Prairietown’s fate!

Five Obstacles that Stood in the Way of Prairietown's Survival

1. January 6, 1836-Mammoth Internal Improvement Act
Indiana Governor Noah Noble signed the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act that allocated $10 million dollars of state money to fund canals, turnpikes and other major improvements in Indiana.


2. "Canal Fever"
If a state could gain access to the Great Lakes, there would be water transportation to and from the eastern markets. Canals also provided the solution to the problem of isolation which held up the development of land-locked areas. “Rivers are ungovernable things … Canals are quiet and very manageable.” – Benjamin Franklin

3. Central Canal Construction
Construction on the Central Canal began in 1836. Thought to be the most important of the improvements because it would transverse the landlocked center of the state and connect our capitol to the world. While never a financial success, the benefit the Central Canal played was its critical role in the development of Indianapolis and communities along its path. The need for labor caused Indiana’s population to grow significantly.


4. Transportation Blunders
By the end of 1836, the National Road was planned and surveyed to run through Indiana but was still not completed. State planners were too concerned with canal construction while railways gained momentum and promised to be a more effective mode of transportation. State funding was tied up in the canals while the railroads and steam travel forged ahead. Indiana was non-progressive during this period and as a result, some of the canals were eventually abandoned and left incomplete.


5. Panic of 1837
In August of 1836, President Andrew Jackson allowed the Second Bank of the United States’ charter to expire. He issued an order that citizens could only pay in specie, or coined money, from the treasury for new government land, which led to bank closures and eventually caused The Panic (Depression) of 1837.

“Any man worth his salt will stick up for what he believes right, but it takes a slightly better man to acknowledge instantly and without reservation that he is in error.”
- President Andrew Jackson

The motto “Crossroads of America”, was adopted by the state in 1837. In the early years river traffic, especially along the Ohio, was a major means of transportation. The National Road, a major westward route, and the north-south Michigan Road crossed in Indianapolis. Today more major highways intersect in Indiana than in any other state.

Perhaps you reside in one of these towns?

See if your hometown was around in 1836 and learn more about how it got started.

Michigan City, IN
Michigan City, IN

Michigan City (founded 1836) – Survived.
The town is known for its abundance of pine and hardwood that gave rise to a thriving lumbering industry. The city’s harbor and the arrival of the railroad brought new industry, from the manufacture of rail cars to glass making and flour mills. Michigan City even pitted itself against Chicago in a race to become the major port of Lake Michigan.

Town of Bengal
The site was situated on both sides of the Wabash and Eerie Canal about one half mile South of the Maumee River. The site was never developed or settled.

Strawtown, IN
Strawtown, IN

Strawtown (founded 1836)
Strawtown was originally plotted by William Conner. The early trails in central Indiana came together at Strawtown. Conner Trail came through Strawtown; it originated in the Cincinnati area and headed north to Strawtown and then south to Indianapolis. It was considered to become the state capitol since the area was highly traveled, however, in the 1840s and 1850s the town stopped growing due to alternate means of transportation. Railroads ousted the use of the trails around Strawtown (it was four miles from the nearest railroad) which led to its demise.

Town of Monticello (founded 1834) – Survived.
It was founded by the White County commissioners on a bluff above Tippecanoe River. It is named after the mansion of Thomas Jefferson.

Carmel, IN
Carmel, IN

Town of Carmel (founded 1836) – Survived.
Known as Bethlehem until 1874, Carmel started as a small trading post and farming community.

Town of Fairport (founded 1837)
Intended to give the small town of Fort Wayne competition, it was the largest plat, or area of land, recorded up to that time and one of the largest ever recorded in Allen County, Indiana. The original plat was located on both sides of the Wabash and Erie Canal. There was a tavern for travelers on the River Road and the canal, a post office and general store. The post office moved and with the decline of the canal's use, Fairport was forgotten.

Other Indiana towns that were founded around 1836:

  • Town of La Porte (founded 1833) – Survived.
  • Town of LaGrange (founded 1836) – Survived.
  • Town of Middlebury (founded 1836) – Survived.
  • Town of New Haven (founded 1839) – Survived.
  • Town of Westport (founded 1836) – Survived.