Friday, February 17, 2012

Indianapolis's First Newspaper

In lieu of news on my upcoming book projects, here is an article I wrote many years ago that has yet to be published. I did present it as a paper at the annual meeting of the Indianapolis-Marion County Historical Society many years ago. It is about Indianapolis's first newspaper, the Indianapolis Gazette.

About two weeks before Christmas in 1821, a family, after an arduous journey from Jeffersonville, Indiana, finally stopped their wagon before their home in the new state capital of Indianapolis. Inside the four-horse wagon in which they had made the trip were the family’s meager possessions and the items upon which they would depend for their livelihood—the type, cases, press and other materials necessary for equipping a printing office.

From a one-room cabin George Smith, with assistance from his daughter Elizabeth and a recently hired journeyman printer lodged in a nearby cabin, on January 28, 1822 published the inaugural issue of the first newspaper ever printed in Indianapolis—the Indianapolis Gazette. For the next year, until the appearance of the Western Censor and Emigrant’s Guide, the Gazette served as one of the few means of state, national, and international news for the central Indiana community.

In addition to his important role as newspaper editor, Smith during his life also opened one of the first real estate agencies in Indianapolis and served two terms as an associate judge of the circuit court. John H. B. Nowland, describing Smith in his sketches of prominent citizens of the city, noted that he “was a man of warm feeling and devotion to his friends, and would go any length to serve and accommodate one. He cared nothing for money or property further than to make himself and his family comfortable.” Smith also stood out in the community by the way he wore his hair, braided, hanging down his back in a queue. His choice of hairstyle got him in trouble one day with a lawyer named Gabriel Johnson. During an argument between the two men, Johnson grabbed the judge by queue and seemed to have the upper hand for a time. Nowland noted, however, that Smith managed to rally and “administered to the lawyer a sound trashing.”

By the time Smith, with the assistance of his stepson and partner Nathaniel Bolton, placed the Gazette before the public, newspapers were well entrenched on the Hoosier scene. In 1804 Elihu Stout had printed the first newspaper in what was then the Indiana Territory, the Indiana Gazette at Vincennes. Other newspaper editors set up shop as settlements grew: Madison had the Western Eagle in 1813, Brookville the Enquirer and Indiana Telegraph in 1815 and shortly thereafter the Indiana Register in Vevay. Between Indiana's admission as a state in 1816 and 1829, papers were also established in Greencastle, Centerville, New Albany, Richmond, Salem, Terre Haute, and, of course, Indianapolis.

The founder of Indianapolis's first press, Smith was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1784. There are differing accounts on where Smith first learned the printing trade. Some historians have him serving as an apprentice with the Bradfords, colonial printers in Pennsylvania, another with the Lexington Observer in Lexington, Kentucky. Wherever he started, Smith, as did many other apprentices, underwent a painful initiation into the printing world. As the low man on the totem pole, apprentices were expected to run errands for the shop owner and his family, sweep the shop, keep the fires kindled, wash type, carry water for cleaning and wetting paper, and other onerous tasks. The chore dreaded most by printing apprentices involved the pelts used for ink balls. These pelts were soaked in chamber lye and gave the entire shop “a characteristic reeking smell.”

After completing his apprenticeship, Smith worked for a number of printing shops, including one that produced the Liberty Hall and Cincinnati Gazette newspaper. While working in Chillicothe, Ohio, in the early 1800s, he met and married Nancy Bolton, a widow with one son, Nathaniel. George and Nancy Smith eventually had a daughter, Elizabeth, born in Chillicothe on February 17, 1809. Elizabeth’s earliest memories centered on the printing office, which often was located in the house the family occupied. Both children helped out by doing small jobs in Smith’s print shop.

In 1820 the Smith family, which also included Nancy Smith’s brother, Uncle Nat Cox, well-known for his skill as a hunter, carpenter, and practical joker, was “seized with the fever of emigration” and decided to move to the young state of Indiana. According to Elizabeth, her father had originally booked passage for the family down the Ohio River on board the steam packet General Pike. Nancy Smith, however, upon seeing the steamboat, flatly refused to travel on what was to her an obviously dangerous craft. Instead, the family made the journey to Jeffersonville, Indiana, on a timber boat that was steered by Nat Cox. Upon reaching Jeffersonville, the family hired a wagon for the trip to Corydon, then the state capital. Displeased with Corydon (what upset Smith about the area is unclear), the family returned to Jeffersonville and there Smith opened a print shop.

The business in Jeffersonville, however, was merely a short stop for Smith, who in moving to Indiana had his eye set on establishing his printing trade in the newly established capital of Indianapolis. Perhaps as Stout had in picking Vincennes as the home for his newspaper, Smith looked forward to winning a contract with Indiana government as the official state printer, a distinction the Gazette later achieved. With the sale of lots in Indianapolis set for the fall of 1821, Smith left Jeffersonville and walked the 111 miles north for the sale.

Upon reaching Indianapolis, Smith bought two lots at the corner of Maryland and West Streets at the intersection of Missouri Street. One of these lots included on it a cabin built by a Kentucky squatter who had deserted it and went back to his native state. Returning to Jeffersonville, again on foot, Smith prepared his family for the move north, all except Nathaniel Bolton, who remained behind to finish some printing work for the state. It was a rough trip; the only settlements the family passed through on their journey were Paoli, Bedford, and Brownstown. They also had to endure a heavy snowstorm, which stopped them dead in their tracks for two days.

Upon reaching Indianapolis Smith, as he had in other locations, set up a print shop in the family home, a one-room cabin that also served as bedroom, dining room, and kitchen. Recalling those early days in Indianapolis, Elizabeth Smith noted that her bed consisted of “two old sugar troughs with rails and short board laid crossways, on which was placed a good feather bed ‘made up nice.’” Her father and mother slept on a bed made with buckeye logs and rails, overlaid with brush. Uncle Nat Cox and a journeyman printer hired to help with work at the fledgling newspaper slept in a neighboring cabin owned by Doctor Kenneth A. Scudder.

In spite of the cramped conditions, Smith, with thirteen-year-old Elizabeth’s help (she had learned how to set type that winter) issued the first edition of the Indianapolis Gazette on January 28, 1822. Jacob Piatt Dunn Jr., in his history of the city, Greater Indianapolis, said that the Gazette was printed on “an old-fashioned, two-pull, Ramage hand press.” Such a primitive press limited a printer's production to approximately seventy-five impressions per hour. After setting type, forms were hand-inked by Smith and Bolton with buckskin balls stuffed with wool. When not in use, these balls were kept soft with liberal doses of raccoon oil. The two outside pages of the four-page newspaper were usually printed early in the week, according to Dunn, with the inside pages on Friday and the whole paper released to subscribers on Saturday.

A subscription to the Gazette cost two dollars, if paid within two months after subscribing, two dollars and fifty cents if within six months or three dollars thereafter. In lieu of cash—often in short supply in pioneer days—the newspaper accepted for payment “produce of every description . . . if delivered at the office.” Rags, a vital substance for the production of newspapers in those days, were also taken in lieu of cash. This barter system for purchasing newspapers continued in Indiana for many years. All the way up until the late nineteenth century of small-town newspapers took produce and livestock for payment.

In that first issue of the Gazette, Smith issued the following statement of purpose for his periodical:

We, this day, issue the first number of the Indianapolis Gazette, without comment: believing that we shall receive a generous support so long as we continue to publish it on principle consonant to the government and the times we live under. The Gazette will be enlarged to a sheet not inferior to any in the state as soon as the support will justify it.

Smith had all the confidence in the world that such support would be forthcoming. Although local news was often lacking in pioneer newspapers, Smith did in that first issue expound a bit on the bright future facing Indianapolis:

The improvement of this town since the sale of lots in October last has surpassed the expectations of those who entertained the greatest hopes of its future prosperity. There have been erected forty dwelling houses and several workshops since that period, and many other buildings are now in contemplation. One grist and two saw-mills are now in operation, within one mile of the centre of the town, and several others are nearly ready to be put into operation, equally as near. Business is comparatively lively at this time. We have, already, mechanics and professional men of the following description and number, to wit: 13 carpenters and joiners, 4 cabinet makers, 8 blacksmiths, 4 boot and shoe makers, 2 tailors, 1 hatter, 2 tanners, 1 saddler, 1 cooper, 4 bricklayers, 2 merchants, 7 houses of entertainment, 3 groceries, 1 school master, 4 physicians, one minister of the gospel and 3 counselors at law.

There were numerous problems to be faced, however, by anyone foolhardy enough to attempt publishing a newspaper on the frontier during the early nineteenth century. “The first problem of the printer,” noted one Indiana newspaper historian, “was to get paper, the second to get news, and the third to get paid.”

Securing the necessary paper for printing a newspaper proved to be a difficult task for any Indiana publisher at this time. Until 1826, when one was opened north of Madison, there were no paper mills in the state. According to Justin H. Brown, an early chronicler of Smith’s life, the paper for the Gazette’s first issue was brought by wagon from Springfield, Ohio, by George Smith’s father. Inadequate paper supplies sometimes led to the newspaper suspending publication for a week or two.

For news to fill the Gazette's columns, Smith and Bolton had did not have the luxury of turning to a newsroom of trained reporters ready at a moment's notice to scour the countryside unearthing interesting tidbits for readers. Instead, they had to rely on a unpredictable source—the mail. At a time when local news was “all over town,” noted Dunn, by the time it made its way to an editor, national and international news dominated newspaper columns. In fact, one scholar has noted, the “more exotic the location, the more news value an item seemed to possess in the minds of pioneer editors.”

To relay this kind of information to his readers, Smith, and other publishers, relied on mail dispatches concerning messages from the federal government and items of interest culled from other newspapers scattered throughout the country. Speeches and other messages from the president and Congress were related to readers in their entirety, without the news analysis that is commonplace today—a boon to politicians wanting to communicate their ideas and plans directly to their constituents.

There was one problem: Indianapolis had no post office nor any regular mail service at the time the Gazette started publication. Smith set out to remedy the situation. On January 30, 1822, a meeting was held at Hawkins’ tavern to arrange a private mail service. Under this system, all the mail for the community would be gathered at one post office and brought back to the city by a rider hired especially for that task. Those attending the meeting hired Aaron Drake as carrier and arranged with him to bring the mail from Connersville once a month.

Drake issued a circular to postmasters requesting that they forward all mail for Indianapolis to the Connersville office. Drake’s first distribution of the mail was very dramatic. “He returned from his . . . trip after nightfall," according to Brown, “his horn sounding far through the woods, arousing the people who turned out in the bright moonlight to greet him and learn the news.” An Indianapolis post office finally opened for business on March 7, 1822, putting Drake out of a job. Even with a post office in the community, the flow of news could be halted by everything from bad weather to incompetent post riders, who sometimes fortified themselves with alcohol before setting out on their journeys.

Even with adequate paper supplies and fresh news from the mails, the Gazette’s owners faced a never-ending struggle to make ends meet. George Cottman, Indiana Magazine of History founder and a printer himself, noted that in the early days of Indiana statehood "the sentiment seemed to prevail that the newspaper man and the doctor could wait for their pay a little longer than any one else." Along with subscriptions, Smith relied for income on classified advertising (Calvin Fletcher was a frequent advertiser on behalf of his law practice) and printing such items as pamphlets, handbills, cards and blank forms of every description, which, Smith and Bolton claimed, would be “executed at this office on a short notice and on moderate terms.”

To help keep their business solvent, Smith and Bolton also printed and offered for sale through advertisements in the Gazette books and almanacs. One of the first books the Indianapolis printers offered to the public was one titled The Indiana Justice and Farmers Scrivener, which contained information on the office and duties of justices of the peace, sheriffs, clerks, coroners, constables, township officers, jurymen, and jailers. Also, the book included a number of examples of written contracts that a farmer, mechanic or trader would have occasion for using during their life. Even in pioneer days, lawyers had to contend with a do-it-yourself ethic.

An 1831 almanac printed by Smith and Bolton, a copy of which is in the Indiana Historical Society's William Henry Smith Memorial Library, offered information not only on the phases of the moon aspects of the planets, but also listings of federal and state officials and helpful advice for Indianapolis gardeners.

Smith and Bolton published the Gazette together until July 1829 when politics came between them. Until that time, the newspaper had been politically neutral, a path that Bolton wished to continue. His step-father, however, wanted the paper to support Andrew Jackson and his policies. Bolton remained in charge of the Gazette while Smith announced his intentions to start a new paper to be known as The Jacksonian. In an August 6, 1829, letter printed in the Gazette, Smith proclaimed to readers that materials for The Jacksonian “are now ready and will shortly be here from Cincinnati.” Unfortunately, if any such newspaper was published, there is no record of it today.

Smith’s dream of a pro-Jackson newspaper did come true. On October 22, 1829, George L. Kinnard took over as part owner of the Gazette, changed its name to the Indiana State Gazette, and turned the newspaper's politics to pro-Democratic and a staunch supporter of Jackson. In late March 1830, the newspaper’s last ties to the Smith family dissolved as Bolton sold his interest to Alexander F. Morrison and the paper’s name was changed again, to the Indiana Democrat and State Gazette.

After leaving the printing business, Smith retired to his farm, called Mount Jackson, which was located on Indianapolis’s near west side. After what was described as a long illness, Smith died on April 10, 1836. His stepson, Bolton, took over the Mount Jackson farm and lived there with his wife, the poet Sarah T. Bolton. The two operated a tavern on the site until 1845, when the Boltons sold the property to the state as the new home for the Central Hospital for the Insane. In 1851 Bolton was elected as state librarian and four years later was named as consul to Geneva, Switzerland, by President Franklin Pierce. He remained in Switzerland until 1857, when ill health forced him to return to Indianapolis. He died on November 26, 1858.

Most Indiana historians would probably agree that Smith was not an outstanding newspaper man. But he typified the pioneer editor and provided through the pages of his newspaper a valuable resource to his readers. As R. C. Buley noted in his classic The Old Northwest, the Gazette and other newspapers of its type played a vital role in pioneer society, furnishing “the bulk of the knowledge of the essentials of representative government,” a task still being undertaken by newspapers today.