Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Father of Indiana History: John Brown Dillon

On August 8, 1838, readers of the Indiana Democrat in Indianapolis were greeted by a special correspondence from the northern Indiana community of Logansport, which had been originally printed in the Logansport Telegraph. The article, signed “A Visiter to the Lake,” reported on the sighting of a sixty-foot-long creature sliding through the once quiet waters of Lake Manitou, located near Rochester in what is now Fulton County.

The article quoted one eyewitness, who viewed the monster from the safety of the shoreline, as describing the beast’s head as “being about three feet across the frontal bone . . . but the neck tapering, and having the character of the serpent; color dingy, with large bright yellow spots.” The monster inhabiting what came to be celebrated as “Devil’s Lake” received attention nationwide, with reports on its existence published in Buffalo, Boston, and New York.

The man responsible for the Telegraph’s publication of this unlikely story was a person who, in all other respects, seemed to be the least likely to come up with such a whopper of a tale—John Brown Dillon, who became known as the “Father of Indiana History” for his much respected History of Indiana, which went through four editions between 1843 and 1859, and helped save future the state’s past for future generations through his work with a number of early Hoosier historical organizations. His writings won praise from Indiana historians who came after him, with one, Emma Lou Thornbrough, commending Dillon for being the “only person in the state in this period whose writings deserved to be called history by modern standards of historical scholarship.”

Details about Dillon’s early life are sketchy at best. Born sometime in 1808 in Wellsburg, Brooke County, in what is now West Virginia, Dillon and his family soon moved to Belmont County, Ohio. After the death of his father, nine-year-old Dillon was apprenticed to a printer in Charleston. At the age of seventeen Dillon moved to Cincinnati, where he displayed literary skill, having his poems published in several local newspapers. Sometime in his life Dillon had suffered a visual malformity, and always could be seen wearing dark-green eyeglasses equipped with side mirrors. A shy man, he never removed his eyeglasses, even among his friends.

By 1834 Dillon had settled in Logansport, where he studied law and was admitted to the Cass County bar in 1840. He never, however, established a law practice, preferring instead, noted his friend, fellow attorney Horace P. Biddle, to spend his time on “hoary border legends, traditional story, but more especially local history.” Dillon pursued these interests through a career in pioneer journalism, starting work as an editor for the Logansport Canal Telegraph in August 1834. A year later he purchased an interest in the newspaper, which, by 1836, had changed its name to the Logansport Telegraph.

Dillon’s work as a historian soon usurped his journalism career. He started his research on a history of Indiana in 1838, receiving assistance from U.S. Senator John Tipton, a close friend. Dillon left Logansport in 1842, moving to Indianapolis to pursue his historical studies and find funding for his history. Although he could rely on materials from the state library and private collections, Dillon lamented that “many interesting facts, connected with the early settlement of Indiana, have been perverted, or lost forever, because they were never recorded, and the stream of tradition seldom bears to the present, faithfully, the history of the past.” Still, his Historical Notes on the Discovery and Settlement of the Territory Northwest of the Ohio, appeared in 1843, and was followed sixteen years later by his History of Indiana. His posthumously published Oddities of Colonial Legislation in America came out in 1879. 

Fellow Hoosier historian George S.Cottman, founder of the Indiana Magazine of History, dubbed Dillon as the “Father of Indiana History” and praised him as the first in the state to enter the field “with any seriousness of purpose, and his contributions exceed in value any that have come after.” In his writing Dillon displayed “immense industry, unflagging perseverance and an ever-present purpose to find and state the truth,” said Cottman.

Dillon himself wrote that in his work he was striving to give an “impartial” recording of history. He noted in his preface to his History of Indiana that in writing the book he attempted to keep his mind free from such influences as “ambitious contentions between distinguished men, or from false traditions, or from national partialities and antipathies, or from excited conflicts between the partisans of antagonistic political systems, or from dissensions among uncharitable teachers of different creeds of religion.”

In 1845 the state legislature elected Dillon as state librarian, a post he held until 1851, when a Democratic legislature replaced him with Nathaniel Bolton. Dillon later served as, assistant secretary of state, secretary to the State Board of Agriculture and held a number of offices with the Indiana Historical Society, including secretary and librarian. He proved indefatigable at adding books and manuscripts to the Society’s early collection. In addition to state offices, Dillon served on a variety of Indianapolis governmental bodies, including being a member of the Marion County Library Board and a school trustee.

In 1862 Dillon left Indianapolis for Washington, D.C., where he received a position as clerk to the Department of the Interior, later moving to a job as clerk with the House Military Affairs Committee. Civic leaders in Indianapolis remembered Dillon’s contributions to the state, with noted attorney Calvin Fletcher calling upon the state legislature to bring the historian back to Indiana to write a history of the state’s contribution to the Civil War. Dillon finally returned to Indianapolis in 1875, living in a room at Johnson’s Building on Washington Street. He struggled to make a living, even having to sell his beloved library in order to make ends meet. Dillon died at age seventy-one and was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.

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