The McMurrys move to Indiana

In my previous post, I determined that my 3rd-great-grandfather, Luke R. McMurry, moved to Indiana (from his birthplace in southern central Kentucky) with his family in 1831–1834, when he was only 6–9 years old. I discovered that Luke and his siblings moved with their parents to southeastern Montgomery County, Indiana, where Luke’s father, James Benton McMurry, my 4th-great-grandfather, purchased four parcels of land totaling 480 acres (.75 square miles). I further learned that James’ half-brother, Hisner McMurry, also migrated from Kentucky to Indiana at the same time, and that he purchased two parcels of land totaling 240 acres.

What I haven’t yet discovered is why the two McMurry families moved 225 miles north from southern central Kentucky to eastern central Indiana in the early 1830s. In this post, I’ll start looking into how and when and perhaps why the McMurrys made the move from Kentucky to Indiana.

In his 1939 collection of McMurry family history, Ernest I. Lewis relayed information that he stated he had been given by Dr. Charles Alexander McMurry, his first cousin once removed and a professor of education at the Northern Illinois Normal School:

James McMurry lived, in childhood, four years in the family of Jacob Goodnight, whose daughter he married. James was a tanner. He located at Scottsville, Allen Co., [Kentucky] where he developed a large tanning industry and became a person of wealth and prominence. Evidently an individualist; looked like a hardy Scot. Was a member of Bethlehem Baptist church three miles east of Scottsville, organized in 1802 and in 1935 [still] in existence. The congregation was opposed to supporting missions. Charges were brought against him for violating rule. He appeared at the next meeting and spoke in his behalf, substantially as follows: “I thought that what I had belonged to me, but if this church thinks it can attend to my affairs better than I, I am willing to turn my business over to you.” Then taking out his keys, he proceeded: “This key is to my tan yard; this one to my crib”; and so on enumerating each and dropping them on the table. The charges were dropped. He had strong aversion to slavery, whiskey and tobacco and so, when the free soil country north of the Ohio was opened, he sold out his Kentucky holdings and moved into “the wilds of Indiana”, building near the present Roachdale a mill and a sturdy brick residence which still stands. He and Mary [Goodnight, his wife] are buried there, their burial place well enclosed and marked. Isaac, first son of James and Mary, said: “I never knew a McMurry to love a dog, tobacco or whiskey. They always considered them too low.”

Such interesting details! Because this information was presented as a quote, I had originally assumed that these were indeed the words of Dr. Charles McMurry. The quote “and in 1935 in existence” contradicts this assumption, however, as Dr. Charles McMurry died on March 23, 1929. Clearly this is not an actual quote, but rather a reformulation of information that Ernest Lewis received from at least two different sources (in addition to himself).

That said, the sources of the information that was presented by Ernest Lewis are close to the subject, both genealogically and geographically:

  • Dr. Charles Alexander McMurry (1857–1929) was born in Indiana and was the grandson of James Benton McMurry;
  • Rev. Isaac McMurry (1814–1892) was born in Kentucky and was the son of James Benton McMurry;
  • Ernest Irving Lewis was born in Danville, Indiana (15 miles from the old McMurry home), and was the great-grandson of James Benton McMurry (1873–1947).

It should also be noted, however, that since James B. McMurry died fairly young (age 50) in 1838, only one of these men was alive at the same time as James McMurry—his son, Isaac, was 24 when James died. I don’t know if Isaac moved to Indiana with the rest of his family; he was 16 at the time of the move, and he was living in Kentucky from 1843 to 1875. I would guess he helped his family relocate and then chose to go back to Kentucky, but there isn’t yet enough evidence to determine whether he travelled to and/or lived in Indiana for some period of time before 1843.

Like most new caches of information I come across, there are almost as many new questions prompted by the new information as there are older questions that are informed by it:

  • Why was James living with the Jacob Goodnight family as a child?
  • What was it like to run a large tanning operation?
  • Does any evidence of his tanning operation in Scottsville still exist?
  • Does the Bethlehem Baptist church still stand near Scottsville?
  • Why was the church against missions?
  • What church or doctrinal rule(s) did James break?
  • What else is known about James’ church?
  • What did keys look like in 1810–1830?
  • What did he mean by “crib?”
  • Were his biases against slavery, whiskey, tobacco and dogs rooted in his religion, or were they rooted in his own personal beliefs?
  • Was whiskey given as shorthand for distilled spirits, or for any fermented alcoholic beverage (beer, cider, etc.)?
  • What is “free soil country?”
  • Are his mill and sturdy brick residence still standing, over 180 years later?
  • Where is the cemetery in which he and his wife are buried (elsewhere in Lewis’ document, he states “both are buried in the McMurry graveyard on the McMurry homestead west of Roachdale”)?

I’ll leave most of these questions for future posts, and in this post I’ll focus primarily on his move to Indiana (with a brief examination of the phrase “free soil country”).

Political Geography—Context for the move to Indiana

When considering the possible reasons behind James Benton McMurry’s move from Kentucky to Indiana, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the political geography of the times.

It’s accurate to say that James was born in Kentucky, and in today’s geographic context, it’s natural to assume that this means he was born in the state of Kentucky. In 1788, however, Kentucky was not a state; it was a part of the state of Virginia (called the District of Kentucky), which included the modern states of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Kentucky would not become a state in its own right until 1792, when it separated from Virginia and became the 15th state in the Union.
us_terr_1790 “Kentucky” (or “Kentucke” or “Kaintuckee” or or “Kain-tuck-ee” or “Cantucky”) is derived from the Iroquois name for the area south of the Ohio River. The Shawnee called the area “Kain-tuck-ee” (“At the head of the river” in Shawanese), the Mohawk called the area “Kentucke” (“Among the meadows”), the Seneca called the area “Kenta’keh” (“Prairie”), and the Wyandots called the area “Kah-ten-tah-tah” (“Land where we will live tomorrow”). In the Colonial Period, Kentucky served as the traditional hunting grounds for tribes that normally lived northwest of the Ohio River; they would cross the Ohio River to hunt, as well as to travel and trade with southern tribes, and then they would eventually return to their homes north of the Ohio River.

When James McMurry was born, the area to the north of the Ohio River was known as the Northwest Territory (or, more formally, the Territory Northwest of the River Ohio). The Northwest Territory was established on July 13, 1787, less than a year before James was born. The Northwest Territory had belonged to France until Britain acquired it at the end of the French and Indian War and dubbed it the British Province of Quebec. The British Royal Proclamation of 1763 set aside this and other western areas for exclusive use by Native American tribes. The United States acquired this land from Britain in 1783 under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 resulted in the creation of the Northwest Territory, the first organized territory of the fledgling United States.

Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance that created the Northwest Territory declared that “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory,” effectively establishing the Ohio River as the boundary between the free lands and the slave lands in the western frontier lands. 1820 free soil Just as there was no state of Kentucky at the time of James’ birth, there was also no state of Indiana. There was a contentious land claim against Virginia by a company called The Indiana Land Company, which coined the name “Indiana” in 1768 to refer to “the land of the indians.” The Indiana Land Company lost their claim, and by 1798 there was no Indiana and no Indiana Land Company.

In 1800, in preparation for the impending statehood of Ohio, the Northwest Territory was split into two parts—a narrower eastern portion from which Ohio would later be carved, and the broader remainder of the the old Northwest Territory to the west. The narrower, eastern portion was now the only portion to be called the Northwest Territory. The western remainder of the old Northwest Territory was now dubbed the Indiana Territory. map1800


The Indiana Territory existed for a little over a decade and a half, although shrinking in 1805 and again in 1809 when the Michigan and Illinois Territories were carved from the Indiana Territory. Tecumseh’s War and the War of 1812 marked the final throes in the 60-year-long struggle for control of the Great Lakes region (sometimes referred to as the Sixty Years’ War), and resulted in the U.S. gaining firm control over the Indiana Territory by 1814. In mid-1816, a state constitution for Indiana was drawn up, and in November 1816, Congress dissolved the Indiana Territory and granted statehood to Indiana, the nation’s 19th state, with President James Madison approving Indiana’s admission to the union on December 11, 1816.



One of the largest problems the new state had to deal with was transportation. In 1816, Indiana was still essentially a wilderness, and nearly all settlement was along the southern border of the state, where access to the Ohio River gave settlers a means of exporting their produce. The only road of any significance in the state was the Buffalo Trace, an old, dirt trail between New Albany and Vincennes that was formed by the annual migrations of large herds of bison (it follows roughly the same path as U.S. Route 150 does today). The capitol of the young state was located in Corydon, at the southern end of the state.

The state tried unsuccessfully on at least two occasions to get Indiana taxpayer support to build a canal through the state (with the federal government offering to donate the land needed for the projects in 1824 and again in 1827). [Aside: the canals did end up getting built, but only once opposition died down (by 1834)—they turned out to be cheaper to build and therefore less burdensome than Indiana taxpayers feared, and they ended up being quite profitable and a boon to the Indiana economy]. In 1829, the federally funded National Road reached Indiana.

The National Road was the first major improved interstate road to be built by the U.S. government, and ran 620 miles from the Potomac River in Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois (running out of funding, it ended short of the intended destination of Jefferson City, Missouri). The project (originally called the Cumberland Road) was authorized in 1806 by President Thomas Jefferson to run from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling, [West] Virginia. In 1820, Congress approved funding to extend the National Road to St. Louis, and in 1825, it reached Ohio. In 1827, the route for the National Road through Indiana was surveyed, and construction on the National Road in Indiana began in 1829. By 1834, the National Road spanned the width of the state, although portions of it were still not complete.

National Road 1 wide

James McMurry and his half-brother Hisner McMurry travelled to Montgomery County, Indiana, by late 1830, as their six land certificates are all dated January 3, 1831. Their families almost certainly lingered for a while in Kentucky before joining them in Indiana, as evidenced by the birth of James’ penultimate child in Scottsville, KY, on March 4, 1831.

Did the McMurrys use the newly built National Road to enter Indiana? If they entered in late 1830, the road would have been under construction for a little less than a year, but it would have been perfectly passable for a couple of grown men on horses looking for land to purchase. The six parcels of land that the McMurry brothers ended up purchasing are located just 17 miles from the National Road (their parcels are the red-, blue- and yellow-outlined areas).

National Road 2

The National Road wasn’t the only road in Indiana at the time, it was just the largest and had the most sophisticated construction (often using the macadam technique). In the 1820s, nearly two dozen roads were commissioned by the state legislature, including the Michigan Road that ran from the Ohio River at Madison, through Indianapolis, to Lake Michigan at Michigan City.

Where were these early Indiana roads? Thankfully, the United States travel guide industry was coming into its own at about this same time, and we have travel guides and road maps from this time period that illustrate the state of the nation’s roads at certain points in time.

There are two that bracket the McMurry migration timeframe: the 1829 Henry S. Tanner map, and the 1831 Samuel A. Mitchell map. Both are presented below (note: the detail views are higher resolution).

Tanner map, 1829

Tanner 1829 detail

Mitchell map 1831

Mitchells 1831 detail

Both of these maps clearly show a completed road between Indianapolis and Crawfordsville. This road passed within six miles of the land that the McMurry brothers purchased.

Crawfordsville roadHere’s where you can tell this blog is more of a research journal than a series of premeditated posts…. When I started this post, I didn’t know about the Tanner and Mitchell maps and the specific roads that were available in 1830. Now that I do know, I rather doubt that James and Hisner would have taken the National Road into Indiana, given there were more direct alternatives. Given the roads that were available at the time, this is the route I would have taken into central Indiana:

  1. Scottsville, KY, to Glasgow, KY
  2. Glasgow to Munfordsville
  3. Munfordsville to Elizabethtown
  4. Elizabethtown to Shepherdsville
  5. Shepherdsville to Louisville, KY
  6. Louisville, KY to New Albany, IN, and the start of the Buffalo Trace
  7. Buffalo Trace to Paoli
  8. Paoli to Bedford
  9. Bedford to Bloomington
  10. Bloomington to Martinsville
  11. Martinsville to Indianapolis
  12. Indianapolis to nearest point on road to Roachdale
  13. 6 miles without marked roads to reach their land.

Kentucky to IndianaIt’s been a bit of work, but I feel like I’m getting a pretty good idea of when, how, and why James and Hisner probably traveled to Indiana from Kentucky. Here’s my working hypothesis:

  • James and Hisner decided they could no longer live in Kentucky, given the legality and popularity of slavery in that state.
  • James and Hisner left their homes in Allen County, Kentucky, in the summer or fall of 1830.
  • They probably traveled with horses, a wagon with provisions, and sufficient money to purchase land, should they find desirable parcels.
  • They traveled together, but without their families, northward along a series of roads to Louisville, KY, and the Ohio River.
  • The crossed the Ohio River into Indiana and travelled northwest along the ancient Buffalo Trace.
  • At Paoli, they turned north again and headed for Indianapolis.
  • Once in Indianapolis, they began to search for land to purchase.
  • Their search took them to Montgomery County, and the county seat in Crawfordsville.
  • They found parcels to their liking and put in claims to purchase them.
  • As James had been prosperous in Kentucky, he could afford to buy his land outright, without needing to make installment payments. Presumably Hisner was in a similar situation, or could borrow from James.
  • James and Hisner filed their claim paperwork together in Crawfordsville at the end of 1830.
  • They began work on the land and on their residences.
  • The United States Land Office in Crawfordsville processed their claims and certified their purchases on January 3, 1831.
  • The men overwintered in Indiana and in the Spring they got their houses to a point where their families could join them.
  • They traveled south to Scottsville and sold their land and packed their belongings and readied their families for the trip.
  • The families departed Allen County in the summer of 1831 (after James’ wife Polly had a chance to recover from giving birth to son Thomas Hisner McMurry on March 4, 1831).
  • They arrived at their new home a few weeks later and began their new lives in a land free of slavery, and remote enough to keep their local world free of tobacco, whiskey, and dogs.

“Free soil country”?

In the research I did for this post, the earliest published references I could find to “free soil country” dated to the mid-1840s, nearly 15 years after James McMurry moved to Indiana. It’s possible, although it doesn’t seem likely given the volume of political tracts being published, that the phrase had been spoken for years before ever being published. “Free Soil” became a much more commonly used phrase with the founding of the short-lived Free Soil Party in 1848. The Free Soil Party was formed in upper New York State in 1848, with the aim of banning slavery in the U.S. (but for economic reasons rather than moral or ethical reasons). The Free Soil Party was absorbed into the Republican Party and disappeared in 1854, but the phrase “Free Soil” had entered the political lexicon. It became a widely used term to describe regions of the country in which slaveholding was prohibited.

pre civil war free soil

Once it was in popular use, the term “Free Soil” was adopted in textbooks of history, even though the concept was sometimes anachronistic for the time period being depicted, as the following example illustrates:

Map_showing_the_area_of_Slave_and_Free_soil_in_1790_001I think that Dr. Charles A. McMurry, who was educated in the 1870s and 1880s, and went on to become an educator himself (writing, by the way, several textbooks on geography and history) picked up this term and used it to describe James’ motives for moving; it probably wasn’t a term that James himself would have used around the time of his move to Indiana in (or before) 1830, but it does help evoke an understanding of his move:

He had strong aversion to slavery, whiskey and tobacco and so, when the free soil country north of the Ohio was opened, he sold out his Kentucky holdings and moved into “the wilds of Indiana”….

One thought on “The McMurrys move to Indiana

  1. Hello. I am studying about curriculum development history. I am a visiting researcher of Teachers College, Columbia University, originally from Tokyo, Japan. I am focusing on Dr. Charles Alexander McMurry’s works and his brother Frank Morton McMurry. While I am in the US, I am collecting his manuscripts and his deciples’ works all over the US and following his ‘footprints’. I have visited Nashville, TN and Dekalb, IL repeatedly. I saw the place where he lived during the period of George Peabody College for Teachers. I am also interested in how and why he emphasized on geography and history as a core of reorganizing curriculum at that time. So I am so happy to find your writing that mentions C.A. McMurry. I wanted to visit his grave in Nashville while I was there but failed to find it. I believe that C.A.McMurry was so great an educator, thinker and practitioner as John Dewey or other his comtemporaries. Thank you.

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