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Gift of a Diary: Calvin Fletcher Speaks of Early Indiana

From The Hoosier Genealogist: Connections, Spring/Summer 2018. To receive Connections twice a year, join IHS  and enjoy this and other member benefits. Back issues of Connections are available through the Basile History Market.

“Dear Diary”—These two simple words invite readers, suggesting that the journal will reveal details about a person, perhaps even the person’s innermost thoughts and feelings, as well as details about significant events. Calvin Fletcher wrote about such things almost daily in his now priceless diary.

Living in Indianapolis and working in the history field, I can’t imagine conducting research without picking up Calvin Fletcher’s diary. His descriptions of life in the city offer valuable insight into the “goings on” of the capital. He provides a human eye to sometimes sterile historic documents. But those living outside the Circle City might wonder how reading the diary of a man who lived hundreds of miles away could be helpful to them when doing genealogical research. This is why I love and often use Fletcher’s diary: It casts light on what is happening not just in the city but also in the state. Fletcher documented the ordinary, everyday lives of Indiana’s pioneers as well as the steps in Indiana’s early development.

Fletcher was a part of Indianapolis from its beginnings in 1821. He had a ringside seat to the city’s development and helped to create a new society in an era of profound and often unprecedented change—change documented by his daily writings. The multivolume diary, published simply as The Diary of Calvin Fletcher by the Indiana Historical Society, covers the period from 1817 to 1866, describing a wide range of topics as well as information about Fletcher’s personal interests, acquaintances, and community activities. Fletcher’s diary provides an extraordinary record of not only his own life and times, but also the environment in which his fellow Hoosiers lived, struggled, and thrived.

Fletcher was a prominent lawyer and also a farmer, husband, father, and concerned citizen of the fledgling state. The problems he described in his diary illustrate challenges that our ancestors also would have encountered, such as sickness and bad weather. As a farmer, Fletcher was concerned with the weather, markets, and crops. His pages are filled with examples of how the farm worked and how the weather impacted it. On August 3, 1841, Fletcher notes, “We are greatly afflicted with droughth.” On June 13, 1843, there was no longer drought, but flooding: “Pleasant But the rivers & streams are very high & the low lands are all over flowed & It is found that those who have planted in the river bottoms will loose [sic] their corn or have to replant. It looks truly gloomy now still we trust by exertion all will be right.”

Statements such as these illustrate how people all over Indiana—a farming state—might have felt. If your ancestors were farmers new to the state, imagine the impact this weather would have had on them as they tried to get settled and build a life on the frontier. The results of drought or floods during the first year of planting crops would have been catastrophic. The economic and physical damage this would have wrought on pioneers might explain why someone lost land to the bank, left the state, or died.

Fletcher also met and talked with other Hoosiers throughout the state and records the details in his diary. He mentions events that no doubt affected the lives of Hoosiers living in rural areas as well as in towns. A quick look at the extensive index might prove useful to someone wondering if their ancestor had an encounter with Fletcher. Your ancestor might have been mentioned on Fletcher’s pages in other ways as well. A court case or incident in rural Indiana might have ended up in an Indianapolis court. Fletcher often discussed cases and people involved in them in his diary. On May 17, 1839, Fletcher writes about a court case against several individuals in Elkhart, Indiana, mentioning the names: Landis, White, Dr. Beardsly, and Baldwin. The editors of this well-annotated diary explain the court cases, participants, and outcomes in the footnotes of the work. Thus, the diary might reveal an individual’s work, associates, and business dealings through a court case Fletcher describes that is further explained in the notes.

Fletcher’s own work, as recorded in the diary, also illustrates events evolving in the capital that dramatically affected Hoosiers living in faraway places such as Posey or Steuben County. For example, during the decades that Fletcher kept his diary, the wilderness opened up for sale, a state bank system was developed, and internal improvements programs were rolled out. On October 31, 1853, Fletcher discusses money: “Little silver is now not in use except for change—dollars or half dollars not now paid out as they used to be but gold has within the last 3 years taken the place of silver as silver has been raised in value by the depreciation of that metal in some of the European states & made our silver a premium as it was bid for by those Governments.”

An easy and helpful use of the diary is to read in it about an event that happened during your ancestor’s lifetime and then research that event at the local level through newspaper accounts, local diaries, or court cases. In 1842 Fletcher attended a speech given by Henry Ward Beecher, a famous preacher who supported abolition and temperance. Beecher had just returned to Indianapolis from a revival in Terre Haute, Indiana, and was discussing the event. Using Hoosier State Chronicles, operated by the Indiana State Library, which provides free online access to digital images of Indiana’s historic newspapers, you can find an article in the Wabash Courier referencing a similar revival, which lists the leaders who attended it and local ministers who preached during it.

Locations mentioned in the diary can also shed light on your ancestors’ lives. For example, on December 21, 1838, Fletcher went to Crawfordsville, Indiana, and stayed at Strickland’s Tavern. Did you know your Strickland side had a tavern? Two days later, he went to Danville and spent time at DeHaven’s Tavern. Again, might this be a hint for your family? These and many other items in Fletcher’s diary might add information to your family’s story, especially if you then flesh out the context of the given people, places, or events.

Fletcher filled his pages with descriptions of Hoosiers, noting their characteristics and responses to the developing frontier. Your Indiana ancestor might have viewed the frontier in a similar manner. For instance, on August 6, 1836, when attending a meeting in Indianapolis, Fletcher describes how the city’s citizens were “in a rage” over the refusal of the superintendent of the National Road, a Captain Ogden, to appropriate any money toward the construction of the road in the vicinity of Indianapolis.

Fletcher also describes travel through the state on its early roads as well as the lack of any roads in places. Lack of good roadways was a trial that any Hoosier would have experienced when moving to a farm, transporting crops and livestock to market, or trying to get to the county seat. On April 20, 1863, Fletcher discusses trying to get a new road built near his farm: “I imploid [sic] Mr. Fishback attorney to aid me in relation to an attempted new road to run East of my farm on Pendleton road. I fear I shall have much trouble about it.” On January 20 that same year, some of Fletcher’s livestock was killed by the railroad company transporting them, illustrating an additional worry early Hoosiers experienced when moving stock to market.

Fletcher was involved in a variety of social issues, including free public schools, temperance, antislavery, and colonization for free Blacks. His perspectives on these causes, combined with his descriptions of shifting public sentiment and the views of politicians and civic leaders are especially interesting. When discussing temperance on January 18, 1859, he notes that the state had a “drunken debauched Governor . . . a drunken debauched president of the state university . . . & worse than all a corrupt bribed Sup. [Court] bench.” No doubt such civic and academic leaders impacted all Hoosiers.

The bound volumes of Fletcher’s diary were donated to the Indiana Historical Society in the 1920s. Decades later Society editors transcribed and annotated the diaries, and published them in a user-friendly nine-volume set. The expanded footnotes and the addition of catalogs and indexes offer local historians and genealogists invaluable resources as few texts have ever done. Now the volumes are available as e-books, making them even easier to search and more accessible than ever before. You can find links for the diary at your preferred e-book vendor here:

If you have not encountered Calvin Fletcher, make the nine-volume edition of his diary part of your future reading program. Maybe it will inspire you to begin the practice of a daily diary entry. That way, in 150 years, your descendants and all Hoosiers might have a better understanding of life in twenty-first century Indiana.

1. Gayle Thornbrough, Dorothy L. Riker, and Paula Corpuz, eds., The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, 9 Volumes (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1972–1983). Quotations come from the following volumes and pages: 1:371; 2:47, 88–89, 345, 505; 5:131; 6:294–95; 8:27, 114.

Jeannie R. Regan–Dinius is an historian for the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology (DHPA), Indiana Depart¬ment of Natural Resources, working on the Underground Railroad Research Initiative, Cemetery Registry, Historic Theater Initiative, and public outreach. With a lifelong interest in history, family history, and research, she earned a bachelor’s degree in public history from Ball State University and a master’s degree in urban planning and information management/library science from Indiana University–Purdue University, Indianapolis.

Regan–Dinius is a trustee for the Indiana Historical Society. She has served on the board of directors for the Indiana Women’s History Association for more than six years. She is also secretary/treasurer for the Association of Indiana Museums. Jeannie has written articles about the Underground Railroad in Indiana and the online state Cemetery Registry system for THG: Connections.

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