Dolly-Downing Dead End

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A Black Hawk war scare anecdote from the Grand Prairie got my attention years ago when I first started the Black Hawk Slept Here project. It is one told by Sandford Cox in his collection published in 1860, “Recollections of the early settlement of the Wabash Valley.”  It was retold, word for word, in several old histories of the region. Here it is, from his book:

A Mr. D—, who, with his wife and seven children, resided on the edge of the Grand prairie, west of Lafayette, in a locality considered as particularly dangerous, made hurried preparations to fly with his family to Lafayette for safety. Imagine his surprise and chagrin, when his “better half” told him that she would not go one step–that she did not believe in being scared at trifles, and that in her opinion there was not an Indian within one hundred miles. Importunity proved unavailing, and the disconsolate and scared husband and father gathered up all the children except the babe, and bid his wife and infant child a long and solemn adieu, never expecting to see them again, unless perhaps he might find their mangled remains, minus their scalps. On arriving at Lafayette, his acquaintances rallied and berated him for abandoning his wife and child in the hour of peril; but he met their jibes with a stoical indifference, averring that he should not be held accountable for her obstinacy. As the shades of evening drew on, Mrs. D. felt lonely, and the chirping of the frogs and notes of the whippoorwill increased her loneliness, until she halfway wished she had accompanied the rest of the family in their flight. After staying a few hours in the house without striking a light, she concluded that perhaps the old adage, “discretion is the better part of valor,” was true, she arose, took some bed clothes off of one of the beds, passed out, fastened the cabin door, and hastened with her babe on her bosom to a sink-hole in the woods, some few hundred yards from the house, in which she said that she and her babe in the woods slept soundly until sunrise the next morning.”

Ever since I first read that I’ve wondered if it would be possible to find out who this Mr. and Mrs. D were, and where they lived. But my hopes of doing so are diminishing to the point where I may not spend any more time on it, especially after this week’s work.

One reason I had hope, though, was that it has seemed that the history writers of Cox’s era tended to leave out names when telling embarrassing stories about people who were still alive and living in the area at the time of writing. But if the objects of the humor were dead and gone, people weren’t so reticent about naming names. So I thought there might be a match between somebody whose name started with D, lived on the edge of the prairie, had 7 kids in 1832, and was still living there in 1850-1860. And who knows, maybe this search could lead to some corroborating information. But so far my search through land records and census records for the area hasn’t turned up any good matches.

Cox himself, in another article in his book, mentioned a man named Dolly who was an early settler in the area. Could that be him? I’ve looked, but haven’t been able to find any records for anyone with that name.

downing

(The base image above is courtesy of www.historicmapworks.com.)

But Cox is the kind of person who could garble names. In his book he referred to the Des Plaines River as the O’Plein. Maybe he and his buddies would make jokes out of names to the point of forgetting what the real name was. So what about the name Downing on the 1878 map? In all the fun over a man leaving his wife to face the Indians while he ran for shelter, did they morph that name into Dolly?

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s it. The area above is not really west of Lafayette. It’s more like straight north. And the census records show a large family in 1840, but not children of ages for there to have been seven youngsters in 1832. It was a family of seven, and two of the children were of ages five or younger in 1840.

I took a look anyway, which was easy to do because each day’s ride led me along the yellow path shown above. BTW, Dan on Bike says county road 500N is fast becoming his favorite east-west road across the county. It’s the east-west road shown in yellow above, and it worked very well for me, too. Nor was this the first time I used it.

Prophetstown State Park is off to the right of the map. It’s a four-mile ride to the entrance, which is approximately where the acute angle is on the lower right, just to the left of the railroad crossing where I cracked a rib two years ago. Then one rides north on Ninth Road towards Battleground. That can be a busy road when people are driving to or from work, but I’ve never had any trouble on it. Then turn left on Burnetts Road and cross Burnett Creek. There is a Black Hawk war scare anecdote for Burnett and the Creek, but I didn’t follow up on it on this trip. Maybe next time. Then turn left on S-43. It’s right near an intersection with I-65, which can bring a lot of traffic heading into West Lafayette, but one doesn’t need to stay on S-43 for long until one reaches county road 500N and can then relax, though first there is a little bit of climbing to get up further out of the river valley and onto the prairie country.

 
The first part of my ride, including the Downing location, is shown on this googlemap.

downing-school-7686

The 1878 map shows a schoolhouse at the intersection. There is still an old schoolhouse there, being used as a residence. This one was built in 1893, according to the marker in the pediment. And it claims to be District 8, not the District 9 shown on the map. Had there already been some school consolidation by 1893?

downing-soldiers-7689

This is another view looking south from the same intersection. Off in the distance is a water tower. If I remember right from my 2006 ride, it belongs to the Old Soldiers Home (a Veterans Administration facility) about a mile away.

That brings up another point. During the war scare, settlers in the area were said to have fled to the location that later became the Old Soldiers Home. If Sandford Cox’s Mr. D— lived near here and needed to go to safety, he would have gone there, not to Lafayette. But if that location is what he meant, maybe it’s no wonder that Mrs. D– would have felt no need to run to safety, given that safety was nearby. Or maybe it meant Mr. D— didn’t really leave his wife so far away as Cox made it sound.

But really, there is no reason to believe this was the Mr. D– of his story. It can be a helpful exercise to look at the terrain and think about what it meant to the people back in 1832. I suppose this could have been thought of as a dangerous location because it was so near the river and the old 1811 battleground. Or maybe it was a safe location because of all the settlers. And maybe it was considered to be a place on the edge of the prairie. But unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be the place of the story that Cox told.

(Late edit: I forgot to give Historic Map Works credit for the 1878 map image. I happen to have my own copy of the 1878 atlas for Tippecanoe County (a later reprint), but the maps at Historic Map Works are a lot more convenient to use than my scanner. And my own version isn’t colorized like theirs is.)

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