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Sowing the Seeds of a Settlement on the American Frontier

I’m going to be honest: there are no bear attacks or Leonardo DiCaprios in this frontier- related blog post. There is, however, the story of a modest Quaker husband and wife, Thomas and Hannah Symons, who, following their marriage in 1811, decided to migrate from their homes in North Carolina to settle in Indiana which at the time was still a largely unsettled territory. Initially, this doesn’t sound like a particularly exceptional story in keeping with the notion of American exceptionalism, but all ideologies aside, Hannah Symons’ recollections provide a fascinating and personal insight into the hardship, bravery and perseverance involved in sowing the seeds of a settlement on the American frontier.

Narrative of the Settlement of Thomas and Hannah Symons in Wayne County, Indiana in the year 1811, by Hannah Symons © Earlham College Friends Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Featured in Adam Matthew’s upcoming Frontier Life resource, Hannah’s recollections were recorded in 1860 for her brother Elijah Coffin. Her journey north-west from North Carolina was a route followed by many Quakers during this period in order to flee the Southern states’ morally abhorrent dependence on slavery. After living initially for six months in Indiana at a Quaker colony known as Cox’s Settlement (now Richmond), where a lack of cleared farming ground meant a twenty mile journey to get corn for bread, the couple decided to make their own settlement in the woods near modern day Milton, IN.

Hannah recalls how their patch of land “never had been defaced by man – all new –it was in its primitive beauty” with an abundance of flowers and wild beasts, and trees hanging over their “little dwelling”. This paradise, however, had to be tamed; gradually and arduously over a number of years the couple cleared twelve miles of road through the forest, built a cabin (later to become a log-cabin with a chimney made from “sticks and dirt”) and a mill, cultivated land for farming, planted an orchard, and raised a family.

Narrative of the Settlement of Thomas and Hannah Symons in Wayne County, Indiana in the year 1811, by Hannah Symons © Earlham College Friends Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Not long after the Symons’ had settled, however, the “sorrowful sound” of the War of 1812 shattered their peace, and the dangerous isolation of the Symons’ settlement led to their temporary return to Richmond. Hannah describes this dangerous time and the difficult relationship between the settlers and the American Indian tribes who were fighting to reclaim their territory in Indiana during this period. When the war reached its conclusion, the Symons’ returned to their “promised land”, which soon grew with an influx of new settlers. At the heart of the settlement, Hannah and Thomas’s home became a “public place” where “Friends came fast” and it was not long before Meetings held in the Symons’ barn were reconvened at a log-house built specifically for the purpose. The photograph below shows an example of a Meeting House at Fountain City, Indiana, 15 miles away from Richmond.

Fountain City Friends Meeting House © Earlham College Friends Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Hannah Symons’ recollections are part of the Charles F. and Rhoda M. Coffin Collection at Earlham College Library, Richmond, which is home to a vast array of material on the history of prominent and influential Quaker families who settled, predominantly, in Indiana and Ohio. Quaker family collections from Earlham College Friends Library will be available in Adam Matthew’s Frontier Life resource, due for publication in September 2016. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact us at info@amdigital.co.uk.





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