28 Oct Native American Heritage Month 2022
The Creation of a Myth
By David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian
In Hamilton County, as in other places in the United States, the study of Native American life can be cluttered by myths. As if the interactions between settlers and Natives were not complex enough, there are stories thrown into the mix that later prove to be fiction. A historian’s job is to sort through the mess and find what is closest to the truth. One of the main myths in Hamilton County is that of Chief Straw, an alleged leader of the Lenape (Delaware) tribe. The community of Strawtown was supposedly named for him.
The Lenape moved to this area in the late 1700s, after they were driven west from their original homes on the east coast. Because of two ancient game trails, this area was a crossroads for human migration. It had first been settled by prehistoric mound builders. The Miami were the dominant tribe in what would become Indiana, and the Lenape reached an agreement with them for living space along White River sometime in the 1770s or 1780s.
These Lenape villages became landmarks by the early 1800s and were featured on early maps. The main Lenape village was Andersontown, administered by Chief Kikthawenund, who was also known as William Anderson. The Nanticoke tribe had accompanied the Lenape, so one of the villages was called Nancytown. Other named villages included Sarahtown, which had been established by a Lenape couple named Sarah and Isaac, and the main village in present Hamilton County – Strawtown.
Strawtown was a key site on the White River because it had several shallow places that made it easy to cross. These crossings were used by white fur traders going from the Falls of the Ohio River to Kekionga (Fort Wayne) and Cincinnati to Fort Ouiatenon (Lafayette). A French fur trader from Vincennes named Michel Brouillette had an early trading post at Strawtown. It was the site of a clash between soldiers and Native Americans during the War of 1812. Indiana became a state in 1816, and, in 1818, the Treaty of St. Mary’s caused the Lenape to leave the state. By the 1820s, Strawtown was on the official post road and got its own post office in 1834.
An Indiana Gazetteer published in 1850 has the first mention of the source for the name Strawtown. It says, “…its name is derived from a house in it thatched with straw.” Then, a report published in the Indiana State Sentinel newspaper on September 3, 1875 by State Geologist Edward Travers Cox said the town was named for an Indian chief. In a history of the county published in 1880, a local man named Charles Fisher said that it was named for Chief Straw or Strawbridge. (Interestingly, Fisher was the son of a man murdered in Strawtown in 1821.)
While the 1880 history book included both versions, Chief Straw eventually became the dominant story. After all, it was a logical suggestion and had a little more drama than just describing house construction. It eventually became the accepted story. This did not happen just in Hamilton County. Thorntown had the same issue in an 1895 article that mentioned a “Chief Thorn,” even though its name is clearly an English version of the original Miami name “Kawiakiungi” or “Place of thorns.”
The Chief Straw story grew even more prominent in 1923, when Strawtown grocer Oliver “Ollie” Stage created the Chief Straw Lodge, a resort and picnic area. It was a popular site for family reunions and Fourth of July celebrations. Stage added to the story when he built a 20-foot-tall concrete monument in 1928 as a memorial to Chief Straw. However, he misspelled the tribe as “Delewares” on the carved stone plaque mounted in the structure.
The story stayed that way until around 15 years ago, when a middle school student came to the HEPL Indiana Room to research a report about Chief Straw. Her teacher had said that she must use primary sources, so she asked what was available. It was probably the first time that anyone had asked that question. After staff had searched the material at the library, the historian at Conner Prairie was consulted. Sources checked included missionary diaries, treaties, and other original records, none of which mentioned a Chief Straw. Perhaps there was a Lenape Chief at Strawtown whose story has been garbled through the years, but there is no official record of a prominent leader from this area with anything resembling that name. In the end, a consensus was reached that Chief Straw was probably fictional.
So, as we look at the stories of indigenous people during Native American Heritage Month in the month of November, we should keep in mind that many of these stories were written down by people who were outside the culture. We should be aware that many of these outside people had no compunction about embellishing or fabricating on what few facts were there. Hopefully, by sifting myth from true stories, we can pay proper respect to these cultures.
Tune in to Hoosier History Live on WICR 88.7 FM at noon on November 5 to hear David Heighway speak about more Strawtown myths.