01 Feb The Mystery of Noblesville’s First Settler: Pete Smith
The Mystery of Noblesville’s First Settler: Pete Smith
By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian
In honor of Black History Month, I thought I would look at Noblesville’s African American past. One of the most important stories was Pete Smith and his contribution to the city. Smith was a Black man and was the first non-Indian to live in the Noblesville area. It was through his efforts that the first white settlers were able to survive. He left no records himself and the information we do have is based on reminiscences written down sixty years or more after the fact. Nevertheless, his story illustrates some important facts about the early settlement of the area and should be told if we are to understand how this community was created.
What we know of his life begins in the year 1819. The Treaty of St. Mary’s, signed in 1818 between the Delaware Indians and the federal government, had opened the land that would become Hamilton County for settlement by whites. There were already some traders living here, including William Conner, who had arrived in 1802. The traders then left for new territory or, like Conner, began purchasing government land to resell to the new settlers. In April of 1819, a group of these settlers set out from southern Indiana to stake a claim in the new territory. This was the Finch and Shirts families, along with some others. Originally from New York and New England, they came to this area via the Lafayette Trace, an ancient Indian trail that came up from the Whitewater valley, through what would become New Castle and Anderson, and crossed the White River at Strawtown. The group turned south at White River and followed another Indian trail to a large bend in the river where there had once been a Delaware village. The cleared flat land in this bend was perfect to begin farming and was called Horseshoe Prairie.
The group set up tents to live in until they could get cabins built and almost immediately suffered a disaster. A limb broke off of a tree, falling on one of the tents and shattering most of the dinnerware that the group had brought with them. It was an inauspicious beginning. In order to be able to purchase the land, the settlers would have to make improvements – build a house, clear the land, and begin growing crops. They persevered and began to create a community in the wilderness.
It was at this time that Pete Smith appeared. There were some Delaware Indian families who had not left the area yet. Smith was living with one of the families and simply showed up at the settlement one day. Described later as “fine looking” and “intelligent”, Smith attracted attention as no one expected to see a Black man in this area. He told them nothing about where he had come from or why he was there, but instead offered to help them. At first, the settlers weren’t quite sure what to make of this man, but he soon proved his worth.
One day in June, after a day of working in the fields, Mrs. Finch left her muddy shoes outside of her cabin. When she awoke the next morning, they were gone. This was of serious concern, as the nearest place to buy shoes was Connersville, sixty miles away. The Delaware Indians remaining in the area were the first suspects and some of the settlers wanted to confront them. However, Pete Smith intervened and asked the settlers not to take any action. He told Mrs. Finch to be patient and her shoes would come back to her. The settlers decided to take him at his word. They finished up the day and went to bed. Evidently, Smith did something that night because the next morning when Mrs. Finch awoke, the shoes were outside the cabin door. Smith refused to say what he had done or where the shoes had come from, but, as one settler later said, “He was the hero of the little colony”. It was very fortunate he took the action he did. A few years later, a confrontation between the Indians and another group of settlers would end in horrific tragedy and be known as the Massacre on Fall Creek.
He was the hero of the little colony.
He became a trusted friend of the settlers and proved his worth again and again. That summer, the settlement was ravaged by malaria. George Shirts’s wife was the first to die and Smith helped Shirts to raise his corn. Others would die and many would be too sick to work. Smith continued to help but the food began to run short. The settlement survived by buying corn from William Conner. He charged them $1.00 a bushel, roughly the price of a full deerskin. The sickness eventually subsided, probably at the beginning of the cold weather when the mosquitoes which caused it disappeared.
In 1820, Smith was working for William Conner, raising a field of corn and doing some trapping on his own. 1820 was a busy year for William Conner. In May, at a meeting at his house, the site for the capital of the state was chosen and would be named Indianapolis. In August, most of the Delaware Indians left Indiana. Conner’s wife, a Delaware named Mekinges, left with her people – taking with her the six children she and Conner had produced. Conner stayed behind, and three months later, married Elizabeth Chapman, a relative of one of the early settlers and the only available white woman in the area. In all probability, Smith was helping the settlers and working for Conner because he planned to stay with the settlement. He did not leave with the Indians when he had the opportunity. He may have been planning to establish his own home and farm. Sadly, this was not to happen.
By 1821, land buyers were coming in from all over to speculate in these newly-available western lands. That year, a man came up from Kentucky to purchase land to resell. According to later accounts, he saw Smith, returned to Kentucky, and soon reappeared in this area with a group of men and some sort of papers saying that Pete Smith was his runaway slave. Smith said that he didn’t even know the man. The settlers confronted the man from Kentucky and as one of them later said, “It created intense excitement and there might have been a lynching of the slave-hunters”. However, at this point, William Conner happened on the scene.
It created intense excitement and there might have been a lynching of the slave-hunters.
Conner was a man of influence in the county and the settlers appealed to him to intervene to free Smith. He would disappoint them. He examined the Kentuckian’s papers and then announced that they were legally correct. He then said that if they attempted to stop the Kentuckian, they would be guilty of breaking the law. Without this support, the settlers could do nothing. The Kentuckian then took Smith away and he was never heard from again.
Conner then sold the corn that Smith had raised for him. The settlers themselves would soon experience the difference between what was legal and what was right. They had been improving their lands so that they could buy them from the government. In 1822, William Conner’s brother, John, would go to the land office in Connersville and buy their land out from beneath them. He would give them until the harvest to leave the land. Most of them moved to Wayne Township. In 1823, William Conner and Josiah Polk established the town of Noblesville just north of the old settlement at Horseshoe Prairie.
Was Pete Smith a runaway slave? We will never know the answer, but some guesses can be made. Since Smith made no attempt to leave after the first appearance of the Kentuckian, it would seem unlikely that he knew the man. Then what was happening? Sadly, there are many instances in early American history of slave-hunters kidnapping free Blacks out of the free states. A man like Pete Smith would have been worth a lot of money in the slave markets. The documents used to capture slaves were often rudimentary descriptions that might have applied to anyone. It was possible that Smith was actually just a trapper and trader. His easy familiarity with the area suggests that he had been there for some time. There were some examples of Blacks who made their living trading with the Indians, the most famous being Jean Baptiste DuSable, the first settler of Chicago.
It is encouraging that the settlers tried to stand up for Smith. When they talked about him in their later reminiscences, they would describe him as having a “good disposition”, “a kind heart”, “ready to assist”, and “thoroughly honest”. One hopes that Smith did not end his days on a Kentucky plantation. There may be a clue uncovered by Indiana Freedom Trails, a group dedicated to the study of the Underground Railroad in Indiana. They have found a story about a slave named Peter escaping from a Kentucky slave owner in August of 1821. He was nearly recaptured in 1825 in Wayne County, Indiana. However, a local group of people broke into the jail where he was held and freed him. He escaped and was not heard from again. To live out his days in freedom would be a much more fitting life for Pete Smith, Noblesville’s first settler.
Helm’s History of Hamilton County, 1880, p. 34
Noblesville Independent, March 11, 1887, p. 1, article by A. F. Shirts
Letter from John G. Finch, December 18, 1893
Indianapolis News, March 19, 1896, p. 5, article about Fabius M. Finch
Indianapolis News, April 2, 1896, p. 8, letter by A. F. Shirts
Indianapolis Journal, December 18, 1898, p. 17, article by John G. Finch