Human History

For as many as 12,000 years before the Indiana General Assembly established Bloomington and Monroe County in 1818, the land that today is known as the “Gateway to Scenic Southern Indiana” has been continuously used and inhabited by humans.

The state's earliest inhabitants were hunter/gatherers who traveled through the area when mastodons, elk and bear roamed the earth. They established trails, temporary camps and quarries to extract stone for tools. They most likely cleared or burned some areas to improve their hunting and gathering.

Through the ages, Native American cultural groups established seasonal camps and villages in Southern Indiana, especially along waterways like the White River forks. In addition to hunting and gathering, they cultivated native seed plants and over time established permanent villages, developed pottery and farmed with hand tools, mostly along river bottoms, which were the easiest and most fertile to cultivate.

They cultivated fields were until they were no longer productive and then cleared new ones. When all the fields around a village were depleted, the entire village would move to a new location and start again.

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While explorers, traders, and adventurers came to Indiana in the late 17th century, it wasn't’t until Indiana became a state in 1816 that European American settlement began to intensify in Southern Indiana. Until that time, Monroe County was a hunting grounds for the various Native American tribes – primarily the Delaware, Miami and Potawatomi –  that navigated the White River’s East and West Forks and their tributary creeks and streams.

The pioneer path to Monroe County was blazed by Upland South settlers from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas. They named their new home after the “haven of blooms” they encountered here.

Among the earliest pioneers was Col. John Ketcham, whose family hailed from Maryland but moved when he was a child to Shelbyville, Ky., near Louisville. In 1811, five years before Indiana statehood, Ketcham moved his family to the White River East Fork in Jackson County near Fort Vallonia, a late-18th century French settlement between the White and Muscatatuck Rivers.

In response to hostilities with the region’s Native American tribes, Indiana Territory Governor and future President Benjamin Harrison in 1810 ordered Vallonia and other fortifications built. Ketcham and three other families established an outpost on his property to protect settlers in the Brownstown area in 1811 or 1812. Another called Huff’s fort was also built.

Due to Ketcham’s war-hero status in the War of 1812, Harrison appointed him a Jackson County judge, a position he held from 1816 to 1817. A year later, Ketcham moved his family again, this time to the newly founded Bloomington, where he built the first mill in Monroe County near present-day Clear Creek.

Most of these early Monroe Countians forged their livings through farming, limestone and timber. Seward’s blacksmith shop, most famous for beautiful iron fences and the Courthouse fish, opened in 1821. Among the first local industries was the salt works in southeastern Monroe County, established in 1822. The state’s first limestone mill opened five years later near Stinesville and the White River.

As early as 1818 the settlers operated a school in the log building that also served as their courthouse. In 1820, the state legislature approved the Indiana Seminary on Bloomington’s south side. The school opened four years later with one instructor and 10 male students. The name changed to Indiana College in 1828 and Indiana University in 1838. By 1860 enrollment reached about 100 students for the year.

The Monroe County Female Seminary opened nine years later in 1833 and for three decades educated women, many who became teachers.

Another early industry, the Virginia Iron Works, produced a variety of iron kettles and other goods in southwest part of the county from 1839-1844. The railroad’s arrival in 1853-54 made travel more common and transporting limestone more feasible. As a result, several more limestone mills had opened by the 1860s.

Along with the railroad grew new communities, which required buildings, homes and furniture. A booming timber industry and the Showers Brother Furniture company were among the results.

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When the settlers arrived, Indiana was 87 percent forest. And they saw the woods as obstacles to be conquered. They cut the trees for building material or fuel. Or they cleared them for crops and pastureland.

Southern Indiana boasted some of the world’s finest hardwoods. And with the advents of railroads in the mid-1950s and sawmills in the 1860s, post-Civil War Indiana produced thousands of sawmills.

By 1860, approximately half of the state’s forests had been burned, cleared and/or farmed. By 1899, the state led the nation in timber production.

The hills and valleys that comprise most of Southern Indiana’s federal and state forests and parks were harvested between 1870 and 1910.

Meanwhile, the rural population peaked in the 1890s and then began to steadily decline. By 1930, the population had decreased to just 57 percent of the 1890 population.

By the Great Depression, most of what would become Indiana’s largest concentrations of public lands contained small farms devoted to crops or pasture on land that was suitable for growing only trees. Times were hard, and many settlers moved on, leaving their denuded lands to the governments to acquire for back taxes.

Local officials became concerned about the growing amount of tax delinquent lands on their tax rolls and turned to federal and state governments for help.

By 1926, the State of Indiana had purchased enough land in Brown County to create its first fish and game preserve, which 15 years later would become Brown County State Park, the state’s first.

The state purchased land for the Morgan-Monroe State Forest in 1929 for the dual purposes of preventing further erosion and creating a state forest. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a make-work project under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide jobs for the unemployed and reclaim devastated landscapes, set up its first camp in Morgan-Monroe In May 1933.

Indiana’s governor asked the U.S. Forest Service to buy some of this land for the eventual creation of a national forest, which Congress agreed to in February 1935 and began purchasing land for the Hoosier National Forest that same year.

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The Depression hit Monroe County hard. The WPA and other New Deal programs employed many men in the area.

In 1939 the city bought land west of town for an airport and completed it in 1944 (now the county airport). RCA bought one of the Showers plants in 1940 and made radios. After WW II they built televisions sets. WW II affected everyone. During the war, there were more female students than male students at IU. After the war students turned to the university in record numbers, with many veterans using the GI bill to help with the cost of their education.

Many businesses grew after the war, and national companies joined RCA in locating plants in Monroe County, including General Electric, Westinghouse, and Otis. Entrepreneur William Cook and his wife Gayle move to Bloomington in 1963 and started a medical device company. They grew the business into Cook, Inc, an international company. Over the years other companies have been developed by Cook, Inc.

In the period between the late 1950s and the 1970s, some of the older business closed. Showers sold their business and Seward’s closed. The limestone companies also suffered during this time. College Mall opened in 1965 and brought a new way of shopping to town.

Water problems arose again. Lake Lemon was built in the 1950s. The US Corps of Engineers built Lake Monroe in Salt Creek Valley in the early 1960s for flood control for the White River and its tributaries.

School consolidation became popular in the 1960s. The county now includes the Monroe County Community School Corporation and the Richland-Bean Blossom School Corporation.

Since the 1980s the economy has been moving toward high tech, entrepreneurship, nonprofit, service and governmental employment. There are many artists and musicians, and quality of life is a valued community asset.


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