Monday, January 28, 2008

John Sheets: Man of Action

Few Madison residents were more important than John Sheets in the 1820s. And few emerge as such men of action as the merchant and mill operator, who killed a steamboat captain with a knife and single handedly faced down a crowd during Madison’s anti-black riot of the 1840s.

He was an important figure in early Masonry and may have founded the city’s first pork packing operation, which sent Madison on its way to an early, but short national prominence. He laid out an addition to the original town of Madison as well as an addition to Vevay. He was well connected. His brother William served two terms as Indiana’s Secretary of State and his wife, Ann Gardner, was a sister to Elizabeth Gardner who married financier J.F.D. Lanier. Sheets was also a tragic figure, losing most of his money and seeing his sons, George and William, two promising attorneys, drink themselves to death at an early age.

John Sheets (Sept. 9, 1789-Sept. 27, 1851) was probably born in Berkeley Co., Va. (now West Va.), and likely moved west with a number of brothers, Jonah, Philip, and Adam, who lived in Milton Township for many years, and Lewis, a possible brother who lived in Madison.He was in business by July 1817, when he advertised in the July 12 edition of the Indiana Republican that he was opening a store in Madison with an assortment of merchandise opposite Henry Ristine's tavern. In the Dec. 25, 1819 edition of the newspaper, Sheets advertised he had "a place for slaughtering hogs" He also operated a tavern in Madison, for which he was taxed in 1824. (The same year his was joined the First Presbyterian Church.) An article in a Madison paper of May 18, 1826, noted his tavern was on the north side of Second Street.

In Milton Township, he was remembered for his paper mill. But his started with a gristmill on the Indian-Kentuck, just downstream from Manville, where he was in operation as early as 1818. He ran into financial trouble, as a result of a debt to Joseph Howard, who had sold him the mill. Howard recovered a judgment, but the mill and water rights ended up in the hands of his brother Jonah. It was only the first of his financial travails.

He next entered the paper-making business on the same site. A Madison Courier, dated Jan. 10, 1828, refers to the mill, seven miles north east of Madison “recently built by Major John Sheets.” It describes the building as "large, furnished in a neat and convenient manner" and gives its proper name as the Jefferson Co. Paper Mill. A Madison newspaper of Oct. 24, 1833 reported that John and William Sheets were the exclusive agency for all paper manufactured there.

The mid 1830s appear to be the height of Sheet’s prosperity. By 1837, Sheets had laid out an addition to Vevay and his son Francis was elected as one of the first commissioners of that town in 1836. He also and Vincent Dufour were operating a steam-saw mill on the Ohio River and Washington Street by July 26, 1838 when that facility was mentioned in a deed.. In 1837, he had also paved a main street to the river, apparently to develop a wharf to attract river traffic. But Sheets was soon in trouble. He defaulted on a note on May 8, 1838 as shown in the deeds in which his property was sold for debt.

Sheets may have tried to bail out his fortunes by selling his land. Several deeds involving Sheets or his son Francis G. Sheets occur in Switzerland County in the 1830s when he appears to have liquidated his holdings there, including the sale of the steam mill in Vevay. On March 4, 1840, he sold 560 acres in Milton Township to men were probably investors in the paper mill, that facility itself went through a series of hands before coming into the ownership of Andrew Everhart, the last person to operate it as a paper mill.

It is Sheets’ physical bravery that stands out as marking him as much more than a simple merchant. He stood trial for killing a steamboat man named White with a knife. He was acquitted on the grounds of self defense.

The most dramatic account of Sheets personal courage was given in a story related by columnist , Andrew Grayson, writing under the name Felix Adair, who gave an account of a riot by whites who were seeking guns being held by black residents.

The mob, which at one point shot it out with three blacks who were barricaded in a house, were dunking an elderly black man named Phillips in the Ohio River, trying to get information from him. The mob was led by a man named Kimberly and its action was topped by Sheets.

As related by Adair/Grayson, in the Dec. 7, 1881 edition of the Madison Courier the following took place at the river.

“John Sheets, from a position on the wharf, in a commanding tone cried out, ‘Kimberly, I warn you, don’t put that man in the river.’ Kimberly, in a weak voice, replied, ‘Go ahead, throw the fellow in, and put Sheets in too.”

“Yes, you put me in and, by the eternal gods, you’ll do before the sun sets. Don’t you put that man in the river,” rang out Sheets’ stentorian voice.

Although the phrasing has the ring of a good editor, there doesn’t seem much don’t it would have been a dramatic moment, no matter the exact words.

A newspaper obituary has been written by Samuel Cade, who was almost exclusively concerned with Sheets’ Masonic activities. Cade’s concluded that Sheets died broke, as he was no longer a Mason in good standing which means he probably could not afford the dues.

But that may not have been an accurate assessment. The 1850 federal census, taken on Sept. 13, 1850, a year before his death, shows him as a paper manufacturer (probably operating in Madison as he was out of the business in Milton Township), with $35,000 in real estate.

And he was living in the same neighborhood as other prosperous Madisonians. He was shown immediately after the household of merchant Caleb Lodge and two before one of Madison’s best known business people, Captain Charles Shrewsberry.

He is buried in the Fairmount Cemetery, along with his wife and several of his children.


Ken said...

This is absolutely fantastic! Thank you, and please keep it up.

Ken in Phoenix, Arizona

Bob Scott said...

Many thanks