Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Naming of Madison, Ind.: A Revisionist Story

The naming of Madison is a very simple story, right? John Paul, who purchased the land for the city's original site, named it after the fourth president, after first calling it Wakefield.

But the big problem is that the name Madison preceded Paul's arrival, as shown in the 1808 edition of the "Navigator," an annual publication by Zadoc Cramer, who reported on the state of navigation on the Ohio River. The 1808 edition noted that, "from the Kentucky [river] thirteen miles above Madison, to Westport, twenty-three miles below, you have free water.” There is little doubt about Madison's location here, given its location described in relationship to the Kentucky River and Westport. There is also a remark by Vevay entrepreneur Jean Jacques Jacques Dufour, whose Day Book recorded a trip to Madison in 1805. And while the location of that Madison wasn't given, it's hard to figure out where else he could had gone, in the time his trip took.

As to the origin of the name, there are two accounts that challenge the generally accepted view that the city took its name from the fourth president.

Exactly when Robert Miller reached the town is not known. His recollections, written by his son, did not list the date. But it was probably before John Paul because when he arrived, he found only two families. Miller believed that one family was named Vawter. The other family, he said, was named Madison.

"The town took its name from this man’s name,” he reported.

Since Jesse Vawter, who settled on the Madison hilltop in the Fairmount area, was the first settler in Madison in 1806, Miller's account rings true.

James Burns, who gave an account of his local recollection of local history in 1873, gave the story twists, not recounted elsewhere. Burns, in a statement that contradicts about everything every written, said, “The first man ever to live in Madison was a Negro named Madison from whom the town got its name.”

The claim has gone unnoticed, probably because when his recollections, first published in a Madison newspaper, were reprinted, the end of the article was omitted.

Technical, Vawter wasn't the first settler in the Madison of the 1800s. The first people on the riverfront anywhere near Madison were William Hall and his son John, who made a clearing sometime from 1806 to 1808,in what later became the town of Fulton. It was John Henry Wagner, a tavern operator, who landed at the foot of modern Jefferson Street on May 8, 1808, who built a house in the original town, on what is now the site of the Schofield house.

It was James Lewis, whose reminiscences who originated the story about Wakefield, and supported the theory that the town was named after the fourth president.

But Burns was born in 1786 while Lewis was born about 1812. Also there is little chance that Miller and Burns came up with the Madison family a common account. Miller stayed in the area only a short time and Burns, who was born 1786 in Virginia, came to Madison in 1814, year after Miller left the area

Burns knew the pioneers as an adult. He ate dinner with John Paul shortly after reaching Madison. He undoubtedly knew Jesse Vawter as he laid out Wirt, where Jesse lived, along with Jesse's son James, and Burn's son Maxa, married Jesse's granddaughter Maria in 1826.

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