NOVEMBER 23, 1814
200 years ago today in Washington County, Indiana Territory, John Campbell McPheeters was resting after a busy previous day. On November 22, 1814 he went to trial on two separate civil cases in the Washington Circuit Court. On November 23, 1814, after the verdict was announced at the end of his second trial, he pursued a third legal matter by applying to the court for an assessment of damages for the construction of his second mill.
McPheeters was born in Augusta County, Va. in 1762 of Scotch Irish parentage. He served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War. He married Margaret Anderson in Virginia in 1787. They later moved to Shelby County, Ky. where they were living when their first land claim was made in the Indiana Territory. This first place of settlement in what was to become Washington County, Indiana was in the northeast quarter of Section 14, T1S, R3E, on the Mutton Fork of Blue River. Horner’s Chapel Road borders on the west side of this acreage today at the Horner’s Chapel Bridge. John McPheeters built a grist mill here in 1813 just upstream from where the Horner’s Chapel bridge is now located. McPheeters also operated a small distillery at the mill. A mill operated at this site until the 1880s.
Many of the early settlers had aggressive personalities and the egos of these pioneer entrepreneurs and civic leaders often clashed. This may be why there were so many slander suits filed in the early days of the Washington Circuit Court.
John McPheeters had filed a complaint for slander against Robert Catlin in the spring of 1814. McPheeters was a neighbor of Catlin who had settled about a mile and a half northwest of McPheeters on land was in the northwest quarter of Section 12, T1S, R3E. This is a short distance upstream from the confluence of Royse’s Fork and the Mutton Fork of Blue River. Catlin was one of the early Justices of the Peace and must have usually been a man of moderate temperament. The records don’t reveal what McPheeters claimed that Catlin said but, it must have been during one of Catlin’s unguarded moments.
Trials on the 1814 Indiana frontier were short. Jurors were selected from among those interested citizens whose curiosity drew them to court when it was in session to offer their services for the civic good. No voir dire could have been conducted as there were several trials each day. Therefore, the predisposition of the jurors as to the issues or parties in the case at hand was a random factor in frontier justice.
In the McPheeters v. Catlin trial, the jury was William Moore, Wilson Bracken, John Smiley, John Gregg, Joseph Sargeant, Shadrack Luallen, Absalom Fields, Jacob Sears, Isaac Staley, John Wright, Henry Carter, and William Robertson. After the presentation of evidence and argument by the attorneys, the jury deliberated for a short period of time. Elder John Wright who was the foreman of the jury announced a verdict for McPheeters against Catlin in the amount of $1.
After Judges Holman and Lamb took a brief recess, the slander case of Martin Royse v. John McPheeters was called for trial. Royse was a 27 year old neighbor of McPheeters who had registered a land claim for the northeast quarter of Section 9, T1S, R 3E, next to land claims made on Blue River by Frederick Royse and William Royse who were the father and brother of Martin Royse. As Royse’s Lick and Royse’s Fork of Blue River were named after this family, they may have had a well-developed sense of territorial imperative that McPheeters’ words may have invaded. The fact that Robert Catlin and Martin Royse were close neighbors may also have given McPheeters’ two trials a common theme. The jury that heard this case were: William Moore, John Smiley, John Gregg, Joseph Sargeant, William Gordon, Joseph Reyman (Wrimann), Alexander Little, Shadrack Luallen, William Rigney, Jacob Sears and Absalom Fields. Seven of these jurors had heard the McPheeters/Catlin case so they already had formed opinions about McPheeters’ as a person. The case was given to the jury at the end of the day. The jury recessed for the evening and returned the next morning to announce their verdict. Foreman Alexander Little who was the County Lister delivered a verdict the next day for Martin Royse in the amount of $1.
Therefore, John McPheeters broke even in his two slander cases which were tried on the same day. Shrugging off his two unrewarding days before the bar, McPheeters then had attorney William Hendricks file a petition for a writ ad quo damnum with the court so that he could be allowed to build another dam for a new mill on Lost River. The court ordered Sheriff William Hoggatt to obtain a jury who would visit the site of the proposed dam in Lost River on December 3, 1814 for further proceedings. This proceeding and a similar one initiated by George Beck will be the subject of a future post.
John and Margaret Anderson McPheeters were the parents of eleven children born between the years of 1782 to 1806. One of their grandsons, Alexander McPheeters, and two of their great grandsons, John S. McPheeters and James H. McPheeters, became physicians. John McPheeters died on July 10, 1839. Margaret McPheeters died on Christmas Day 1844. Both were interred at Horner’s Chapel Cemetery.
LOCATION OF FIRST MCPHEETERS MILL
HORNER'S CHAPEL CEMETERY
JOHN C. MCPHEETERS MONUMENT