vincennes_capitolThe city of Vincennes had its beginning in 1732, when the French wanted to build a trading post equidistant from Detroit, New Orleans and St. Louis. A band of Frenchmen, led by Francois Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes, founded the city in 1732 by establishing a fort on the banks of the Wabash River.

The Ordinance of 1787 established a system by which a wilderness could be converted into a territory and then a state. This ordinance established the Northwest Territory in 1787. In 1800, the territory was divided. The eastern part was still called the Northwest Territory and became the state of Ohio in 1803.

The western part became the Indiana Territory and Vincennes was named the capital. The new Indiana Territory included the present states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota.

From 1800 to 1813, Vincennes was the capital of the Indiana Territory. William Henry Harrison was appointed by President John Adams as the first governor of the territory. Harrison later became the ninth president of the United States. In 1805, the territory’s population reached 5,000 free men and the territory moved to the second stage of government. For the first time the people elected a nine-member House of Representatives. The “upper house” was known as the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council consisted of five men appointed by the president until 1809, then elected by the people. From its very beginning, Indiana has had a bicameral (2 branches) legislature.

The Legislature, called the General Assembly, met in various locations throughout Vincennes. In 1811, the General Assembly moved into the building that we have preserved today. The building was never called the Territory Capitol or Legislative Hall. It was simply called the “Red House.” Newspaper accounts of the day indicate “the Legislature is in session in the Red House.”

Built in 1805 as a tailor shop, the Red House is a small two-story building whose frame is held together with wooden pegs. The building originally had only one stairway on the outside of the building. Of particular note are the exposed ceiling beams with the grooved decoration carved into the lower edges. The upstairs floor planks form the ceiling.

The House chamber is arranged as it might have been when the Legislature met here. The speaker of the house sat in a tall chair in the middle of the room and conducted the meetings. The secretary sat at a small desk and recorded the bills. Legislators sat on the benches on either side of the speaker.

The second session of the Third General Assembly, which met in this building from November 22 through December 19, 1811, passed several important laws. Property tax was enacted during this session. The tax rate was not to exceed one cent per acre on first-rate land, three-fourths cent per acre on second-rate land and one-half cent per acre on third-rate land. Another law passed during this time provided that all single men above the age of 21 without taxable property should be subject to a poll tax.

The Legislative Council chamber is also arranged as it might have been in 1811. The five members of the Legislative Council met here as did the judiciary.

The outside stairway was reached by the door on the west wall. A doorkeeper had the job of running messages up and down between the two houses. He was also responsible for heating the building and lighting the candles.

In addition to the Indiana Territory, Vincennes also served as the capital of the Louisiana Purchase for nine months in 1804-1805. That means more land was governed out of Vincennes than any other capital except Washington, D.C.

In 1805, the Michigan Territory was separated. In 1809, the Illinois Territory was created and Indiana was reduced almost to its present size.

In 1813, the territory capital was moved to Corydon along the Ohio River. The move was a master political strategy devised by Jonathan Jennings. Jennings was the territorial delegate to Congress and a bitter political foe of Harrison. Jennings later became the first governor of the state of Indiana.

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