Stories and Pictures of Early Indiana

I woke up to a text from a friend recently, asking for a recommendation of a book that tells about the everyday life of pioneers. I knew immediately which book to recommend.

The Indiana Home was written by Indiana University historian and professor, Logan Esarey. He was the son of Indiana pioneers and grew up hearing stories from his pioneer family. He was born in 1873 in a log cabin in Perry County, Indiana and experienced much of the pioneer lifestyle himself. His sketches of everyday life in old Indiana are lively and descriptive. They captured my imagination immediately and informed much of the description of pioneer Indiana in my own books.

An excerpt about early pioneers to Indiana follows:

“A traveler down the Ohio River about the time Indiana became a state would not have seen a single town on the Indiana shore. Had he looked more closely he might have seen small clusters of houses, mostly log, at Lawrenceburg, Vevay, Madison, Jeffersonville and New Albany. At the three last-named places roads from the landing led up through the willows to the town….

…had he known what to look for he might have observed one of the most interesting scenes in our whole history – our folks crossing the Ohio River. All day long and frequently all night, when the river was not too rough, the ferrymen crossed back and forth, ferrying people over into the ‘promised land.’”

5. View Looking Northeast at Upper Guide Wall Remains and Land Wall from the Ohio River. Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. 

5. View Looking Northeast at Upper Guide Wall Remains and Land Wall from the Ohio River. Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. 

I love the way Esarey writes – like you’re above the scene looking in, like you’re reading a storybook, watching history and its people move back and forth. His imagery captured my attention, and I’ve often visualized his word pictures in my head.  

And then I found a storybook that did the same thing – with pictures!  

The Floating House
By Scott Russell Sanders

The Floating House tells the story of the fictional McClure family, who travel by flatboat from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to a settlement in Indiana Territory in the year 1815. It follows them from the winter time when the Ohio River is complete ice, through the spring as they travel down the Ohio with other families to a new land – to the small town of Jeffersonville. It tells of the hardships along the way, and how people helped each other. Its descriptions and illustrations of the early frontier made me feel like Logan Esarey would be proud.

And indeed, I believe the author of The Floating House – Scott Russell Sanders - likely drew inspiration from Esarey, as he was also an Indiana University professor himself. He has written other picture books of early Indiana, including A Place Called Freedom, which tells the story of how a Black settlement in Indiana was founded, and the town is still there today (with a museum about the settlement – who wants to go with me!?). 

Scott Russell Sanders is a new favorite of mine for obvious reasons. I’ll be reviewing more of his books here, but for now, you Hoosier folk especially, I recommend you pick up a copy of The Indiana Home and visualize it through beautiful picture books like The Floating House. Writing and art are combined in a beautiful way, to tell a timeless story of history. What’s not to love?

Happy storytelling, friends! 

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