The First Known Artist in Indiana--According to author Fred D. Cavinder in his compilation The Indiana Book of Records, Firsts, and Fascinating Facts (1985), "the earliest art on record in Indiana" is a wash drawing made by Governor Henry Hamilton of a rock formation along the Wabash River near what is now Logansport. Mr. Cavinder gives the year of composition as 1777. What must surely be the same work is shown in Mirages of Memory: 200 Years of Indiana Art, Volume I (1977), a catalogue of an exhibition from 1976-1977. That catalogue states that Hamilton composed his picture in 1778 rather than 1777. Here are some details:
In October of 1778, Hamilton led an expedition of about 230 men southwest from Detroit to Fort Sackville [located in Vincennes in what is now Indiana], then in the hands of colonist sympathizers. The troops travelled by canoe, carrying a heavy load of provisions and arms. The journey was a backbreaking two-and-one-half month struggle with swampy portages, rapids, rain, snow, and accidents. During this time, Hamilton kept an extensive journal documenting the campaign and made a number of sketches directly from the landscape.
The work included in the exhibition, Shiprock, Wabash River (no. 21), does not appear to be far removed from the military tradition of factual representation. The military man's eye for details is also revealed in Hamilton's journal entry concerning this location. His careful descriptions, in text and sketch, allowed later generations to recognize the exact location of the scene which is near present-day Logansport.
The sketch of the shiprock reveals that Hamilton understood pictorial representation. The work was done by a man who obviously grasped the principles of design and space, and who was familiar with landscape traditions. This suggests that Hamilton's work was more than a military record. [p. 20]
In other words, Governor Hamilton's drawing may have been more than a mere tool; it may also have been a work of art, and because it no longer has any military or topographic utility, Shiprock, Wabash River may exist now only as a work of art, or at the very least as a historical document. I should add this unequivocal sentence from later in Mirages of Memory: "[Shiprock, Wabash River, 1778] is the earliest known drawing produced in the area now known as Indiana," very likely the source of Fred Cavinder's information. (p. 55) The original source for both accounts may have been Wilbur D. Peat's seminal Pioneer Painters of Indiana (Art Association of Indianapolis, 1954).
There were Europeans in Indiana before Henry Hamilton. The earliest visitors were explorers, traders, and military men, but by the early eighteenth century, there were trading posts or small settlements as well. Again, it seems likely to me that there were artists among the earliest European visitors to Indiana, even if all they drew were maps. We'll have to go with what we have, though, and call Henry Hamilton the first known artist in Indiana, meaning, more precisely, the first artist to create a work of art in what is now Indiana. We can also call him the first watercolorist and the first creator of a landscape in the state. The irony is that Hamilton was a villain in Indiana, a man known as the "Hair-buyer General" for his alleged policy of buying the scalps of white settlers from the Indians who took them. Luckily for us, George Rogers Clark put Hamilton in his place by capturing Fort Sackville and Hamilton himself in 1779.
Text and captions copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley