|A Year of Indiana History - 2016|
Dirty politics did not originate in the modern age. An incident on June 13, 1842 is one example. On a hot June afternoon an Indiana resident played a dirty prank on former President Martin Van Buren in retaliation for his opposition to a Congressional bill that would have improved the National Road, current US 40.
Platted on February 27, 1840, Plainfield was located on the National Road. Established by Quakers migrating from North Carolina, Plainfield saw the first settlers filtering into the region after the Treaty of St. Mary's in 1818.
The National Road was the first road built by the Federal Government using federal funds. The road closely followed Braddock's Road at its eastern part.
The National, or Cumberland, Road began with the expedition of General Edward Braddock during the French and Indian War in 1755. Braddock had his troops construct a road that led from Virginia to Fort Duquesne at the source of the Ohio River. The purpose of the expedition was to conquer Fort Duquesne, later Fort Pitt and now Pittsburgh. George Washington took part in this expedition, which taught him military methods and strategies. Washington had improved an earlier Amerindian trail, called the Nemacolin's path, which Braddock's Road followed in part. Unfortunately, for General Braddock, a French and Indian force ambushed his army, killing Braddock and defeating the English. His soldiers buried him in the middle of the road and drove the army over it to keep the natives from finding and desecrating the body.
The National Road
Congress passed legislation, signed by Thomas Jefferson, in 1806 authorizing the road's construction. Construction at Cumberland, Maryland on the Potomac River began in 1811. By August 11, 1818, the road reached Wheeling, West Virginia on the Ohio River. The road follows the older Braddock Road in many places. Congress gradually extended the road west, reaching Indiana in 1829. The planned construction to St. Louis never occurred due to the government running out of money. US 40 follows the National Road for most of its route.
Overturning the Stagecoach
In 1842, the National Road was a mess. Stumps still dotted the road and huge mud holes made travel on the road perilous. Travelers on the road had to endure a bumpy, mud splashed ride as they wended their way along it. Congress had passed a bill that would have authorized improving the road. Van Buren had vetoed the bill. Plainfield residents were plainly annoyed by the act. Van Buren had lost the 1840 election and was stumping the country in a reelection bid. He had spent a week in Indianapolis, stumping for votes. The next stop on his itinerary was St. Louis. His route to St. Louis lay along that very National Road that he had opposed improving. He boarded the stagecoach in Indianapolis and traveled southwest, towards Plainfield, just outside the capital city. The stagecoach driver was sympathetic to Plainfield's sentiments. Knowing that there was an elm tree at the base of a hill whose roots extended out into the road, the driver played his trick. He allowed the stagecoach to gain speed as it descended the hill. The stagecoach's wheels struck the roots at just the right angle and overturned the coach. Van Buren tumbled out of the coach, landing in a hog wallow at the base of the hill. Van Buren, humbled by his lesson in road maintenance, retreated to a nearby tavern to empty his boots of hog swill and try to clean his starched white shirts. Van Buren lost the next election.
The elm tree became known as the Van Buren Elm. The tree has long since died. The Daughters of the American Revolution have placed a bronze marker on the site. The marker resides on a boulder in front of the Friends Meetinghouse just west of Plainfield on US 40.
A Year of Indiana History - 2016
© Paul Wonning