History of Benton County, Indiana

By Maggie VanNatta
(Circa 1888)

Benton County lies in the north-western portion of the State, bordering on the Illinois on the west, and being the third county south from the north line. It is one of the largest of the ninety two counties of the State, being 23x18, or containing 414 square miles of the finest and most fertile prairie land in the State; nor is there to be found a finer body of land of this same character in the North American Continent than these same fertile rolling plains--a vast expanse of prairie land dotted over here and there by an occasional natural grove, and a small quantity of timber land along the streams. Through the center of the county, from east to west, passes a ridge from which the land gradually slopes northward and southward to the extreme limits; thus, the streams on the north of this, flowing to the Illinois, those on the south to the Wabash, and the gradual fall of the creeks and brooks with the rolling surface between, makes its drainage complete, so that scarcely an acre of land exists in Benton County but is susceptible of perfect drainage.

The soil is a rich black loam underlaid with yellow clay, which, near the streams, gives place to a gravel subsoil. It is unexcelled in the production of corn, oats, wheat, and all kinds of vegetables. The present year, '(88) she has produced 4,270,000 bushels of oats, an average of over 50 bushels per acre, and the yield of corn is, at least, 20 per cent greater. All the grasses do remarkably well, especially is this true of clover and blue grass.

Some thirty-five or forty years ago Benton County farmers had to make annual trips to Chicago, with their produce in exchange for the necessary provisions. These journals were made with ox teams and consumed about a fortnight of time. Later LaFayette afforded a much nearer market, while at the present day a farmer can not live in Benton County ten miles distant from a railway station and a market for his grain. (See map.) This one market has, in less than forty years, given place, to, at least eighteen local markets with ten miles from the farthest farmer, with increased facilities for the larger markets of Chicago and Indianapolis, from which it is equidistant.

Nearly forty miles of free gravel road have been built in the past two years, with a prospect of many more miles soon. One feature of all the highways, worthy of note, is their unusual width.

Educational advantages are of the best -- a good school house in every school district, a school term of more than half the year, with high schools in the largest towns. Churches of all denominations are distributed over the county in goodly number.

The First Settlements: Benton County is a comparatively new county, its settlement having been postponed on account of no railroads, and its distance from a market. The southern portion, the vicinity of Pine and Mud Creeks, and near the groves were the portions of the county first settled. The first comers selected lands near the timber, when possible, land being plentiful and man by nature a social being, later settlers made homes near to those already started. In consequence of this, and the fact that large tracts of the unoccupied land had passed into the hands of speculators, the northern and central parts were destined to wait until a much later period.

The first house after the organization of the county, 1840, was that of Peter Jennings, about three miles east of Oxford.

Judge David McConnell, Basil Justus and Thos. Atkinson, soon followed and settled near Oak Grove, which proved to be the foundation of the present town, Oxford.

Parish Grove had attractions a little later, which led Parnam Boswell and John Robinson to improve farms in that vicinity.

Thos. Finney was the first to come as far north as Hickory Grove, near the present site of Fowler.

Cattle raising was the most profitable industry in the central and northern portions, and this was carried on most largely in the highest ground -- the lowland being abandoned as useless -- called by the settlers, "the lost land," but we see what changes tile has made in the low grounds, and the soil on almost every square foot of ground yields with large interest almost any seed the farmer chooses to sow. The fine grass that the land affords makes the cattle industry a favorite one still. Stock of all kinds is well improved, especially is this true of cattle, there being one of the finest herds of Herford cattle of the United States and probably of the world, to be found near Fowler.

The first mill began its work at Oxford, in 1865, proving a failure, it was discontinued in a short time, but is now in operation.

The first resident ministers in the county, were Evan Stevenson, Methodist; John Sargent, Christian; and Daniel Vines, Universalist. Some sermons were preached here before this time, by non-residents, Rev. J. A. Carnahan, Revs. Homer and Cozad, being earnest workers from a distance.

The first physician was Dr. Theophilus Stemble, who resided in Oak Grove. He was soon followed by Drs. Wright, Blades, Boon, Barnes, Sleeper, etc.

James F. Parker, Jacob Benedict and Danl. Mills, were the first resident lawyers, they, too, having settled near Oak Grove.

A little log cabin south of the present site of Oxford, was the scene of the first school. Hartley T. Howard, the first teacher, held this as well as nearly every office of the county, a task which was not a hard one, as the number of voters did not exceed a few hundred.

Aaron Wood was the first to open a store in the county. He was soon followed by Carnahan & Earl, Barns & Baily, and others, all at Oxford.

A Masonic Lodge was instituted in '55.

For nearly twenty years there was but one post office -- that at Oxford, but as the settlement pushed farther northward, another was established at Aydelott, and to both of these mail was brought once a week, until in '71 2, the completion of the railways caused many small stations to spring up along their lines.

Political History: July 28th, 1840, a Board of Commissioners, consisting of Amos White, Thos. Lewis, and John A. Robinson, held its first meetings at the residence of Basil Justice, in Oak Grove. The result of this meeting was the division of the county into three Commissioners' Districts, each district to constitute a civil township. The three districts were, viz: Parish Grove, Pine and Oak Grove. A later division than this resulted in eleven townships instead of the three original ones.

The time of the first election was arranged to be Aug. 8th, and the places for the opening of the polls in Parish Grove Township was the residence of Robt. Alexander; in Pine, Amos White's; and in Oak Grove, Basil Justus'. Inspectors of the election were Samuel Robertson, John Wallace, and Thomas Lewis.

The assessor for the first year was Henry Robertson; Road Supervisors were John Sheetz, Wm. Carson, Robt. Alexander, Solomon Burch and Wm. Denton.

The Board next met in September and appointed Milton Jennings, County Treasury, David McConnell, Seminary Trustee; Henry Robertson, Commissioner of the Three Precinct Fund; and Ezekiel H. Davis, Collector of the State and County Revenue.

A tax of thirty-five cents on each $100 of taxable property was levied for county purposes, and fifty cents on each poll.

The First Courts: -- The first term of the Benton County Circuit convened Nov. 4th, 1840, at the residence of Basil Justus, with Hon. Isaac Maylor, Judge; David McConnell and Nathan Terwillinger, Associate Judges; Basil Justus, Clerk; and Henry Robertson, Sheriff.

Aaron Wood, Lewis E. Smith, Benj. Timmons, John Wallace, John Lane, Wm. P. Carson, Wm. Smith, Jr.; Saml. Robertson, John Frost, Wm. Foster, Wm. Wakeman, Thos. McConnell, Robt. Pollock, L. & B. Williams, composed the first grand jury.

Daniel Mace, John Pettit, Wm. Jenners, Robt. Chandler, Benj. Gregory, and Zebulon Baird, were the first practicing lawyers in this court.

In '43 Wm. Will, Samuel Milroy, Geo. Wolfer and William Coon were appointed Commissioners to locate a county seat. The site selected being at the extreme northern point of Oak Grove, where Oxford now stands. The building erected to do duty as a Court House, temporarily, was a story and a half frame, 20x40 feet, and was placed in the Court House square. A few years later this was removed to give place to a brick building, which was completed in '55, at a cost of $10,000. Here for nearly thirty years the County Court was held. During this time, however, the northern and central parts of the county had became more thickly populated, and the county seat being so far to the southward, objections arose and the subject of removing it to a more nearly central position was agitated. A heated contest resulted in the Commissioners receiving a petition, signed by more than two-thirds of the voters in the county, and asking for the removal of the county seat to Fowler, the center of the county, while Oxford was but three miles from the southern and eight miles from the eastern boundary lines. In December, '73, the Board of Commissioners issued the preliminary orders for the removal petitioned for.

The corner stone for the new Court House was laid in '74. It was completed and occupied early in '75. The building is constructed of red brick with free-stone facings, the cost of which was some $60,000, $40,000 of the amount being donated by Mr. M. Fowler, of LaFayette, in whose honor the town was named.

The first jail in the county was situated in the south-western part of Oxford. It was built of heavy hewed logs, and held but one prisoner, he setting fire to the building and narrowly escaping with his life. A brick jail soon replaced this one, and it, together with the Court House square, was deeded to the town of Oxford, upon the removal of the county seat to Fowler.

A contract for a new jail in Fowler, was let in '76; the estimated cost was $25,000. It was a fine stone building which stood for a little less than four years, being then, in '80, destroyed by fire. It was immediately rebuilt and repaired at a cost of $7,791.50.

The list of the present county officers, ('88), is as follows: Circuit Judge, Peter H. Ward; Prosecutor, Ralph W. Marshall; Clerk, George I. Richmire; Sheriff, John R. Douglass; Auditor, J. A. McKnight; Treasurer, Chas. Martin; Recorder, Geo. W. Pagget; Surveyor, Robt. Harrell; Superintendent, B. F. Johnson; Commissioners, Wm. Bennett, James Darby, and J. M. Wilson.

Railways have been no small factor in the progress of Benton County, she deriving benefit from four different lines at present.

The T., P. & W. runs east and west, about two miles north of its northern boundary.

The Lake Erie and Western line was completed in '72. Its course is east and west across the southern portion of the county.

The same year, the Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Cincinnati Railroad was built. It follows the line of the L. E. & W. as far as Templeton, thence it passes centrally through to the extreme north-western corner of the county.

The Chicago and Indiana Coal Road runs north and south across the county, two miles east of the central point. It crosses the C., I., St. L. & C. at Swanington, and the L. E. & W. at Oxford.

The Press: The first paper in Benton County was the Oxford Evening Mail, Republican in politics, and originated by J. W. Jackson, in '55. It afterwards passed into the hands of Simon F. Carter, made neutral in politics and was discontinued in less than a year.

The Chronotype, in '60, by M. V. B. Cowan, was the next, and was brought to an end by war excitements.

In '65, J. R. Lucas started the Oxford Tribune as a Republican paper. It passed to Alonzo Cowgill, in '70.

1871 saw the advent of the Benton County Herald, edited by D. McA. Williams.

The Benton Democrat originated in June of '75. W. B. Maddox being editor and proprietor.

The Boswell Leader was started by C. Galt, about the same time.

These have all met the same fate, either of being discontinued, or passing into other hands with a change of name. The Oxford Tribune alone retaining its original name. The present county papers are: Fowler -- The Republican, Wallace & Leffen, editors; The Review, Democratic in politics, by D. J. Eastburn; The Nutshell, neutral as to politics, by Frank Mitchell; The Oxford Tribune, by John P. Carr; The Boswell Argus, by Willard F. Culley; and the Wadena Pickett, by John W. Swan.


The former county seat, is pleasantly located near Oak Grove, on the L. E. & W. railroad, in the south-eastern part of the county. It was for many years not only the capital, but was also the only town and business center in the county. Its population in '80 was 750 and it has had some considerable growth since that time.

The Oxford Academy, established in 1865, was at one time quite an important institution, but it has since been made part of the common school system, and the building is used for the union schools of the town.

There are four churches in Oxford, the Presbyterian, Methodist, Christian, and Catholic.


Was laid out on the C., I., St. L. & C. railroad, in '71, by Mr. Moses Fowler. It is in the geographical center of the county, and on the highest point of land between LaFayette and Chicago. In the census of '80, the population was some 1,100 -- since that time some 500 or 600 have been added. The town contains some fine buildings, a bank, one of the best tile factories in the State, a grain elevator which receives and ships immense quantities of grain, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Christian, and Baptist churches, a good graded and high school.

The remaining towns on the L. E. & W. railroad, are Otterbein, Templeton, Chase, Boswell, Talbot, and Ambia; on the C., I., St. L. & C., Atkinson, Earl Park, and Raub; on the C. & I. C., Swanington, East Fowler, Lochiel, and Wadena, all of which are thriving little towns and do a large grain business.

The county contains four banks, one at Fowler, Oxford, Boswell, and Ambia, and seven tile factories.

Background and graphics by

© 2008 Benton County INGenWeb Project
All rights reserved