History 301: An early newspaper describes life in new state capital

This illustration depicts Indianapolis soon after the Western Censor was first published. The artist captured Washington Street looking west from Pennsylvania Street In 1825. INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

By CONNIE ZEIGLER, Contributing editor

For the better part of a year from 1823 to 1824, two men, H. Gregg and D. Maguire, published the Western Censor & Immigrants Guide newspaper from a building on Washington Street “near the centre of town,” according to the masthead on the June 4, 1823, issue.

Harvey Gregg was a lawyer who arrived in the Indianapolis settlement in 1821, the same year that Alexander Ralston laid out the soon-to-be capital, according to a publication by the Indiana Historical Bureau. Douglass Maguire settled in what Ralston’s plat called the “town of Indianapolis” in 1823, the year the two partnered on the publication of the newspaper.

Surprisingly, it was already the second newspaper to begin publication in the new town.

When the Western Censor went into publication, Indianapolis population was counted at about 700 souls. The first Marion County representatives joined the Indiana General Assembly that year. It would be another year before the records and the offices of state government moved to Indianapolis from Corydon, in 1824.

The Western Censor is the earliest Indianapolis newspaper in the digitized collection of the Indiana State Library. The library lists four copies in its collection, but only three issues are digitized to peruse for news 1823-style. Unlike most early newspapers, which focused almost exclusively on national news, the Western Censor published at least some local information, offering a rare glimpse into life in the earliest years of settlement.

The June 4 issue begins with the price of a subscription: two dollars in advance or three dollars for those who waited until they’d received a full year’s worth of news before ponying up their payments. Advertisements cost a dollar per “square” for three insertions.

Christopher Ladd must have considered this a fair price, for the first square beneath the subscription information is an ad for his “house of entertainment” at The Bluffs on White River “now called Port Royal, sixteen miles below Indianapolis,” according to the ad, which also stated that travelers would be “assured the best treatment the country will afford.” In another square, Dr. S. G. Mitchell advertised land for sale, “rich and handsomely situated, adjoining Indianapolis.”

Obed Foote and Harvey Gregg both advertised their legal services in the Western Censor. Gregg’s ad, although larger (after all he owned the paper), was not nearly as interestingly worded as Foote’s, which offered to attend to any business “not coming under the denomination of pettifogging” (emphasis his). Gregg, on the other hand, smartly advertised his capacity to handle the transfer of land titles “in the United States bounty land … having procured all the laws on that subject. All kinds of CONVEYANCING (emphasis Foote’s) done with neatness and dispatch.” Aside from this information, the rest of the first page is given up to religious news, a report on a seminary in Kentucky, and a copy of a sermon, under the headline, “Pulpit Eloquence.”

The second page of the Western Censor published notice of three men running for local office, without mentioning the parties to which they adhered. But, like other early newspapers across the country, the Western Censor did not hide its political leanings and inveighed against a newly passed law of which the editors disapproved. Many newspapers of the day would flatly state which political party they supported on the front page, but the Western Censor did not give this immediate head’s up to readers, perhaps because it was obvious that the few hundred people in town would be reading it no matter what the political proclivities were.

As a public service the editors published text of a new law that allowed citizens to cut and remove any timber remaining on unsold lots in the city. Darius Gregg posted notice that his Bright Bay horse had wandered off and he offered a five-dollar reward for its return. Meanwhile Moses Flood had found a Chestnut Sorrel mare, about seven years old, which he valued at about $25. Andrew Burns had started a tailoring business on Washington Street, “first door east of the Post Office” for all the would-be Dapper Dans in town.

B. (Bethuel) F. Morris advertised his law office on Washington Street, “opposite to Mr. Givan’s Store,” a retail establishment that John H. B. Nowland described thusly in his Early Reminiscences of Indianapolis: “It was a perfect curiosity shop. In it could be found any article that utility or necessity might demand. A gentleman once inquired (in sport) for goose yokes, and to his surprise they were produced by dozens.”

Three court cases were noted in the newspaper, including notices of two divorces, which had to be published in a newspaper of record for four consecutive weeks because the defendants could not be found to be served notice by hand – a statute that acknowledged the movement of emigrants across the country from East to West, and sometimes back again in this time of pioneering.

The fourth and final page of the Western Censor was a mélange of national and international news, weird news, and even a poem – The Dirge of Alaric the Visigoth – a pithy take on the man who had sacked Rome in 410, to which the editors devoted a full page-length column.

Despite all this good news, Harvey Gregg retired from his editor’s position after just a few months. In January 1825, under Douglass Maguire and new owner John Douglass, the Western Censor & Immigrants Guide began publishing as the Indiana Journal. The Library of Congress provides the history of the next stages of the      newspaper: In June 1904, George McCulloch, publisher of the recently      established Indianapolis Morning Star,      purchased the newspaper that was by then called the Indianapolis Journal. McCulloch published the newspaper as the Indianapolis Morning Star and Journal until Oct. 26, 1904, when he deleted the “Journal” (and later the “Morning”) from its name. Eventually the newspaper that was once called the Western Censor & Immigrants Guide became The Indianapolis Star.