Myth or Legend?
Life and death of Chief White Eye
remains a mystery to this day
Canaan Fall Festival celebrates the chief’s legacy
CANAAN, Ind. (September 2014) – Like fog in the fall, the legend of Chief White Eye lingers in the hills and hollows of Shelby Township. There is much intrigue regarding the infamous Native American who lived in Jefferson and surrounding Indiana counties in the early 1800s.
Many voices, many theories abound regarding the life – and the death – of Chief White Eye.
Was he a renegade and a “drunkard” who had terrorized the area? Was his name Chief White Eye or Chief White Eyes? The story goes that he was a tall man with one blue eye.
Was he the distinguished Chief White Eye who had signed the Treaty of 1805 by which his tribe and the Potawatomi, Miami, Eel River and Wea ceded to the United States their claim to the area around Madison, Ind.?
Was he a Wyandotte, as noted on a monument at Neavill’s Grove? Was he a “lesser chief” of the Shawnees who traveled between Jefferson and Ripley counties? His tribal affiliation remains unclear.
50th Canaan Fall Festival
• 3-10 p.m. Friday Sept. 12; 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13 in Canaan, Ind.
• Information: (812) 839-4770
Despite these myths and unanswered questions, the small town of Canaan celebrates its heritage, including the local legend of Chief White Eye at its Canaan Fall Festival.
Now entering its 50th year, the festival is scheduled for Sept. 12-13 and features a Chief White Eye Art Contest, complete with both adult and youth divisions. The festival also features a parade, music, games, arts and crafts, and the 48th annual U.S. Pony Express Mail Run, which entails delivering the mail from Canaan to Madison via horseback. Hankins and Ferris have designed a logo for the official postage stamp. Mail will be postmarked by hand and carried the 10 miles to Madison. Chief White Eye will be a prominent aspect of the festival, and the portion of Hwy. 62 that leads from Madison through Canaan to Dillsboro is named “Chief White Eye Trail.”
Photo by Alice Jane Smith
Canaan, Ind., Postmistress Carolyn Hankins helps plan the annual U.S. Pony Express and special stamp for the Canaan Fall Festival. She also claims that one of her distant ancestors
for shooting the
But just who was Chief White Eye? Was he fact or fiction?
Gale Ferris, 77, of Canaan, is an expert on Chief White Eye. A retired teacher, self-taught artist, historian and Canaan enthusiast, Ferris has been fascinated by Chief White Eye since his youth. He thinks there may have been more than one “White Eye.”
Certainly, the Chief White Eye, who signed the treaty, was a distinguished man, Ferris said.
He speculates that the infamous White Eye might have been a son of the distinguished Delaware Chief, but he’s pretty certain that White Eye was “a renegade.” Stories persist about White Eye’s trading with settlers for liquor, a man he scalped, and a poisoning attempt he survived. After the poisoning, one story says he left with others for Decatur County and later moved to Tippecanoe County. In a letter from a member of the Willson family, which founded nearby Neavill’s Grove in northwest Jefferson County, Ferris learned that a “gentleman’s grandfather shot at him (White Eye) blindly in the dark.”
Ferris and his wife, Eleanor, live on a farm three miles northeast of Canaan, where they raise more than 30 rare breeds of chickens. The life and death of Chief White Eye is a story that drew him in early. He always has lived within two miles of his home.
“I was fascinated by the story of his being killed by settlers and thrown in a sinkhole, and his hut thrown in and burned,” Ferris said.
Photo courtesy of Bailey Hankins
Riders saddle up to the annual
U.S. Pony Express run from
Canaan to Madison, Ind. They
are (from left) Brett Bellomy,
Anna Ruth Hall, unknown,
Daniel Hobbs and Roger Mills.
The late Howard Risk of Canaan had taken Ferris to White Eye Hollow, where there was a dug-out place with up-ended rocks. Risk’s grandfather always told him this was the grave of Chief White Eye. White Eye had lived along Indian-Kentucky Creek in a hut covered in skins, bark and tree limbs.
In 1965, Ferris and his father, the late Harold Ferris, wanted to know more. One weekend, the two went with one of the farm workers to White Eye Hollow, a site along the Indian-Kentuck Creek. They dug around a cedar tree growing where the sinkhole had been. Nothing turned up the first day of the dig. On the second day, however, they found a black arrowhead, pieces of a Willowware plate, square-headed nails, other crockery, burnt clay and black charcoal, pieces of animal bone, and other pieces of bone.
Photo by Alice Jane Smith
and historian Gale Ferris poses beside
the monument he helped erect in honor of Chief White Eye.
“When we finished digging, we poured concrete on the site and etched White Eye into the concrete,” Ferris said. They relocated the grave to the family farm on State Roads 250 and 62 and put up a large monument. Some materials were sent to the Indiana University Archaeology Department for identification.
“I think, for sure, that we found the right location,” Ferris said. In particular, the willowware plate dates to the right period of time. The next day, Ferris had an experience that still sends chills down his spine. His pupils at an Aurora elementary school opened their workbooks and turned to a lesson on “The History of Willowware.”
“It makes you wonder if you were meant to see something and discover it,” Ferris said.
Even now, Ferris added, “All kinds of people stop to visit the monument and photograph it.” He has seen people dressed in Native American clothing perform ceremonies with smoke at the monument. He sees the monument as a way to honor the memory of the chief who “roamed the valleys” of southeastern Indiana.
In 1975, Ferris wrote and published “A History of Chief White Eye: A Ten-Year Search into the Chief’s Past.” The pamphlet summarizes information from various sources, including “Personal Recollections of Harrison Burns,” published by the Indiana Historical Society, the “Farmer’s Guide” of Nov. 18, 1927, and John B. Dillon’s “A History of Indiana from Its Earliest Exploration by Europeans to 1816.”
The Pigeon Roost Massacre in neighboring Scott County may have triggered the Chief White Eye’s murder, according to Ferris. “Earlier, he got along with the settlers until Pigeon Roost. People in Madison boarded up windows. There was a panic. People were fearful it would happen to them.”
Photo by Alice Jane Smith
The monument to
Chief White Eye attracts attention
in the town of
Canaan. It tells the story of the chief.
On Sept. 3, 1812, the Pigeon Roost settlement was attacked by “a dozen marauders said to have been Shawnees,” according to the “Centennial History and Handbook of Indiana,” by George S. Cottman. Within an hour, 22 men, women and children had been killed, their homes burned, and two children taken as prisoners. Although there are doubts as to what tribe was guilty of this atrocity, the panic spread to settlers in Jefferson County.
For generations, there were stories about who killed Chief White Eye. Although it was against government treaties to kill a Native American, families argued over who got the distinction for murder, Ferris said. Four local family names arose as possible killers of White Eye: Lee, Hall, Matthews and Buchanan, according to research in 1967 by Ferris and Harold Lakeman, former Madison resident now living in Florida.
One story says he was tossed in a sinkhole on a farm owned by a Dryden, while still another version, published in 1939, claims he was killed by Jim McCartney and dumped in a sinkhole in Graham Township.
Contacted by telephone at his home in North Port, Fla., Lakeman said he remembers little about the details of the Chief White Eye research because “it was so long ago.” However, he recalls that he and Ferris “went through the valleys and found bones on a ridge.”
The story took an interesting turn in 1975. Ferris told the White Eye story to a tour group from Madison State Hospital when they attended a church dinner in Canaan. Albert “Dutch” Lanham, then an attendant at the state hospital, had taken the patients to the dinner, and Hurley Adams drove the bus. Lanham is in a nursing home in Osgood, and Adams owns The Fabric Shop in Madison.
While talking about Chief White Eye, Ferris was interrupted by Lanham’s mother, Florence, who attended the gathering. Excitedly, she blurted out a long-held family secret. “I know who killed White Eye.” She named her husband’s great-grandfather, John Lanham.
“She wasn’t supposed to tell that,” Ferris said. “The family knew it, but kept it.” Surviving family members never denied her story. They just said, “She wasn’t supposed to say that. She spilled the beans.”
Carolyn S. Hankins, postmaster of Canaan and a festival board member, is a Lanham descendant. She said, “One of my ancestors shot White Eye, but then, unsure, added he might have been killed by “some relatives prior to John (Lanham) ... many ‘greats’ back in there.” Until recently, she knew nothing of the story, but she always has been interested in Indians and history.
Despite the twists and tangles of the White Eye tale, one theme emerges. Chief White Eye now is seen as a man to be honored and remembered, resulting in the Indiana Legislature designating section of State Road 62 through Canaan as the Chief White Eye Trail.
But in the last analysis, Chief White Eye is an enigma, and will remain so.
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