Taking Stock of William Jennings Holman and His Improbable Locomotive, part 1

Preface / Table of Contents

Part 2: An unsettling novelty - Peru and
xxxxIndianapolis Rail Road

early life

Indiana was still covered with vast expanses of deep primeval forest during the childhood of William Jennings ("W.J.") Holman. In keeping with his surroundings, his early life has proved to be nearly inpenetrable to the light of history.

The first thing that needs to be said about W. J. Holman is that he was a shark. After engaging in a couple of honest pursuits as a young man, he descended quite rapidly into the life of a confidence man and pursued that line of work for the rest of his life. He was moderately good at it - enough to earn a comfortable living, but not nearly adept enough to make him rich. He also was an a lifelong fiddler with his inventions, which ranged from impractical to absurd. His Holman Locomotive stood somewhere in the middle of that range, and it represented a late-life convergence of his pursuits of crime and contraptions.

We do not know with any confidence how he got this way, because what we know of his life before manhood is situational and circumstantial and largely impersonable. As did all Hoosier frontier boys, he would have maintained a close relationship with hard physical work, but he was luckier than most when it came to education. While most of his peers were forced to quit school to help out on their farms at an early age out of economic necessity, W.J.'s adult writings suggest that he either accomplished the equivalent of a high school education either formally, or through home schooling by a highly literate family. His father, Joseph, was well-educated, and the presumption is that his mother, Lydia, was likewise, although she suffered from the historical anonymity that typically plagued farm wives. About all that we know about her is that she came from a Quaker family named Overman and that she married Joseph Holman in 1810. William Jennings Holman, born on June 2, 1819 near Richmond, Indiana, was the sixth of their ten children, so it is safe to say that Lydia's was a life of long hours caring for her family as befitting of a farm wife. She passed away in 1854.

Joseph was among a gaggle of offspring that accompanied his parents to Indiana from Kentucky shortly after 1800, when the former's namesake natives still dominated its ancient woodlands. After uniting with Lydia in 1810, he built a house in Wayne County near Richmond and subsequently joined the army during the War of 1812, although he did not participate in the fighting. Joseph was a gregarious sort who was noted for his sense of humor, making him a natural for a career in politics.1 Soon after the war, he participated in Indiana's first constitutional convention and became a crony of the state's first governor, Jonathan Jennings, the source of W.J.'s middle name. After W.J. came to the world, the family remained in Richmond until 1823, when President Monroe appointed Joseph to serve as an agent in the new Federal Land Office established within Fort Wayne's old military stockade. Soon thereafter he became the treasurer of the village that was beginning to coalesce around the fort.


1. Joseph Holman's election record

Territorial Legislature representative
1814 lost
1815-16 chosen to fill vacancy
1816 - delegate to constitutional convention

State House of Representatives
1839 lost
1845 lost
1848 lost

2. The Indiana militia escorted the Potawatomis only as far as Illinois, where it was relieved by another militia.

Somebody noted many years later that just about everyone involved in the town's government in the early days was accused of illegally selling liquor to the Indians, so Joseph, a registered Indian trader himself, presumably skirted the law like the others. Indian trading was one of the most lucrative pursuits on the frontier, as traders were free to cheat (and supply booze to) the Indians at will, with little Federal oversight. His trader status meshed well with his work at the Land Office, where he used insider information to speculate on real estate. On one instance, in August, 1827, he made a deal with the chief of the Miami Indians tribe to purchase a section of their land for $500, part paid in trade. Four months later, after quickly gaining approval of the sale by President John Quincy Adams, he recouped the entire amount by selling 210 acres of his purchase to William N. Hood. Holman then staked out the remainder of his land in 1829 as the townsite for Miamisport, which he created with an eye on making it the county seat. In 1834, Hood in-turn founded Peru on the land he acquired from Holman, setting up civic rivalry in which Peru came out on top. Holman soon removed himself to Fort Wayne, with the scant consolation of having one of Peru's streets named after him.

In the meantime, in early 1829 newly elected President Andrew Jackson's administration swept Joseph and other Adams men from their Federal positions. Rumors circulated that it was not only Jackson's spoils system that cost Joseph his job so much as his shady dealings as the land agent. Once the political winds again blew favorably, he managed to fill the slot as head of the Indiana (State) Land office in Lawrenceburg, where he again proceeded to take advantage of his insider status, this time to speculate in land scrip. His shady dealings eventually caused him to be hauled into court, where a $4721 (more than $140K today) judgement was levied against him for his "defalcations". Presumably he was also encouraged to find another line of work.

Joseph was an ardent anti-slaver whose home was later a station on the Underground Railroad, but he was not fond of the Indians. When the state decided to displace the Potawatomis off their remaining lands in 1838 to make way for more settlers and land speculators, Joseph signed on as a captain of the militia formed to herd them toward a new reservation in Kansas. While an earlier march of borne similar aims had become to be known as "The Trail of Tears", the Potawatomi Tribe's came to be called the "The Trail of Death". W.J. would demonstrate his own callous disregard for Indians three decades later, while pursuing a confidence scheme that might have proved devastating to the displaced remnants of that same tribe, had it been successful.

Had W.J. been born to his uncle, he might have been influeneced to chart a more respectable course. Uncle William Holman spent his lifetime in the Methodist ministry and produced a son, William Steele Holman, who spent several terms U.S. Senate known and respected as Great Objector for his frugal oversight of government spending. W.J. spent his own lifetime dropping his cousin's name whenever it seemed advantageous.

Although his father was a genial sort known for his robust sense of humor, by early adulthood, W.J. was showing signs of being an intense individual who lacked much of a funny bone.

He likewise did not hold his father's interest in politics, but instead developed a keen interest in technology that led him to pursue a career as a civil engineer. At age 19 in early 1839, W.J.'s family connections landed him a job as a junior assistant surveyor working for the state government on its canal system. His older brother Soloman by then had been a resident engineer working out of Jeffersonville and Crawfordsville on the Indiana state canal system for several years, so chances are that W.J. trained in the surveying craft under him. He also studied the art of building canals, a process that endowed him with some of the universal engineering skills that also applied to railroad construction. Later in life he also proclaimed himself a mechanical engineer, although this seemed to based upon faulty self-education involved in developing The Holman Locomotive. His training as a civil engineer served him well in the future as an honest source of income in between his several confidence schemes.

The Holman residence in Miamisport (now part of downtown Peru) probably was occupied by Joseph alone most of the time, while the family remained in Ft. Wayne.

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