(“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – September 2015, No. 128)
Judge William Polke
History has recorded that William Polke was born on September 19, 1775, in Brooke County, Virginia. As a boy in 1782, he with his mother and three sisters were captured by raiding Indians. Handed over to the British at Detroit, the family was held as prisoners for a year before being released in 1783 at the end of the American Revolutionary War.
Later the Polke family moved to Knox County, Indiana, and as an adult, William established a career in public service. He was with Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, helped build the original stronghold at Fort Wayne, and was wounded during the Battle of Tippecanoe. In 1814 he served as a Knox County associate circuit court judge as well as won election to the Territorial Legislature. Polke became one of the forty-three delegates to the Constitutional Convention responsible for writing Indiana’s first state constitution in 1816. He served two terms as the state senator of Knox County, but he lost his bid for Lieutenant-Governor in 1822 which apparently ended his quest for elective office. Polke was appointed in 1830 by an act of the Indiana General Assembly one of the three commissioners for the construction of the Michigan Road. Historians have recorded that Polke served a critical role in the success of that project, which established a road extending from the Ohio River to Lake Michigan.
During 1838 Superintendent, Emigration of Indians, Able C. Pepper assigned Polke as a conductor of the Potawatomi peoples’ removal from their northern Indiana homeland on their grueling march to Kansas. Cecil K. Byrd, professor, Lilly Library, at Indiana University in 1979 wrote in, “The Papers of William Polke, 1775-1843” found on-line at scholarworks.iu.edu that, “Polke was genuinely concerned with the welfare of the Indians and, disclaimers to the contrary, personally did everything he could to supply food, clothing and render medical assistance in the exercise of his official duties.”
It was a forced march of over eight hundred Potawatomi known to history as “The Trail of Death.” When reaching Danville, Illinois, the tribe was handed over to William Polke. Paul Wallace Gates noted in The John Tipton Papers that Polke, “was convinced that his prompt action had prevented bloodshed between the two races. That he regretted the haste, the lack of preparation, and the suffering is equally clear. And once they reached Kansas he was certain the tribe would be protected… from the encroaching aggression.” In 1841 President William Henry Harrison in recognition of patriotic services appointed Polke to serve at Fort Wayne as register of the land office.
When Polke died, his April 29, 1843 Fort Wayne Sentinel obituary ends with these lines: “He was buried with military honors; and a large concourse of citizens followed his remains to their last camping ground.” However, the cemetery name is not mentioned. In the year 1860, the interred in the McCulloch Cemetery along Broadway − present-day McCulloch Park − were to be removed and re-interred in present-day Lindenwood Cemetery.
All but one grave is marked and that is Indiana’s seventh Governor Samuel Bigger’s remains in present-day McCulloch Park. For years, questions persisted as to whether or not all the burials were found, and surviving family members located for approval to conduct the graves’ removal. Since there is no record of Polke having been removed to Lindenwood, perhaps he continues to be interred in McCulloch Park.
During a research project conducted to identify the burial site of each of the Constitutional Convention delegates, Indiana State Archivist, Jim Corridan led an effort and identified Polke’s long forgotten grave located, “in an early Fort Wayne cemetery.” Through a diligent search of records in Polke’s estate filed at the County Clerk’s office by SuzAnn Runge, Jim Corridan was able to confirm that William Polke, in fact, was buried in the Old Broadway Cemetery and is interred there today.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio. Ft. Wayne 106.3 FM and South Bend 95.7 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.