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The Town Where It Happened: Jeffersonville, Indiana, Conceived By Thomas Jefferson as the Model Urban Plan for Frontier American Towns, Established by William Henry Harrison and Populated (Briefly) by Aaron Burr

Finely drawn plan of the Jeffersonville, Indiana, on the banks of the Ohio River opposite Louisville, Kentucky, based on Thomas Jefferson's concept of the model American urban plan, as described by Jefferson to William Henry Harrison in 1800, and thereafter implemented by Harrison upon his return to Indiana as its Territorial Governor, in 1801.

As described below, this plan combines Thomas Jefferson's conception of the model urban plan, the quest for commercial control of the Ohio River and the political and financial intrigues of Aaron Burr and General John Wilkinson in a single snapshot in time. The map is at the nexus of social issues, such as Jefferson's concerns with public health and urban planning, the expansion of the frontier and the menagerie of characters which drove the narrative of American history in the first two decades of the 19th Century.

For roughly a decade, Jeffersonville would be one of the most important towns in Indiana, reaching its high point in 1813-1814, when it served as the de facto capital of Indiana Territory, under Governor Thomas Posey.

Jeffersonville-The Earliest Town Based Upon Thomas Jefferson's Model Urban Plan

As the first embodiment of the urban planning ideas of Thomas Jefferson, the town plan for Jeffersonville is well known to scholars. It is the subject of several lengthy essays by John W. Reps.

This example, dated 1805, is the earliest (and quite possibly the only) surviving example of Jeffreson's concept, drawn at a time when Jeffersonville had become the center of both commercial and political intrigue, following the Louisiana Purchase and the Vincennes Treaties. It was in Jeffersonville, Indiana, in the summer of 1805 that planning for the Indiana Canal Company took shape, William Rector's Survey of the road from the Ohio River to Vincennes (the Buffalo Trace or Indiana Wilderness Road) commenced and, perhaps most notably, then Senator Aaron Burr and John Wilkinson arrived in Jeffersonville, quite possibly the scene in which their treasonous plotting took shape.

Moreover, the present map shows previously unknown evidence that the Jeffersonville planners may been awared of and responded to Thomas Jefferson's critique of the original Jeffersonville plan shown to him by Harrison, as the present map includes a town square in the style suggested by Jefferson, unlike the original 1803 plan.

The Conception and Creation of Jeffersonville

In Philadelphia, in the Spring of 1800, while serving as the delegate for the Northwest Territory, William Henry Harrison (9th President) and then Vice President Thomas Jefferson, had a conversation regarding an ideal town plan, which "would exempt its inhabitants in a great degree from those dreadful pestilences which have become so common in the large Cities of the United States." (Harrison letter to Jefferson, August 6, 1802).

Jefferson's interest in urban planning was well known, dating back to his involvement with Pierre L'Enfant in the design of Washington, D.C. As noted by John Reps in T homas Jefferson's Checkerboard Towns

Sometime prior to 1801, he began to formulate a system of town planning that was aimed at the shortcomings of the standardized gridirons branded on the American landscape. . .. He was undoubtedly familiar with the plan of Savannah, which his own system faintly resembled. He had seen the plan of Marietta, the first city in the Northwest Territory, with its common along the river and relatively generous provision for open spaces. . . He was familiar at first hand with Philadelphia, until 1800 the nation's capital, with its grid plan and five open squares. . . .From all these sources, but most of all from his own keen mind, came the new pattern for America's cities that was soon to have a trial.

Following Harrison's appointment as the first Governor of Indiana Territory, Harrison relocated to Vincennes, Indiana, in 1801. By the following year, Harrison had prevailed upon a group of investors who were planning a town on the northern bank of the Ohio River, opposite Louisville, Kentucky, to name the town Jeffersonville, and to implement Jefferson's model urban plan. Reps notes:

The first reference to Jefferson's new planning system is in a letter written to him by William Henry Harrison, the Governor of Indiana Territory, in 1802.

In his August 6, 1802 letter to Jefferson, Harrison writes that the proprietors of the town had

acceded to my proposals [and] a Town has been laid out with each alternate square to remain vacant forever . . . and I have taken the liberty to call it Jeffersonville.

Harrison noted with pride the importance of the town, located just above the Falls of the Ohio River, which had been carved from the land granted to George Rogers Clark and was located between Louisville, Kentucky and Clarksville, Ohio. Harrison also described to Jefferson the town proprietors' plans to locate a canal around the Falls of the Ohio and make Jeffersonville the center of commercial and industrial development in the region.

Enclosed with the letter, Harrison sent Jefferson two maps, one of which included a plan for the town. Reps notes:

The two plans enclosed with this letter have not survived, but a copy of the original town plat exists in the county records, and it was no doubt a similar drawing that the President received. The chief feature of the plan, as mentioned in Harrison's letter, is the alternating pattern of open squares and subdivided blocks. This is the basis of the Jeffersonian grid system.

This was the model urban plan which Jefferson touted to luminaries such as Comte de Volney, as more conducive to creating an open town plan which would deter the spread of Yellow Fever and similar urban illnesses.

Jefferson responded to Harrison on February 27, 1803, stating:

I am thoroughly persuaded that it will be found handsome, & pleasant, and I do believe it to be the best means of preserving the cities of America from the scourge of the yellow fever. . . . I cannot decide from the drawing you sent me, whether you have laid off streets round the squares thus [here Jefferson draws a small plan], or only the diagonal streets therein marked. The former was my idea, and is, I imagine, more convenient.

Baird's History of Clark County notes that

the original plan resembled a checkerboard: the black squares to be sold in lots, the red squares to be crossed diagonally by streets, leaving four triangular parks at the intersections of the streets.

On October 29, 1803, Harrison replied to Jefferson's observations regarding the planning of Jeffersonville, describing the plan as follows:

The Streets of the town of Jeffersonville are made to pass diagonally through the Squares and are not parallels with them as I knew to be your intention-but the proprietor was so parsimonious that he would not suffer it to be laid out in that manner.

As noted below, the 1805 plan offered here would seem to partially address Jefferson's critique.

History of Jeffersonville

Prior to its purchase by the town proprietors, the land for Jeffersonville had been owned by Isaac Bowman. As noted by Baird:

When first platted the city occupied but a small part of number one in the [Clark] Grant. This was land owned by Isaac Bowman, of Shenandoah County, Virginia. To sell his tract he disposed of this portion through his attorney, John Gwathmey, of Jefferson County, Kentucky, June 23, 1802, to Marston Green Clark, William Goodwin, Richard Pile, Davis Floyd, and Samuel Gwathmey as trustees to lay off a town and sell lots, all monies accruing from such sales to be used in establishing ferries and improving the facilities of the new town. John Gwathmey laid off the town, consisting of one hundred and fifty acres on the lower part of number one of the Grant.

William Hayden English, in his Conquest of the Country Northwest of the Ohio River . . . (1896), writes at page 985:

John Gwathmey, who had married a relative of [Issac] Bowman's, was his agent in looking after these lands, in platting Jeffersonville, selling the lots, and in various other matters connected therewith, now of considerable local interest from an historical standpoint.

Gwathmey was a fluent and prolific writer and explained all his transactions fully in letters to Bowman . . . There is much in the letters in reference to a canal, then expected to be made on the Indiana side of the river, about a mineral spring on Bowman's land back of Jeffersonville, and other matters of interest relating to affairs in that locality at that early day.

Land sales commenced immediately, with Harrison reporting to Jefferson that lots were selling for $200 each.

The 1805 Manuscript Plan

The present 1805 manuscript plan is apparently the earliest surviving plan of Jeffersonville. While earlier plans may have survived into the 20th Century, as a result of the Great Flood of 1937, what remains in the Clark County Courthouse are hand drawn and photographic copies of the originals.

While the 1805 Plan is unsigned, we believe the most probable draftsman was John Gwathmey. While Gwathmey was not a trained surveyor, it is known that he laid out the town plan and there are no references to any other mapmakers operating in Jeffersonville at this time.

The style in which the map is drawn suggests that it is a free hand copy of another map intended for practical purposes, such as promotion and land sales, and was not the work of a trained surveyor.

We also note that the map is drawn on two sheets, which have been attached with what appears to be a primitive glue or wax, which strongly suggests that it was cobbled together in the frontier, rather than in a larger town where a full sheet of paper would have been available for drafting the map.

One historically significant element of the map is the addition of the Public Square, done by adding a small square of paper on top of the original manuscript map. When originally drawn, the section beneath the public square included two diagonal streets, which are still visible under the small square of paper. The addition of the Public Square, which was almost certainly done shortly after the map was originally drawn, would appear to reflect a modification of the original plan in conformity with the critique of Thomas Jefferson. This Public Square would become the Jeffersonville Court House in 1814, with parallel streets on either side of the square.

Survey of Surviving Jeffersonville Plans

In addition to the present map dated 1805, we are aware of two surviving facsimile copies of maps which illustrate the original Jeffersonville Plan.

  • The Jeffersonville Township Public Library has in its collection a map entitled " John Gwathmey's 1802 Plat of Jeffersonville (Redrawn c. 1909)."
  • John Reps also illustrates a map which he refers to as " Original plan of Jeffersonville, Indiana, 1802 (redrawn in 1879)."

Both the 1909 and the 1879 plans referenced above refer to a square at the center of town as "Court House." By contrast, the present 1805 references "Public Square" on a small pastedown amendment. The first courthouse in Jeffersonville was not built until 1814. As such, the present plan would appear to be the earliest surviving map of Jeffersonville, pre-dating the now lost originals referenced above.

The Indiana Canal Company & Aaron Burr

With the opening of the town, the promoters of Jeffersonville turned their attention to developing a canal. The primary navigational obstacle in this section of the Ohio River was 2.5 miles stretch of the River called the Falls or Rapids of the Ohio River. Colonel Jonathan Williams, after a reconnaissance of the Ohio River in 1801, concluded:

That it would be easy to make a canal is probable, because there seems to be no reasonable apprehension of meeting with rocks in the way… and as the whole country, above these falls, to an extent of fifteen hundred miles, is interested in facilitating this passage for its produce, the time may not be far distant when such a measure will be adopted.

It would be at Jeffersonville that the Indian Canal Company would be formed for the purposes of constructing such a canal, under the leadership of General Benjamin Hovey. Hovey, then a land speculator and member of the New York State Legislature, first visited the area in 1804 at the suggestion of Aaron Burr. While he first considered running the canal on the south side of the Ohio River through Louisville, he settled on the north side.

Hovey surveyed a line of about two and a half miles from the mouth of a ravine east of Jeffersonville through the town to a spot near Clarksville. By November, 1804, he had acquired lots in Jeffersonville from the Jeffersonville trustees, which included the requirement that he commence the Canal within a year. Hovey's decision spurred action across the river, where on December 19, 1804, the Kentucky legislature chartered the Ohio Canal Company to cut a canal on that side.

With endorsements from Davis Floyd and Samuel Gwathmey, of Jeffersonville, and from Jared Mansfield, surveyor general of Ohio and of Indiana Territory, Hovey headed for Washington to seek federal aid. While there, he received an enthusiastic testimonial from General James Wilkinson. On January 17, 1805, Hovey asked Congress for either a grant of twenty-five thousand acres in Indiana or pre-emption on a hundred thousand acres for the purpose of building a canal. The request was initially considered on January 28, but was tabled for lack of a formal charter. Thereafter, Hovey, Wilkinson, and General John Patterson draw up a petition for a charter, planning to present it to the first Indiana territorial legislature, which was to convene in Vincennes on July 29. The group was later joined by Senators Aaron Burr, John Smith and John Brown, along with a number of the original proprietors of Jeffersonville.

By the Summer of 1805, Burr had travelled to Jeffersonville, where he met with Wilkinson, in part to promote the Canal Project, hoping to enlist the aid of the Governor William Henry Harrison.

The Indiana Canal Company was incorporated on August 24, 1805. The incorporators were Aaron Burr, John Brown, George Rogers Clark, Jonathan Dayton, Davis Floyd. Benjamin Hovey, Josiah Stevens, William Croghan, John Gwathmey, John Harrison, Marston G. Clark and Samuel C. Vance. The project was a most important one for Jeffersonville and Clarksville, and was commented upon by several travelers of that period as the beginning of a period of prosperity and growth. The line as surveyed seemed more practical than the one on the Louisville side of the river.

There is speculation some of the Canal promoters never intended to proceed with the Canal at all as noted by Baird:

Article 19 of the law [creating the Canal Company] empowered the directors, after accumulating $100,000 in gold and silver or the value thereof in lands, to issue promissory notes. The value of these notes, however, according to Article 20, was not to exceed double the cash in funds or lands. These three articles reveal the real purpose of the act. At any rate the canal was never dug but the associates, instead, set up a bank of issue. Their opponents charged that this was the real purpose from the start, and that its promoters would be enabled to sell their lands at a profit and to issue paper money at will and in this way to swindle the people out of a few hundred thousand dollars. Some even professed to see in this corporation a scheme by which Burr and Wilkinson were to secure funds for the wider purposes of their conspiracy.
[Wilkinson] is not named among the incorporators, but Burr's name is there. That leads us to suspect the active but covert participation of both from the start. Moreover the provisions of the act that led to the establishment of the bank betray Burr's handiwork. A few years before, while a member of the New York assembly, he had procured the passage of a charter for the Manhattan Company, a corporation that was created ostensibly to supply New York with pure water. The earlier company never busied itself with water, unless in connection with its stock, nor did its Indiana fellow. . .

The inability of the Indiana incorporators to finance their scheme no doubt gave their Ohio competitors a great advantage, and the arrest of Burr on a charge of treason in 1807, ultimately made the success of the undertaking an impossibility.

An interesting side note regarding the Indiana Canal Company and Burr relates to their business plan. Baird notes:

The total cost was estimated at two hundred and fifty-two thousand six hundred and thirty-eight dollars. This included the purchase of two hundred negroes at six hundred dollars each, making a total of one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. That amount would be increased by their clothing, subsistence, loss by desertion and mortality to one hundred and eighty thousand dollars. It was calculated that when the canal was finished the company would have on hand one hundred and eighty negroes valued at five hundred and fifty dollars each, or a total value of ninety-nine thousand dollars. This would reduce the cost of labor to eighty-one thousand dollars. If the plan had succeeded it would have made the country around Jeffersonville, New Albany and Clarksville one great city. . . . The ambitions of Burr's friends were to have him become a citizen of Indiana and to return him to Congress. His trip to Vincennes, under the assumed name of Colonel Burnham, was to see Francis Vigo, who had been very prominent in a previous scheme to have Indiana and Kentucky break off from the Union and unite with the Spanish provinces west of the Mississippi. An agent was appointed to select several five hundred acre estates for Burr to choose from, one of which was on the Ohio River just above Jeffersonville. The idea of returning him to Congress fell through with, but Burr continued to visit some of his adherents in Jeffersonville, and caused several boats to be built there. It was never established that any of his Clark county friends knew of his designs against the Spanish authority either in Texas or Mexico, but the probabilities are that they were privy to his whole scheme. Before the scheme was fully ripe the militia at Jeffersonville, acting on information of his treason, seized the boats that had been built there for him, and Davis Floyd, his host, while visiting the village, was arrested and tried as an accomplice in the crime of his friend.

The William Rector Survey, Buffalo Trace and The Indiana Wilderness Road

Following the creation of Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison negotiated the Vincennes Treaties of 1803 and 1804, which confirmed to the United States certain lands originally purchased by France and later taken by the United States from Britain at the conclusion of the American Revolution, along with purchase of additional lands for settlement, thereby connecting Clark's Grant and the Vincennes Tract. The area had many squatters living on native owned lands which led to rising tensions with the tribes; the treaty relieved pressure on the settlers, allowing them to freely settle the land.

With the conclusion of the Vincennes treaties, William Rector was hired in 1805 to survey a direct line between the Vincennes Tract and the Clark Tract. The Rector Survey commenced on July 11, 1805, as directed by General Clark. Aaron Burr was there in league with General Clark to build the proposed Ohio Falls Canal on the Indiana side of the River, thus possibly making Jeffersonville the primary seat of commercial transportation west to the vast Louisiana Purchase Territory.


The Plan of Jeffersonville provides both the earliest surviving example of Thomas Jefferson's model urban plan and a unique look at the United States on the eve of its Manifest Destiny.

The plan combines Jefferson's conception of the model urban plan, the quest for commercial control of the Ohio River and the political and financial intrigues of Aaron Burr and General John Wilkinson. The map is at the nexus of social issues, such as Jefferson's concerns with public health and urban planning, the expansion of the frontier and the menagerie of characters which drove the narrative of American history in the first two decades of the 19th Century.

As the only surviving example of the first attempt to implement Jefferson's original conception, the plan is multi-faceted artifact of early American history, which had until recently been unknown to historians and collectors.

Condition Description
Manuscript map, with tree stencils. Two sheets joined, possibly using wax. A small piece of paper is pasted onto the map with the word "Public Square" written on it. Beneath the paper is a continuation of the diagonal roads present on the map.
Lewis Baird: Baird's History of Clark County, Indiana / by Lewis C. Baird (1909). John W. Reps, Thomas Jefferson's Checkerboard Towns, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Oct., 1961), pp.