The area-encompassing Ohio County originally was a hunting ground for many Indian tribes. Its elevation above the river made it particularly disease free, and wildlife flourished. The assets that appealed to the Indians also attracted European settlers.
Settlers prior to 1798 are difficult to document because of the “Indian menace.” Until the Northwest Ordinance was official, there were no troops to protect settlers in the area. The first documented settlers were members of the family of Samuel Fulton, an uncle to steamboat inventor Robert Fulton.
The earliest settlers spent daylight hours only on the Indiana side of the river. They posted lookouts on the hillsides to watch for Indians while they cleared fields and built homes, and then ferried across the river to Kentucky for the night.
In 1814, John James of Fredericksburg, MD., journeyed to the area and purchased a large tract of land from Col. Benjamin Chambers, who had acquired it while conducting the original survey for the Northwest Ordinance. James and his son, Pinckney, surveyed the land and platted what was to be Rising Sun. In 1816, he registered the town of Rising Sun.
Several legends attempt to explain James’ choice of name for his small town. Some say it was taken from an early ferry on the riverfront. Others say James chose it because he was so struck by a view of the sun rising over the Kentucky hills.
Descendants of Robert Huston, who arrived with the Fulton’s in 1798, claim family records show Huston named the town. His party was headed downriver, apparently without a destination, and a pregnant woman was among them. For her comfort, they anchored along the bank for the night. Daybreak was so beautiful that the sight was named Rising Sun, and the group decided to make the place its home.
The small town grew rapidly. By 1816, there were about 700 settlers. A large German community formed, and until the outbreak of World War I, had its own schools in its native language. Others came too, looking for new homes and opportunities.
Among these were the Haines brothers, one a doctor and the other a baker. They would later purchase enough land to plat the town’s first sub-division. These were needed and settled by the 1830s. During the 1830s and 1840s, trade and commerce flourished.
Pinckney James and Shadrach Hathaway built steamboats in Rising Sun during the 1830s and 1840s. The wife of one of these men was a cousin to Mary Todd Lincoln.
Farm machinery manufacturer Clore Plow, a key company in the economic development of our young nation, was in Rising Sun. Each day, 300 to 400 flatboats left Rising Sun in the spring, loaded with locally produced goods. It is said that stevedores and slaves in Shreveport and other southern ports were certain that Rising Sun was among the great cities in the north because of the large amount of goods they unladed from the city.
This period was probably the most active in history of Rising Sun. The population reached about 2,500, business thrived, and prominent citizens, such as Col. Abel C. Pepper, worked to split away from Dearborn County, of which the town was the southernmost part.
In 1844, and partially due to a “clerical error,” Pepper was successful in separating the new Ohio County from Dearborn County. In 1845, the present Ohio County Courthouse was built entirely by donation. It is the oldest courthouse in continuous operation in the state.
About this time, another invention changed the way of life along the Ohio River. The “iron horse” took goods inland and was not dependent on seasonal changes and the depth of the river. During the 1860s and 1870s, rumors of rail expansion to Rising Sun kept alive the many small businesses and industries, still dependent on dwindling river traffic to ship their goods. When this did not materialize, many closed or relocated. Clore Plow remained, in what is now the Ohio County Historical Building, until 1910, when the business was relocated to Washington, Indiana.
What was hailed as the most promising young city along the Ohio River as late as 1880s, settled into sleepy existence; never quite blooming, never quite declining. Among the businesses that stayed were the enterprises of the Whitlock family, which built fine furniture and operated a lumberyard, among other endeavors.
Not only did J.W. “Row” Whitlock invent the first coin-operated music player and game machine and build forerunners to several modern marvels, he built and raced the Hoosier Boy series of hydroplanes. In 1924, he raced the Hoosier Boy between Cincinnati and Louisville. The 267-minute, 49-second record for the 267-mile course stands today. The boat and several Whitlock inventions are on display in the Ohio County Historical Museum.
An 1890s “melodrama,” set in Rising Sun, played nationally with many repertory companies. “Native sons” of the river town are spread across the country. For instance, Sen. Robert Dole’s grandparents were from Rising Sun.