Who was first?

FOR at least 169 years, the graves of Bartholomew County’s first white settlers have been in a small plot north of Columbus just off what is now Middle Road.

For a short time earlier this month, I thought they could actually be in a church cemetery in German Township, about eight miles to the north of Middle Road.

The remains of Joseph and Mary Cox, who for much of the 19th and all of the 20th centuries have been depicted as a sort of first family of Bartholomew County in local histories, have not been removed.

But for a few weeks, I had real questions about that portrayal and concerns that a good portion of local history might have to be rewritten.

There are numerous references in a variety of histories to the Cox family as the first to establish a permanent home in Bartholomew County. In 1819, Joseph and Mary Cox, along with their 11 children made a homestead in an area called the Hawpatch.

In one important respect, the claim is one with a big asterisk since Native American tribes had been living in the area more than 800 years by the time the first white settlers arrived. There is definitive proof of that presence, such as the 1974 discovery of artifacts in an area near Marr and National roads which were dated to 1000 A.D.

The Cox family’s claim to being the first white settlers appears to be based on hearsay but it is testimony that has been accepted as fact for more than a century.

It was given a question mark in my mind by a special milestone that is being observed by the congregation of the Old Union Church of Christ which is just off Road 50W in German Township north of Columbus.

Next year the congregation will be observing the 200th anniversary of its founding.

Based on simple math, that would place the birth of the congregation in 1816, three years before the Cox family arrived in Bartholomew County.

According to a church history, the congregation began meeting in the home of Frederick Steinberger (also spelled Steenbarger and Steinbarger) in 1816. The home was a log cabin Steinberger had raised in the early 1800s after he and four other families had arrived in the area that was to become Bartholomew County. Steinberger remained in the area for the rest of his life. He died in 1867 and was buried in the church cemetery.

The congregation also was cited in the 1888 History of Bartholomew County. County historian George Pence wrote:

“For twenty years the meetings were held in his (Steinberger’s) house. It was so built that a large room was set apart for the purpose of God’s worship and such was his generosity and goodness of heart that he often entertained with genuine pioneer hospitality, not only the preachers but also the entire congregation, many of whom, barefooted and roughly clad, had walked many miles to hear the preaching of the gospel.”

There is a difference of opinion about the timing of the church’s creation. County historian Pence wrote that Steinberger arrived in Bartholomew County in 1819, the same year as the Cox family and several other early pioneers.

The church history, written in the 1920s, apparently was derived in part from the 1888 county history by George Pence — the phrasing in some sections almost identical — but dates the launch of the church to 1816.

The discrepancy in dates led the Rev. Kirby Rupp, pastor of the church, to do some additional research, and he found that the church was actually created in Wayne County, three years before the Steinbergers moved to what would become Bartholomew County.

“I’d describe it as a floating congregation in those first three years,” Rupp said. “It did start out in the Steinberger home but that home was in Wayne County. When the Steinbergers moved, the church moved.”

Regardless of where the congregation was formed, members of the Old Union congregation are more focused on its upcoming 200th anniversary than the lost opportunity to claim one of its own as a “founder” of Bartholomew County.

Of course, both the Cox and Steinberger families have to take a back seat to the real founders of what would become Bartholomew County — the Native Americans who roamed these lands more than 1,000 years ago.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.