By David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian
Looking back over old blog posts about the history of the Hamilton County area, certain names have cropped up several times. An important one is the Dempsey family who were prominent in the African American community and are especially relevant with Black History Month approaching. Interestingly, this repetition has proved useful. The library was recently contacted by the great-granddaughter of Charles Dempsey because there was a blog post about him.
When you talk about African American history in Hamilton County, the first name that usually comes to mind is the Roberts family who established the Roberts Settlement in the 1830s. The Dempseys were not originally members of this group, but the two families would later intermarry.
It’s not certain how the family first came to the area. Helen Worley Cromell, AKA “Dirty Helen.” tells a very questionable story in her autobiography that her grandfather freed the Dempseys from being enslaved and brought them to Noblesville. This is not supported by any other documentation. Because of census records, we do know that the family arrived here between 1850 and 1860.
Two of those people who were here in 1860 were George Dempsey in Noblesville and his relative James Dempsey in Westfield. Both men were noted for their Civil War service as members of the 28th USCT and may have been present at the fall of Richmond on April 3, 1865. There is also a possibility that George may have been a witness to the first Juneteenth Day in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 (read more about Juneteenth here). After the war, George became involved in local politics and was Circuit Court Bailiff from 1892 to 1897.
George’s son Charles has an equally interesting story. We have been able to learn some unique information about him because HEPL happens to have the library circulation book from 1883 to 1886 when he was a young man. In the circulation book, “C. Dempsey” checked out Heroic Women of the West on February 20, 1885. This is an appropriate title since he later became a soldier in the west by joining the 10th Cavalry and becoming a “Buffalo Soldier.” His service would continue into the Spanish American War. There is also an “F. Dempsey” in the circulation record who is possibly his brother Frank. Frank seems to have been more of a reader as he checked out books titled Family Library, Paley’s Natural Theology, Bancroft’s History of the U. S., Chambers Papers, and Cyclopedia of Useful Arts.
Another notable member of the family was America Dempsey who was one of the first African American students to attend Noblesville High School. The three girls who passed the exam began in the 1881-1882 school year. There is a photograph from the 1927 NHS yearbook of students in 1885. The image has three young women who appear to be African American. Unfortunately, no one is identified. America Dempsey didn’t graduate, and her life took some bad turns in later years.
Researching a family like this is a great way to illustrate local history. The new HEPL Crossroads Discovery Center – the section of the library for local history and genealogy which includes the old Indiana Room – will be opening in a few months. It will have resources such as newspaper databases, genealogical information, old yearbooks, and other materials for exploring details of the past in your family and community. Perhaps, you can find stories as unique and interesting as those about the Dempsey family.