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February 09, 2017

Thomas Murphy – An African American Pioneer

Thomas Murphy – An African American Pioneer

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian


Last year I did a post on the first known Black settler of Hamilton County – Pete Smith – who was also actually the first settler of Noblesville.  Now I’d like to look at the second Black settler in the county, Thomas Murphy.  Murphy was born in Virginia June 8, 1808, and came to Hamilton County in the 1820’s.  While we have more information about him than we do about Pete Smith, but there is still not much and some of that is questionable.  Most of it comes from his obituary.

Most of the information about Murphy is obscure because he was primarily known as someone who accompanied George Boxley into Indiana.  Boxley was an abolitionist who fled Virginia after being arrested for fomenting a slave rebellion.  Some references have said that Boxley brought a young Black man with him as a part of the family when he came to Indiana in the 1820’s.  Murphy’s obituary says he was brought to Ohio by another family, (which is perhaps where he got the last name Murphy), and joined the Boxley family later.  However, the obituary also says that Murphy got a job in Noblesville in 1823 – most sources say that Boxley settled in Hamilton County around 1827.  Murphy is unmentioned in the only available biography of George Boxley, “A Man With A Price On his Head”.

Boxley cabin

The Boxley cabin.

Of the facts we do know:  in the 1820 census, there were three African Americans living in the Delaware New Purchase created by Treaty of St. Mary’s.  This encompassed 31 present counties in central Indiana and it would be impossible to know where they lived.  In the 1830 census, the counties had been divided up and Hamilton County had been created.  There was one 1 African American in the county – a male, between the ages of 10 and 24, living with the George Boxley family in Adams Township.  This describes Murphy exactly.

Murphy did work in Noblesville at some point.  Joseph Ross remembered working with him for Conner & Stephenson, later Conner & Cole, hauling and stacking furs in the store which was on the corner where Sunrise Café is today.  They worked with furs from raccoons, foxes, muskrats, beavers, deer, wildcats, wolves, and some otters, which were becoming scarce.  The obituary said that Murphy eventually became head clerk.

The obituary then says that he moved to Strawtown around 1840, which was still an important stopping point on the Lafayette Trace.  However, I can’t find him in 1840 census.  The Eli Goin family were the only African Americans in White River Township at that time.  Interestingly, Goin was also from Virginia.  Murphy married Drusilla Goin on July 21, 1841, (his obit says 1851), and his first son Warren was born in 1848.

In 1846, he moved to the town of Boxley which was also along the Trace.  While he was successful at first, this was probably not a good idea.  A new road connecting Noblesville and Lafayette had been built farther south – it’s now Highway 38 – and was taking traffic from Trace.  The Adams Township 1850 census says that Murphy was a merchant and farmer with real estate valued at $3000.  There is some strange phrasing in his obituary at this point, but it sounds like he was cheated by a business partner and went bankrupt.

He moved to Tipton in 1856, built a house, and started a grocery.  This may have been when his first wife, Drusilla, died.  The grocery burned in 1857 and he lost everything.   He married his second wife, Jane Goin, on April 12, 1858.  Between his two wives, he had nine children overall.  He was running a grocery in 1860 according to the census.  In 1870, he is listed as a farmer and, in 1880, he is listed as a laborer.  He died April 11, 1881 and is buried in Fairview cemetery in Tipton.  His house was torn down in 1895.   Both Joseph Ross and the obituary said that Murphy was well-known and apparently well liked in Tipton.  It’s somewhat surprising that there is very little information about him.