Over 200 years ago, when Vincennes was a small prairie borough just beginning to blossom, a man named Elihu Stout came to town and made history. That year, in 1804, this fledgling frontier settlement of the Indiana Territory governed by William Henry Harrison was in dire need of a printer who could publish the territorial and federal laws as well as legal advertisements. Harrison had to send the first batch of laws down to Kentucky to be printed, local historian Richard Day said, and the governor was offering $500 a year to any printer who would establish a shop in Vincennes and get a newspaper up and running.
Despite his young age, Stout, a 22-year-old New Jersey native and journeyman printer, was proficient with a press and managed to convince Harrison that he was the right man for the job. Once the wooden Ramage printing press and other tools of the trade that he’d purchased in Kentucky had been shipped here by various river channels, Stout got settled in a room in the blockhouse of the abandoned Fort Knox I on what was then known as St. Louis Street — what we now call First Street — between Buntin and Perry streets, close to the Wabash River.
On the Fourth of July in 1804, what Stout always claimed was the first issue of a paper he named the Indiana Gazette was published, kick-starting a 212-year tradition of having a free press in the Hoosier State. “Gazette was the popular name for newspapers back then. Nowadays it would be dot com,” Day quipped.
“Nobody has ever found that first issue. There’s some speculation that the July 4 printing was maybe in the nature of a prospectus, where he was soliciting subscriptions and that sort of thing, and may not have had any actual news in it at all.”
A few weeks later, on Aug. 7, the second issue of the Indiana Gazette hit the dirt streets. In the very first graphs of the tabloid-style paper, Stout made a statement that established a precedent for Indiana’s first newspaper — and all papers that came after it. He’d be committed, he told his readers, to collecting and publishing “such information as will give a correct account of the productions and natural advantages of the Territory, to give the latest foreign and domestic intelligence — Original Essays, Political, Moral, Literary, Agricultural, and on Domestic Economics — to select such fugitive literary productions as to raise ‘The genius or to mend the heart.’”
“This is what the people of the Indiana Territory depended on to supply them with the necessary information to participate in this fledgling democracy on the edge of the frontier,” Day said.
The Indiana Gazette came out every Thursday and folks had to pick up the paper at the print shop — with just 300 or so subscribers, there were no newsboys selling copies on street corners just yet. In the early days of the four-page paper, it carried mostly legal notices and advertisements, the publisher’s main sources of revenue. Subscriptions were $2.50, payable half a year in advance. Stout also published the occasional obituaries and letters to the editor, though both required a payment to be included in the paper he had to painstakingly typeset by hand.
On Saturdays, Day said, Stout would pore over the Eastern newspapers brought to him by post, clipping out the national news he thought was relevant to be included in his Gazette.
Just two years later, in 1806, Stout’s print shop burned down, destroying his press. After getting the funding necessary to start all over, in July 1807 he started publishing a new paper that he named the Western Sun. Other than the image of a rising sun emblazoned on the top of each front page, the Western Sun was practically identical to its predecessor.
Ten years after that fire, in 1817, the name was changed to the Western Sun and General Advertiser for practical reasons.
“Originally, he was under the patronage of the territorial government, but when the government was moved to Corydon in 1813, he needed to go out and get regular advertising,” Day said.
A second fire in 1819 burned down Stout’s print shop. Again, he had to start all over and through sheer force of will, he was able to get his newspaper back up and running.
For the next four decades, with the help of apprentices and even some slaves — and, legend has it, at least for one edition a young Abraham Lincoln — Stout laboriously put together his newspaper. During his tenure, it didn’t change much, Day said, though the number of subscribers may have gone up.
In 1845, the paper was sold to John Jones, a man with political ambitions who used it as a means of supporting his political goals. The newspaper changed hands and names a few more times and by the 1850s, there were several newspapers in town. In 1856, George E. Greene took over Stout’s newspaper and restored the name to the Western Sun and four years later, Stout died here in Vincennes. He’s buried next to his wife, Lucy, in Greenlawn Cemetery. Upon Greene’s death in 1870, the business was sold again. By the late 1870s, the Sun’s primary competition, The Commercial, had started up. It was a more Republican-leaning publication that came out in the morning while the Western Sun came out in the evening.
“There was apparently quite a rivalry between the two of them,” Day said.
Over the years, the newspaper continued to change hands and names time and time again as the number of local papers increased and the industry evolved. Small towns like Bicknell, Sandborn, Monroe City, Oaktown and Edwardsport even had their own newspapers at various points in time. As the 19th century started to give way to the 20th, readers began to see much more local news in their papers.
“Early 19th-century papers had less local news, less obituaries and that type of thing. That’s what usually surprises people when they look at papers pre-1860,” said Brian Spangle, the Knox County Public Library’s historical collections administrator. “Not that there wasn’t any local news, but the front page was always national and world news. When you get up to the 1870s and 1880s, that’s when you start to see the little neighborhood column where they paid people to write about what’s going on in all the small towns.”
When papers started carrying more community news, they included tidbits like who was divorcing and who was visiting Vincennes at any given time.
“I don’t think any story was too small to put in. Any kind of little interesting thing that happened around town might make the front page,” Spangle said. “One of the reasons why they did that, in my opinion, is because editors realized people wanted to see their names in the newspapers — and that sells papers.”
Knox County newspapers over the years also got much more detail-oriented — almost disturbingly so to the modern reader nowadays.
“If you’re researching a murder or some kind of tragic accident or anything late in the 19th century or early in the 20th century, they give every little detail no matter how gruesome,” Spangle said. “It’s all in there.”
It wasn’t until the Great Depression and newspaper magnate Eugene C. Pulliam came along that the paper we know today as the Sun-Commercial formed. Pulliam purchased both the Vincennes Sun and the Vincennes Commercial in 1930. He published a combined edition on Sundays, but he continued to publish the Sun as an evening paper and the Commercial as a morning paper until 1931, when they were merged to become today’s Vincennes Sun-Commercial.
Over the years, many newspapers have come and gone. The various small-town newspapers that once dotted the county have halted their presses and the industry here in Vincennes has shrunk. Two-hundred-and-twelve years, though, the paper Stout started — albeit renamed — remains dedicated to keeping his legacy alive.
“Stout established the tradition of the importance of newspapers as a record of the doings and activities of the community,” Day said. “His legacy was establishing this newspaper as the journal of record, which continues to this day.”
– Jess Cohen, Vincennes Sun-Commercial