The first man to see Parke County was a young French voyager in 1705,
whose account of Sugar Creek Narrows was published in a Paris newspaper in 1718. English settlers began coming following the treaty of 1809, and a land office was opened in Terre Haute, Fifty dollars would buy 40 acres of land. The county quickly settled, and the census of 1860 showed a population of 15,538. The peak population was 19,406 in 1880. The 1990 census showed Parke County with a population of 15,410. The population today remains close to that figure.
On January 9, 1827, the last day of the 1820-1821 session of the State Legislature at Corydon, an act was passed creating Parke County. The boundary extended to the Illinois line and included most of what is now Parke and Vermillion Counties.
The name of Parke was selected in honor of Benjamin Parke, who had come to Indiana in 1801, was a member of the First Territorial Legislature, and first Representative in Congress of this territory. President Thomas Jefferson appointed him US Territorial Judge in 1808, and later President Madison named him US District Judge with Circuit Court powers. He was an organizer and first president of the Indiana Historical Society. Parke County has remained rural while much of the rest of Indiana has become highly industrialized and urban. In recent years a movement has been encouraged to keep the county rural and unspoiled and especially to save the 31 covered bridges that have become a nation-wide attraction, and in 1978 were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
As the bridges are replaced by more modem structures, they become the property of the County Park Board and are to be maintained for future generations to enjoy as museum pieces from an interesting past. Parke County is connected with the state and nation by two US highways. US 41 cross the county north and south, while US 36 bisects it east and west. Many tourists are discovering the delights of its rural landscape, and the future for the county seems bright.
Parke County is situated on the eastern border of the great western coal field. Limestone crops out at the east boundary line of the county, and from there it declines until it reaches a depth of three hundred feet beneath the Wabash River, the western boundary. No coal is found in the limestone region, but there are numerous fields of coal in other parts of the county.
Above the limestone and separated from it by a layer of shale is a formation of reddish brown sandstone from 150 to 200 feet in thickness. This stone underlies the channel of Big Raccoon Creek, making a number of excellent mill sites. Immediately above the sandstone clay shale, bands of iron ore, soft sandstone and slate. Overlying the coal measures is a heavy deposit of glacial drift.
There is a natural bridge of sandstone formation in the northwest quarter of section 33, Union Township. It spans a ravine at the base of a high hill overlooking the valley of Big Raccoon Creek. It was formed by water flowing from the summit of the hill and down the ravine into a fissure, thus forming a channel under the outcropping ledge of rock. This bridge is about 35 feet long and 20 feet wide.
The fourth division, the high tableland southeast of Big Raccoon, is more diversified in character than any other. The northern portion from Portland Mills to Limestone Branch is an area of long, gentle slopes with but few abrupt hills. South of Limestone Branch the surface is level with scarcely sufficient drainage to carry off the surface water from the heavy, tenacious clay soil. The streams run in deep chasms between high bluffs. This is characteristic of both branches of Rocky Fork Creek. Otter Creek and Grey's Creek in the southern part of this division run on a higher level, and the hills near them are less elevated.
The fifth division is an elevated triangle of tableland between the Wabash River and Big Raccoon on the northeast and lower Otter Creek on the southeast. The surface of this plane is nearly level and is about 200 feet above the Wabash River to which it extends. When the first settlements in Parke County were made, the mastodon, the elk, and buffalo has all become extinct. The black bear and the deer, however, had not entirely disappeared. The early settlers also found the timber wolf, lynx, raccoon, opossum, mink, red fox, and grey fox, which killed or carried away the farmer's poultry, lambs and pigs, if not securely housed at night. The grey fox and occasionally the black squirrel were in all parts of the county. The skunk and rabbit were not as numerous in pioneer days as they are now. The otter, which has now disappeared, and muskrat were found along the creeks. The groundhog, like most of the native animals, destroyed much of the farmers' products before they were sufficiently matured to be harvested. The flying squirrel is rarely seen now, but chipmunks are quite numerous. The Norway rat was probably first brought here in 1821 by Jeptha Garrigus, who came with his family and household goods down the Ohio River and up the Wabash and Big Raccoon Creek. Other boats brought rats to the river towns, and they soon became so numerous and destructive that they caused farmers considerable trouble.
Reptiles, chief of the reptiles of the county, were the venomous rattlesnake, copperhead, and viper. They were numerous and quite a menace to the pioneers, especially to the women and children who feared them, and to the men who hunted and killed them. On one occasion a hunting party killed seventy rattlesnakes in Rockville and vicinity. This snake is extinct, but the copperhead still is found in some localities. The black, the garter, and water snakes were also numerous, but harmless.
Birds, the bald eagle, crane, snipe, killdeer, and fish hawk lived along the river and largest creeks, while ducks were numerous in swampy districts. The wild turkey was extinct, but has been reintroduced to the area and is now plentiful. The chicken hawk and the crow carried away the farmers' chicks. The buzzard was useful as a scavenger, and the quail was hunted and trapped for food. The bobolink, lark, pheasant, and the oriole are decreasing in number, while the robin and English sparrow are becoming more numerous. The whippoorwill, the grey owl, and other nocturnal birds are fast disappearing as the forests are being cleared.
The late JH Beadle was authority that there were in all about 3,000 "Witness Trees" blazed by the US Government surveyors in this county, as shown by the record of the land office at that time. In 1880 there were but few standing, the balance either having died from old age or been thoughtlessly cut down by the axe men.
In the month of November 1832, the building containing the deeds and other valuable public records of Parke County was burned. All deeds, records were burned save those recorded in book D, which was opened November 12, the year before and was only about half filled.
The first legal execution in Parke County was that of Noah Beauchamp, on Friday, February 18, 1843, in the timber southeast of Rockville Cemetery, by Sheriff Jesse Youmans. People came from far and near to this execution, even Illinois and surrounding counties in this state. It was a bitter cold day and several women with babies in their arms were present and drank whiskey freely, with the men, in order to "drive out the cold".
The second execution in the county was that of Buck Stout, on August 8, 1883, by John R. Musser. His was really a case from Montgomery County, but was tried in the courts of Parke County.
One of the biggest industries in Parke County was that of constructing flatboats. John R Kelly gave the following account concerning this enterprise, which runs as follows; "The first flatboat was built in the winter of 1833-34, at the Narrows of Sugar Creek, and immediately afterward at Coxy's boat yard, three miles away. The next established was Campbells and Tenbrook's at what is now known as Rockport Mill, then called Devil's Den. A few years later the business was carried on extensively at Jessup's Mill on Mill Creek, at Coffin's boat yard, where the old foundry stood, and at several points above the narrows of Sugar Creek. John Kelly engaged in the business in 1833 at Coxy's boat yard, the usual dimensions of boats being 60 feet long and 16 feet wide. He was advised by old boat builders not to exceed that size on account of the danger and difficulty of getting them out of Sugar Creek, it being a crooked and very rapid stream. This advice coming from men older and of more experience taught him different. R. Kelly stated that the most difficult boat to manage he ever handled was 50 feet long and 12 feet in width, while the easiest one was 85 feet long by 18 feet in width. About the average price of a boat 60 feet long, delivered in the Wabash, was $100, the size of the gunnels to secure a ready sale being 30 inches at the bow rake, which was the largest part and 10 inches thick. A tree suitable for gunnels used to cost from $1 to $5 according to distance from the yard, the tree being split into the necessary size was felled and the gunnel logs hauled by oxen to the boat yard. When the boat was framed and ready for the bottom, the planks are fastened in their places with wooden pins, it requiring from 10 to 12 hundred of them to complete the job. It requires 7000 feet of lumber to build a 60 foot flat boat and this must be all first class, as there is no place for inferior lumber, save in the false floor.
From 12 to 20 pounds of hemp are required to calk a boat of this size, after which the vessel was ready for launching. The boats were built from three to four feet above the gunnel and sided up with two inch plank, the same as the bottom, the roof, which had a pitch of 16 inches, being covered with 5/8 inch boards. The vessels were run out of the creek with two oars, one at the bow and one at the stem, none being used on the side while in the creek, except upon going over dams when the water was low, when it was necessary to get up as much headway as possible, that being the safest method. The steering oar is made of the same length as the boat, and so constructed as to balance in the middle. The steersman stands, or rather walks, on a bridge in the center of the vessel, so that by the time he reached New Orleans he would walk a great many miles, from one side of the craft to the other, while steering her on her course. At the date of the first construction of flat boats here, the cargo consisted entirely of corn and pork, but a few years later crates of wheat, flour, lumber staves, hoop poles, potatoes, poultry, and even live hogs became common. The amount of ear corn which a 60 foot boat could carry was 1800 bushels, but there was a constantly increasing demand for larger boats and before the business went out of existence, boats were built which would carry double that amount."