Chief Kokomo

 

chief kokomo 1One point of interest is Chief Kokomo, which our town derived its name from.  The burial place of Chief Kokomo is located in Pioneer Cemetery on the 400 block of Purdum Street.  The cenotaph was built by the Grand Army of the Republic in 1911.

The Legend. -- Just who was 'Chief Kokomo?' We have a beautiful legend about him. It says he was the last of the Fighting Miamis. It extols his virtues of 'splendid courage, lofty character and becoming habits.' So numerous were Chief Kokomo's acts of kindness, says the legend, that our first settlers insisted the young town be named in his honor. The Howard County Atlas of 1877 has one historian saying simply, "The town derived its name from an old Indian Chief." We deserve more than that.

It's a lovely legend, almost too good to be true, and there are a few stories still kicking around that insist that is precisely the case. One claim says the Indian named Kokomo was not a chief or any tribal leader of any kind at all. No one ever described him except to say he was extremely tall, nothing else. He never sat for a portrait and he was gone from the scene before anyone could capture his likeness on film. We do have some artists' conceptions, these all based on which facet of the Kokomo legend you prefer to believe. Still the legend remains and he is forever referred to as Chief Kokomo.

One vicious story about Chief Kokomo is that he was nothing but a "coon-hunting, root-digging old redskin" who was shiftless, atrociously lazy, and given to beating up his squaw every time he over-indulged in strong drink, which was often. According to this story, so despicable was the Indian named Kokomo that the Miami Nation would not claim him as a tribal member.

The Peru Miamis especially have a lachrymose tale regarding our chief. They admit he was once a member of their band but of much disrepute and a rabble-rouser who had much of the village in a continual uproar. According to their version of the legend, in one final act of defiance, he rounded up a number of his followers, mostly squaws, and headed out for Wildcat Creek where he established his own village. An Indian village is indicated on some early maps at this site, in fact, to suggest the town was here in the late 1830s:

Even David Foster, founder of Kokomo Village, added tarnish to Chief Kokomo's name. You would think a town-founder would have put a lot of deep thought into the name he picked for the town he's platted. But when asked why he named the town 'Kokomo,' Foster reportedly replied, "It was the ornriest town on earth, so I named it for the ornriest man I knew -- called it Kokomo." From other tales Foster is said to have told, we may wish to think this story was told in jest, but the fact remains that these remarks have done little good for either the Chief or the town. Likely a lot of people never realized Kokomo was an "ornery town" from day one.

Was there ever a person named Kokomo? The wife of one of the town's first settlers once told an acquaintance late in life "...she never knew anyone called Kokomo, and she didn't know anyone else that did." If true, these are significant words, for she knew everyone that lived in the town in its early days. Well, all these tales can be summed up as the "Bad News." The "Good News" is that there was an Indian named Kokomo, and he lived, died and was buried where the city of Kokomo now stands.

Those who knew Chief Kokomo described him as being out-spoken and fearless. And all who knew him said he was the tallest Indian they'd ever seen, and towered over anyone else in town. One settler of early-day Kokomo who is supposed to have been well-acquainted with Chief Kokomo was Judge Long, Kokomo's first gunsmith. Long repaired guns for the Indians as well as the settlers, and the Indians called him "Specks" as he wore glasses. Long claimed the first time he met Chief Kokomo, the chief charged at him with murder in mind, and he later found out it was due to the Indian learning that Long was a Kentuckian. The Chief had once been cheated by a man from Kentucky and this seemed like a chance to "get even."

There were other local Indians known to the early settlers of Howard County. The Howard County Historical Atlas of 1877 says Nip Po Wah lived at Vermont and Shoc Co To Quaw at Greentown. Pete Cornstalk lived at Indian Suck (the southeast corner of Ervin Twp.) and Ma Shock O Mo south of Greentown a mile and a half; Shap Pau Do Sho which meant "Through and Through," was at Cassville, and "Co Co Mo" in Kokomo. Thanks to a whim of David Foster who christened his newly platted county seat "KoKoMo," only one of these names secured a permanent place in Hoosier history, that of Chief Kokomo.

His Grave. -- We have no record of Chief Kokomo's death. No recollections of the event have survived, and the town's first newspaper did not arrive to record the story until October 30, 1850. Only a handful of settlers lived in the Reserve to preserve the event, and it is small wonder the death of Chief Kokomo was not remembered. He was gone by the time David Foster negotiated with the locating commissioners for designating the heart of the Lafountain Reserve as the county seat. Best estimates would place Chief Kokomo's death in 1840 to 1842, for he was known to Judge Thomas A. Long, a gunsmith who arrived in "the Reserve" in the spring of 1840 and moved his family here the following spring.

There were no cemeteries in the vicinity before the town was platted except the Indians' burial ground, and that was well-known to the first residents as the plot of land on the north bank of Wildcat Creek between Washington and Union streets. That's where one would expect to find Chief Kokomo laid to rest. But was he?

Thomas Faulkner, an early settler who lived east of what is now Apperson Way, donated a tract of land on the north bank of Wildcat Creek as a cemetery for the settlers. The first graves there were of young children who died in the early 1840s, and the site has long since been designated Pioneer Cemetery since a majority of the town's first residents were buried there. Yet, on that site a monument has been erected proclaiming: "This Stone Marks the Burial Place of Kokomo, War Chief of the Miami Indians." This seems to fly in the face of logic for those who have made a study of the city's early history.

The answer to the puzzle is simple if we accept a story circulated sometime late in World War I by a local citizen, then an aged lady. She recalled when Keats' Sawmill was built in 1848 in Kokomo. It was constructed on the north side of Wildcat Creek in the middle of what is now Buckeye Street, just south of Superior Street. The railroad was in 1848 several years in the town's future. While excavating for the mill's foundation, workers encountered Indian graves, at least three of them, not a surprise, for the site was in the center of what was known to be the Indian burial grounds.

Digging into Indian graves was not an unusual thing in those days, and it would have caused little concern or comment, except that one of the Indian skeletons was remarkably long. So unusually tall was this particular skeleton that the town's first doctor, Corydon Richmond, was called over to give his medical opinion. Almost at once he concluded they were looking at Chief Kokomo's skeleton, for these were the bones of an individual who was close to seven feet tall. Everyone who ever met Chief Kokomo agreed he was quite tall.

And so it was that Chief Kokomo's bones were removed to Faulkner's Cemetery. All the Indian bones found at the sawmill site were placed together in a pine box in what was called a "bundle" burial, and they were reburied in what was then the northwest corner of the town's cemetery, now known as Pioneer Cemetery. Over the next twenty years the City of Kokomo grew rapidly and the small cemetery was sorely taxed to handle the burials sent its way. This was officially Kokomo's city cemetery until in the 1870s.

A more vexing problem that distressed the townspeople was the site of Pioneer Cemetery. It lay behind what is now Kautz Field, southeast of present-day Memorial Gym. Wildcat Creek made a loop northward at that point, and in seasons of high water the currents washed away the bank in the horshoe bend adjacent to the cemetery.

So bad did the situation become by the early 1870s that some graves were washed out and the townspeople were alarmed for the health of the community and the lack of respect being shown for the dead. Crown Point Cemetery was platted as the city's new burial ground, and residents were advised to remove their loved ones from the old grounds. Many did, but many of those buried there had no family remaining to carry out the official requests of the city council. The old cemetery became a ghoulish region, full of opened graves and overgrown, all but abandoned for many years. Many of the stone, those discarded as well as those still marking graves, were stacked at the river bank or were thrown into the riverbed. Not until Wildcat was dredged and straightened in the 1920s was the site reclaimed where the old creek bed once had been.

With the topography drastically changed, the land was graded and filled in and eventually Kautz Field encroached on a part of the plat once considered a part of Faulkner's Cemetery. Only a small area, that in the northeast corner of the original burial ground, remains to be called Pioneer Cemetery, and a cenotaph in memory of Chief Kokomo and the town's first settlers was erected on the site near where Chief Kokomo's bones were reburied 150 years ago.

So it is that Pioneer Cemetery, a link to our past, remains the site of Chief Kokomo's remains, reburied there less than ten years after his death. His first gravesite was somewhere in the middle of the railroad right-of-way of Buckeye Street, between Wildcat Creek and Superior Street. That was the center of the old Indian burial grounds.