The Northern-Most Southern State
Indiana and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s were made for each other. One historian thought the Klan founds its “natural home” in the Hoosier state. No other northern state was as engulfed by the KKK as Indiana. It was the only state in the nation that had organized Klan chapters in every county. Vigo County was a particularly fervent Klan stronghold. As many as 40% of adult white men and women in the county joined the organization.
The question is why?
Historian Linda Gordon posited several reasons for the resurgence of the Klan in the 1920s nationally. She noted that Americans expressed long running nativist sentiments, were natural “joiners” of organizations, applauded vigilante justice and reform movements.
All these and more apply to Indiana and Vigo County.
The southern origins of state’s settlers is especially important. Simple geography is the reason for that. Until the coming of the National Road, canals and railroads, the easiest and virtually only way into the state was from the south. The descendants of Daniel Boone and other pathfinders pushed through the Cumberland Gap and populated the upland south. Being natural movers they, like the Lincoln family, continued their migrations northward into Indiana, often using its north-south rivers to move into the state.
The majority of Hoosier families of the 1920s could trace their lineage back to its upland southern roots.
This made for a very homogenous population for much of the state’s history. There were few “dissident” elements, those of different religions from outside of the British Isles and western Europe. Not until the early 20th century did immigrants from eastern and southern Europe seek to become Hoosiers. Just in time for the All-American” KKK to take advantage of the antipathy of native Hoosiers to the newcomers, even though the foreign-born only made up a little more than five percent of the population. Vigo County’s foreign-born were 5.6% of the population.
Vigo County had long embraced vigilantism and nativist movements. Some in the county immediately joined the Know-Nothing movement, and its American Party, in the late 1850s. The Know-Nothings were virulently nativist and anti-Catholic who railed against the increased immigration of German and Irish Catholics. The spiritual heirs of the Know-Nothings were the American Protective Association members. The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail decried the formation of a Vigo County branch in 1887, calling it “a secret organization sectarian in principles and its sole object is to stir up religious strife and foster the spirit of intolerance.” The county also had a chapter of little-known nativist group called the Order of United American Mechanics, formed to battle against cheaper foreign laborers they felt were taking their jobs.
One group would become embedded with, and vital to, the 1920s Klan in Indiana. The Horse Thief Detective Association grew from a group formed in Wingate Indiana in 1845. As the name indicates it was, in essence, a vigilante group developed to fight against the theft of horses and other livestock. The HDTA, like similar groups around the country, emerged in rural areas where law enforcement was seldom available. Thus, members felt they had to protect themselves and their property. Eventually, the HDTA became a de facto law enforcement agency when the Indiana legislature gave them arrest powers. In some ways they were more powerful than local sheriffs because they could cross county lines to pursue thieves.
Hoosiers were joiners. Fraternal and charitable organizations abounded throughout the state and Vigo County. Orders like Masons, Eagles, and Knights of Pythias attracted eager members who joined because of a desire to “help,” but also enjoyed the convivial camaraderie and social gatherings offered by the groups. The 1920 Terre Haute City Directory listed over 80 “secret and benevolent” societies and lodges. Thus, it was natural for Hoosiers to pay their dues and sign on with a group like the Klan that supposedly reflected their own interests.
Cultural changes were roiling the Indiana landscape during the first decades of the 20th century. The change from a predominately rural society to an urban and industrial one frightened many Hoosiers. They felt their world slipping away from them. They were desperate to hold onto their old lives and feared it was being taken over by those who spoke different languages and had “foreign ways.” They were a natural “base” for a group like the KKK and its loud calls for “100 percent-Americanism.”
It is no wonder the Hoosier state and Vigo County were more than ready to follow the Klan.