NOBLESVILLE — What was once the point of devastating crop destruction across the United States in the early 19th century, is now being celebrated in central Indiana.
The Great Squirrel Stampede of 1822 has mostly been historical folklore for Hamilton County residents.
"I have lived in Hamilton County for close to 15 years, and I had heard the story a couple of times living here, apocryphally, about this thing that happened," Aili McGill, the director of Nickel Plate Arts, told WRTV. "It was a story that came up several times; we joked about it."
As the story goes, in 1822 (a more specific date is yet to be found), thousands of black and graysquirrels swept through Hamilton County, destroying all of the crops and cornfields. The massive squirrel stampede, according to legend, lasted days and caused significant environmental damage.
Well, come to find out, this is not just a tale of folklore.
"Oh, this actually happened. There's absolutely no question," David Heighway, the Hamilton County Historian, told WRTV.
"I go through a lot of the old history books, finding oddball stories and things like that. And my job is either to prove them or to shoot them down, both of which I've done on a regular basis," Heighway said. "And the squirrel thing was in original history, Augustus F. Shirts, 1901. And it's just a paragraph. And I thought, 'This is insane. I have to know more.'"
Heighway studied the decades-old word-of-mouth story 20 years ago, at which point he found countless pieces of evidence of the enormous wave of squirrels that swept through Hamilton County. In his research, Heighway confirmed this was not the only squirrel stampede to have happened in Hamilton County, as another one happened in 1845.
Massive amounts of squirrels coming together to trample through crops was actually a common occurrence across the U.S. in the 1800s, Heighway says. He wrote in a blog post for the Hamilton East Public Library that squirrels "were as much (a) concern at that time as locust or disease."
Four years prior to 1822, settlers started coming into central Indiana as part of the Treaty of St. Mary's with the Miami tribe, the Wyandot, and several other Native territories.
Central Indiana, at this point in time, was largely a forest. But, when the settlers came, according to historians, they started to clear land, cut trees, build cabins, and plant crops.
"What the biologists think is that there was some sort of perhaps famine for the squirrels, maybe a drought, some sort of reduction in food," Heighway said.
So, the squirrels instinctively shifted to where there was more greenery.
"People (settlers) didn't know this kind of thing happened so that when it did happen, it was a huge shock," Heighway said.
In some of Heighway's several pieces of evidence, he points to a book by a Noblesville lawyer, Augustus F. Shirts, a diary entry by Calvin Fletcher, and a story by Oliver Johnson recorded by his grandson, Howard Johnson.
The Great Squirrel Stampede — as Heighway coined it — grew in popularity after Heighway's confirmation that this indeed happened, and word spread fast.
"Needless to say, it's kind of taken off," Heighway said. "It's taken a life of its own."
Now, for the first time in two centuries, Hamilton County is celebrating the historical folklore proven true.
"We started talking about the squirrel stampede because it's a local story that people like so much. We knew it was the 200th anniversary was coming up," Sarah Buckner, the assistant director of community engagement at the Hamilton County Tourism office, told WRTV. "So we brought our different cities together and gave them money and let them run with their ideas."
The four big cities in Hamilton County — Noblesville, Fishers, Carmel, and Westfield — are all rolling out celebratory activities and decor to commemorate the occasion in their own special way.
Between the four, there are over 20 events and activities Hamilton County residents can participate in.
Westfield orchestrated a squirrel scavenger hunt to kick off the month-long celebration. Carmel is hosting a Great Squirrel Stampede Fun Run. Sun King Brewery and Jack's Donuts locations in Fishers will have squirrel stampede menu options.
Nickel Plate Arts really engaged the Noblesville community of creatives and artists to take part in the fun. For instance, Kiln Creations crafted 300 mini squirrel sculptures that the city could hand out as a painting activity, a local dancer choreographed a "squirrel stomp" dance, and band "The Dead Squirrels" are scheduled to play at a nearby brewery.
"The reason that I have stayed in Noblesville, and that I love Noblesville so much, is that we embrace goofy," McGill said, laughing. "I am very excited that our community is willing to come together and have a little fun with our history."
Heighway says celebrating this event is not so much about memorializing a time that ruined an entire community's crops for the season, but more so about identity.
"That's what makes this so much fun is that there's this strange story, and people want something that kind of helps define the county," Heighway said. "It's not controversial. It's not, you know, too strange or anything like that — it's just a unique little occurrence that's a great deal of fun to talk about."
WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.