A Marvel-ous House in the Big Woods

Remember Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first novel, Little House in the Big Woods? [1] I have a similar tale to tell. The pioneer tale of my father’s father’s father’s father’s mother’s father. [2] Or more succinctly… My 4th-Great-Grandfather, Elisha Marvel.

He was a Founding Father.

Oh… not of America. I didn’t mean to infer that. No, he was one of the early settlers of what is now Owensville, Indiana.

Of course, it wasn’t Owensville then. It wasn’t even Indiana. It was the tiny township of Montgomery in the Indiana Territory just after it was opened up for settlement. [3]

Elisha’s family hailed from Delaware, where his grandfather, Thomas Marvel, was a successful peach farmer, taking the delicious fruit of his orchard and making it into peach brandy. [4] But, that orchard was bequeathed to Elisha’s uncle.

So, shortly after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, Elisha followed his cousin Prettyman Marvel and their good friend James Knowles to Georgia, where they heard they could make their fortunes raising cotton. The soil, however, was not as fertile as the old farm in Delaware, and after a few years their crop “was a near failure.” [5]

Elisha was the first to travel north seeking greener pastures, settling in then Livingston County, Kentucky along with his brother Eli. [6] By 1811, however, he had crossed the Ohio River into Indiana Territory and settled in what would become Montgomery Township. His cousin Prettyman and friend Knowles followed soon after.

It sounds a bit romantic… being a founding father, being one of the first to settle an area and take it from wilderness to township. But, like the Ingalls family, Elisha had his share of hardships.

By the time he entered what would become Indiana, Elisha and his wife Orpha had seven children with child number eight already on the way. The land they settled was

“in the midst of the forest and he [Painter Marvel, Elisha’s son, 18], with his father and brothers, cleared a part of the ground and began farming.”


Imagine. You and your spouse and your eight children. Essentially camping in the woods for the next five years. A cobbled home of sticks (oh, yes, Log Cabin sounds so exotic, but they were not like today’s log homes). No land to farm except what you could carve from the forest overhead. [8] The Marvels and their friends grew some corn but mostly relied on game they could kill for food. And often they had to retreat to the stockade outside Thomas Montgomery’s homestead when the surrounding Native Americans [9] marauded. [10]

It doesn’t appear that Elisha was ever able to recreate the financial success that his grandfather had known as a peach farmer. [11] None-the-less, the family thrived and it is here that Elisha’s daughter Comfort met her future husband Daniel McDowell [12].

Sources & Notes

  1. Little House in the Big Woods is the semi-autobiographical account of the Ingalls family exploits homesteading in Wisconsin.
  2. Or for those of you keeping track: Robert’s father Harold’s father John’s father Elisha’s mother Comfort’s father Elisha.
  3. Stormont, Gil R. “Montgomery Township.” History of Gibson County, Indiana. Indianapolis: B.F. Buren & Co., Inc., 1914. p342. Print.
  4. Burwell, Mildred M. History of the Marvel Family: The Descendants of Prettyman and Lavina (Rogers) Marvel. July 1968. p9. https://archive.org accessed 24 Apr 2019.
  5. Ibid. p12.
  6. Ibid. p15.
  7. Leffel, John C., Ed. History of Posey County, Indiana. Chicago: Standard Publishing Company, 1913. p.398. Print.
  8. I have to admit, though, I wasn’t surprised to read that another favorite occupation of the farmers in the area was distilling whiskey. [Stormont, History of Gibson Co, p343. ] They had, after all, just come from Kentucky.
  9. While the Shawnee Indians lived in what is now north Indiana, their prime hunting grounds were in southern Indiana, right about where Elisha and his family settled. And since our forefathers never met a treaty they couldn’t break, it’s really not surprising that the Native Americans were marauding.
  10. Stormont, History of Gibson Co, p343.
  11. I have found land records showing Elisha Marvel owned at least 40 acres in Gibson County. His will gave everything to his wife Orpha and did not delineate what all that included.
  12. You can read more about Daniel in this early blog post or on the McDowell Descendants page.

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