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Shotgun homes along North Camp Street, Ransom Place

In Summer 2002 Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis will hold its third annual Archaeology Field School in Indianapolis' Ransom Place Historic District.  In conjunction with the Ransom Place Neighborhood Association, the Indianapolis Urban League, and the Greater Gesthemane Missionary Baptist Church, this summer's field school will excavate at a pair of neighboring circa 1870-1960 homes on North California Street.

California Street was the central thoroughfare in Indianapolis' African-American residential neighborhoods fanning off Indiana Avenue.  The homes along California Street have included a vast range of residents including White Hoosiers, European immigrants, and African Americans, and many of the city's best-known African Americans called California Street home, including Madam Walker's attorney Freeman Ransom, for whom the neighborhood is now named. The homes at 915-917 North California Street were vernacular residences built in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and the homes’ residents were quite typical of the many people who moved to and lived in Indianapolis’ near-Westside since the Civil War. The site’s preservation and location along one of the city’s most important African-American neighborhoods provides an opportunity to archaeologically examine everyday life among residents whose histories are very poorly documented. The excavation also provides an opportunity for the Ransom Place Neighborhood Association to document and publicly display the neighborhood’s history.

All field excavation at the site will be conducted is conducted by students enrolled in the IUPUI Archaeology Field School, which we offer each Summer somewhere in the near-Westside.  The Archaeology Field School (Anthropology P405) is open to any undergraduate student for four to six credits. You do not need to be an Anthropology student or have any archaeological coursework or experience to enroll in the course.  Students are trained in field excavation methodology, public interpretation, laboratory analysis, and archaeological theory.  Students learn to identify nineteenth- and twentieth-century material culture, excavate historic-period urban sites, and work actively with many visitors and our partners in the Ransom Place Neighborhood Association.  For registration details, enrolled IUPUI students can contact the Registrar's Office or visit Insite.  Visiting students can get details on credit transfer on the Registrar's Visiting Students page. For details on the class schedule, visit the course syllabus.

Volunteers are welcome to work alongside field school students.  You can volunteer for as many days as you like; we prefer to have volunteers call ahead, and it works best to spend a whole or nearly whole excavation day on site.  Volunteers younger than 16 should be accompanied by a parent or adult.  If you would like to volunteer but do not want to dig, we will also maintain our lab during the field season in Cavanaugh Hall, where recently excavated artifacts will be washed as they come in from the field.  If you would like to volunteer over the summer or have questions, please email Paul Mullins ( or call (274-9847) for details.

Site History
The lot at what is now 915-917 North California Street was platted in 1871, and houses apparently were built on the lots between 1871 and 1880.  One of the two homes was then occupied by 47-year old Mary Gaskill and her children David (born 1864), Carrie (1867), and Ida (1870).  Mary Gaskill was a White Hoosier who appeared in the census as a chair caner, as was her 13-year-old daughter. Gaskill’s father was listed as being born in England, and the mother was listed as being born in Kentucky.
  The Gaskill’s neighbors were also children of European immigrants. JH Stapelkemper, Mary, and 10-month old son Willis were all American-born, but the parents’ mothers and fathers all hailed from Germany: JH was a woodcarver, and his parents were from Prussia, and Mary’s were from Bavaria.

Most California Street residents in 1880 were American-born Whites, but several were of European parentage, including Germans and Irish. A large number of neighborhood residents had parents born in the East in places like Pennsylvania, the most common East Coast origination point, and others came from the neighboring states of Ohio and Kentucky. Of the 35 residences on North California Street in 1880, only four were Black/Mulatto, and the nearest was across the street, where the double was home to the households of 32-year old washerwoman Sarah Weber and seven-year-old son Walter and their neighbor 88-year old Thompson Dade, wife Mary (born 1802) and 28-year old daughter Lizzie, a domestic whose occupation appeared as "washes and irons."

The 1887 Sanborn map provides the first physical description of the homes along California Street, all of which were frame single-story homes. The 13 structures along California Street’s east side between Pratt (9th) and First (10th) Streets included a single store at the corner of California and 9th Streets, but the remainder were single-story homes that appear to have been roughly 1000-square feet in size.

(Right) The Field School site as shown in the 1887 Sanborn Insurance map showed two modest single-story frame homes in the project area, like all the homes along the east side of California Street. 1887 Sanborn map of Project Area

In 1900 James W. Smith (born 1848), wife Harriet (1852), daughter Luesettie (1881), and son Everett (1886) were living in the home at what is now 915 North California Street. James Smith was a farm laborer who rented the home, and wife Harriet was at home with two of their five children, including son Everett, who was a spring hooker in a mattress factory. They were neighbored to the north by Peter (born 1864) and Louie (1866) Mullen, who lived with their nine-year old son Jesse and Peter’s brothers Augustus (1873) and Thomas (1860); like Peter, the two brothers appeared in the census as day laborers.

A decade later 915 North California Street was home to renters Richard and Bertha Cash. The 43-year-old Bertha was 67-year-old Richard’s second wife. Richard appeared in the census as a building contractor and was a Union Army veteran. Wife Bertha had immigrated to the US in 1873 from England, where she and both her parents were born.  Harry Miller and wife Jennie lived in the home directly north of the Cash’s and Harry appeared in the census as a soldier.

The Color Line on California Street
The Millers were Black, and their neighborhood’s ethnic makeup had changed significantly since 1900; it was preparing to change quite radically in the next decade. In 1910 the east side of California Street’s 900 block included 13 households, of which seven were Black. Most worked in blue collar labor or were budding entrepreneurs who ran businesses out of their home. At 919 North California Richard Rice was running a house painting business out of his rental home along with his brother James. Neighbor Ruben Jones at 917 North California was a laborer, wife Sallie was a laundress, daughter Julie was a cook, and daughters Justina and Mary were "housegirls" working for private families. In 1910 many African Americans, Whites, and European immigrants were still living alongside each other. The double at 909-911 North California Street, for instance, included janitor Virgil Robison and wife Mamie in one side and public school teacher Arthur Long and wife Mary who was running a hairdressing business from their home in the 909 half of the double. The Longs were White, and the Robisons were Black: sharing a roof across the color line was quite uncommon and would be unheard of in the next decade.

By 1920 the demographic transformation of Ransom Place was complete, and the 13 households on the north side of California Street included just two White families: 69-year-old German immigrant Henry Falk was living alone at 941 North California, and Arba and Hotsa Whitlatch were living at 901 North California. The Whitlatchs were running a grocery store at the front of their lot at the northeast corner of California and Ninth Streets. The family of Daniel and Mattie Mullin was living at 915 North California Street. The 41-year old Daniel was a porter in a clothing store, and both he and his 40-year-old wife were born in Kentucky, as were both their parents. All four of their children living at home were born in Indiana, including Dan (born 1907), Mary F. (1908), James (1915), and Alice M. (1918). The lot to their north at 917 North California was home to Harry and Jennie Miller. The 59-year-old Harry was a church janitor born in Tennessee, as were his parents, and his wife Jennie was a 49-year-old laundress born in Missouri, like both her parents. The Millers owned their home, as did each of their neighbors to the north toward what is now Tenth Street. All the Millers’ neighbors to the south, though, including the Whitlatchs at the corner of Ninth and California, were renters. Five homeowners were located north of the Millers on the east side of California Street, and four of the five households were paying the mortgage; only Henry Falk owned his home free and clear.

The new homeowners were typical of the residents that were emerging along California Street by 1920. Of the 11 Black households on the east side of California Street, there were 29 adult residents (i.e., either 18 or above or working and not in school), and most came from outside Indiana: 10 were from Kentucky, 8 were from Indiana, five were from Tennessee, two were from Ohio, and there were single examples of residents born in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama, and Missouri. This predominance of migrants from the Upper South is relatively typical of migration patterns into the near-Westside in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Relatively few residents came from the Deep South. However there were some exceptions:  Reverend and Mrs. Philip Emile, for instance, were both born in the Deep South, and they moved into the Miller's home at 917 North California Street around 1932.  The homeowners along California Street included quite a few professionals, such as lawyers James H. Lott and Freeman Ransom, physician Henry Hummons (who organized the Senate Avenue YMCA in 1900), and teacher Milton Stevenson, who all lived in the 800 block. Many of their children went on to similar professional careers as well.  Entrepreneurs including caterers and barbers lived in surrounding blocks, many of whom established quite lucrative businesses, but the neighborhood was still predominately working-class renters in 1920 and appears to have always remained so.

The home at 915 North California Street was torn down in the 1960's, and the home at 917 was torn down in the mid-1980's. The three homes to the south were still standing in 1985, when they each appear in an aerial view of the near-Westside, but they have since all been torn down. Consequently, most of the lots on the north side of California Street remain clear today.

For more information on the Field School or the Archaeology Project contact Paul Mullins or visit our other Ransom Place Archaeology pages for information on other project research in the Near-Westside.  You can visit Field School reports starting with the May 25 report by clicking on the link below; subsequent reports can be reached by linking at the bottom of each page.

Click here for May 25 Field School Report

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Page last updated June 6, 2002