The Indiana General Assembly formally passed a law designating a new state capital on what is today downtown Indianapolis on January 6, 1821, now celebrated as Founders Day. The next order of business? Platting the new city! This lesson introduces students to the original city plat map, called the Ralston Plan, compares and contrasts the original plan to the current layout of the city, and opens a discussion about how our city has grown and changed over time. Students design their own city maps based on the principles of the Ralston Plan and learn early Indianapolis history. Optional lesson extensions introduce students to the history of surveying and invite students to locate their own neighborhoods in historical survey documents.
Indianapolis Founders Day Project
Celebrating Indianapolis: Founder's Day !
The Indiana General Assembly passed a law designating a new state capital where today sits downtown Indianapolis on January 6, 1821, now celebrated as Founders Day. Most of the legislation includes technical instructions about exactly which township sections the new city should be laid out upon and the timeline on which work should be completed. But the legislation does include this stirring vision of what the new capital city should be: “advantageous to the state and to the prosperity of said town having especially in view the health, utility, and beauty of the place.”
The General Assembly hired Andrew Ralston, a Scottish immigrant and surveyor who had previously assisted Pierre L’Enfant on the master plan for Washington, D.C., before relocating to the Ohio River Valley. The Ralston Plan (today the Mile Square) includes many familiar elements: a center circle, four diagonal streets, a statehouse on the west side of town, a county courthouse on the east. He envisioned two markets and six parks placed neatly along the diagonal streets. The neat 10 x 10 grid breaks for Pogue’s Run in the southeast quadrant; the White River demarcates a western boundary.
A colorful rarely seen 1826 map in the collections of the Indiana State Library hews closely to the Ralston Plan but also shows how roads started to link the new capital to the rest of the state. It reveals intriguing quirks such as the not-quite-even alignment of the National Road and Washington Street. Later, of course, street names changed and points on the diagonals were cleared for urban renewal projects; the second market may never have materialized, nor did the six triangle parks Ralston envisioned. Yet 200 years later, Ralston’s plan remains Indianapolis’ blueprint.
Lesson Plan Overview
Additional Resources on Early Indianapolis History and Maps
- Indiana Acts, 1821, 5th Session | Indiana University Mauer School of Law Library and Indiana State Library collections.
- Story Map: Historical Land Survey Documents for Marion County, Indiana | Indiana Geographical Information Council
- Sketchbooks from Indianapolis surveyors working in the field | Indiana Historical Society
- Digital Map collection for Marion County | Indiana State Library
- “A Forgotten Man of Indianapolis” by Emmett A. Rice, Indiana Magazine of History, 1938 (login required, free with account
- “The Story of Chaney Lively” by Laura McPhee, NUVO, 2019