John Dougherty Defrees · 1976
By Stephen W. Hines
John Dougherty Defrees, the first man to print a newspaper in Northern Indiana, was born on November 10, 1810, at Sparta, Tennessee. When he was eight years old, he moved with his family to Piqua, Ohio, where they settled and where Mr. Defrees was apprenticed to the printer’s trade at thirteen. Later, by himself, he moved to Lebanon, Ohio, where he studied law with Thomas Corwin, who later became Governor Corwin. So, by the age of twenty-one, Mr. Defrees was able to draw on the expertise of two professions in establishing himself in a career that would make him one of the most influential men in early Indiana history.
In 1831, John Defrees and his brother, Joseph, moved to South Bend, Indiana. They brought with them a new printing press from Cincinnati. Mr. Defrees recorded that the South Bend of that time consisted of only five or six crude buildings — which rather limited their choice of a possible business site. Their temerity in founding a newspaper in such a sparsely settled place indicates they saw more for the future of South Bend than first met the eye. Bravely enough, they named their paper the St. Joseph Intelligencer and Northwestern Pioneer (the name was later changed to the St. Joseph Beacon). As the name of their paper implies, they were not afraid to be in the forefront of active territorial enterprise. Mr. Defrees admitted later that the major difficulty he and his brother faced in establishing the Intelligencer and Pioneer was the lack of dependable postal service in the region. The roads were so bad and the territory so sparsely populated that the people were reluctant to subscribe to a newspaper they might not even receive regularly. Their prospectus listed a cost of $2.50 a year, or $3.00 due when the subscription expired. They never entirely solved the difficult circulation problems their paper faced, but they continued to edit it until 1844 when they sold it to Schuyler Colfax. Thus, the Defrees’ were responsible for giving the future vice president of the United States his start in journalism.
The brothers parted company. Joseph settled in Goshen, Indiana, but John settled in Indianapolis. He quickly bought into the Indiana State Journal which he edited for the next ten years while he was becoming increasingly involved in state politics, first as a Whig Senator, and then as a Republican.
During the tumultuous years leading up to the 1860 Republican convention in Chicago, he urged support for Republican candidates although he was accused in 1856 of not wholeheartedly supporting John Freemont, the party’s candidate for the presidency that year. No such accusation was brought against him during the Lincoln candidacy. To be sure, at first he had supported Edward Bates for the party’s nomination (as did a number of other Hoosiers), but when he saw that Bates could not win, he swung decisively for Lincoln. Defrees’ support was deemed crucial by Lincoln’s supporters, and they were gratified to see Lincoln win Indiana that November in the election.
Mr. Defrees was one of the first Republican party organizers in Indiana and in 1856 he headed the Republican State Committee. At one time in the helter-skelter of those days, he was considered Republican presidential material himself. In 1854 he sold the Indiana State Journal to operate a barrel stave factory, but in 1859 he founded The Atlas which he used as a forum to advance his political views, the cause of temperance, the cause of free land, and the anti-slavery cause.
In 1861, Mr. Defrees sold The Atlas and was appointed U.S. Government Printer as a reward for his party loyalty and support of Lincoln. He left Indiana at that time and made Washington D.C. his permanent home. As Government Printer, he was twice removed from office under subsequent changes in administrations. His first removal came in 1866 when his criticism of President Johnson’s policies got him into trouble. He was dismissed, only to be reappointed by the Senate a few months later when Congress made the post of U.S. Printer a Senate office. But Mr. Defrees was again removed as Printer in 1869 for criticizing corruption in Grant’s administration. The game of musical chairs ended for him when President Hayes reappointed him to the post of Printer in 1877 where he continued until ill health forced him to resign for good in 1882. The first man to print a newspaper in northern Indiana and run a press by steam there, died on October 19, 1882, at Berkeley Springs, Virginia.
Mr. Defrees’ contributions to the development of journalism in Indiana were significant in several ways. Not the least of these contributions were new methods of printing which greatly increased the rate at which papers could be produced. In 1847 he introduced the first steam press in Indiana. He was the first to see the value of the Bullock press and encourage its inventor. He was the first to use a metallic stitching machine for binding. And it is indicative of Mr. Defrees’ progressive outlook that although the development of electricity did not have an immediate application for printing he was still the first man to use the electric light, save for Edison himself. He was also among the first to publish books in Indiana, publishing Olio, a collection of short stories in 1847, and A Few Poems, a selection of current verse in 1850.
John D. Defrees led a press that was actively involved in the politics of its era. Indeed The Atlas of 1859 had been founded solely for political purposes, and while it did not last long, its influence was far greater than the brevity of its life would suggest. It cannot be said that Mr. Defrees was any more moderate in the expression of his benefits than his contemporaries, but he did put the welfare of the community as he saw that community — at a high premium. Perhaps the best clue to Mr. Defrees’ philosophy, and contribution to the journalism of Indiana, is this quote from the prospectus of his first issue of the St. Joseph Intelligencer and Northwestern Pioneer.
It gives the flavor of the man and of his time:
“Among the causes which have contributed to the happiness of the human family, the influence of the press must be acknowledged. It is the grand means of disseminating useful information of all kinds, literary, religious, political and scientific. It is the chief engine of knowledge, one of the strong pillars of our liberty, one of the safeguards of the republic. Destroy the Press, and to what are we reduced? Take away its liberty, and you sap the foundation of one of the happiest features of our government…”
In summing up Mr. Defrees’ career, B. R. Sulgrove, a friend and himself a pioneer journalist in Indiana, remembered Mr. Defrees as a man of rare sagacity and energy who was consulted at every turn by leading men of the state. Mr. Sulgrove may have been referring to the time in 1852 when John Defrees, serving as a Whig in the state legislature, settled the difficult question of who should fill the vacated office of the Lieutenant Governor. Defrees’ solution satisfied both the Democrats and the Whigs, no small feat since four previous attempts to resolve the issue had failed.
Mr. Sulgrove remembered John Defrees as a man with a keen sense of humor who overcame early inadequacies in his education to become well-read on a wide range of subjects, including fields as diverse as law and classical literature. To Mr. Sulgrove, if any phrase could characterize John Defrees, it was that “progress was his watchword.”
Others remembered that schemers often victimized Mr. Defrees because of his simple enthusiasm for new inventions. He supported such enterprises as a centrifugal pump, a vacuum pump, a canal boat propelled by a pump, and a process for making artificial stone! These failures never seemed to dim his enthusiasm for new ideas and gadgets.
Those who new him well valued his judgement on political matters. It is perhaps characteristic of him that he supported the hopeless candidacy of Horace Greely. In 1868 he aided Schuyler Colfax’s campaign for the vice presidency. However, after Colfax won, he refused to intercede for Mr. Defrees on behalf of the U.S. Printers job from which Defrees had been fired by President Johnson. Colfax’s ingratitude caused a rift between himself and Defrees that lasted until Colfax was implicated in the Credit Mobiler scandal. When Mr. Defrees came to his old friend’s defense, Colfax, touched by this gracious act of generosity, effected a reconciliation with him, and the two remained steadfast allies after that.