Two hundred years ago, Indiana’s Hamilton County experienced an influx of squirrels that caused severe crop damage and left a wake of destruction. In September 2022, officials within this Northern Indiana county are recognizing this occurrence with a sense of humor—and a month of commemorative events.
Now referred to as “The Great Squirrel Stampede,” this bicentennial is recognizing these bushy-tailed creatures in a light-hearted way. Various public events and promotions will happen within the Hamilton County cities of Westfield, Fishers, Noblesville and Carmel.
“Since it is the 200th anniversary, and the county’s bicentennial is next year, it seemed like a perfect time to bring this wacky old story to life,” said Sarah Billman, director of visitor experience at Hamilton County Tourism.
According to a website on this rodent remembrance, many squirrels emerged in the area that’s now Hamilton County in 1822 “during their migration south, trampling crops and causing mass destruction.”
Here’s The Story
Also on the website, an article by Hamilton County historian David Heighway tells the backstory behind this real-life occurrence. It quotes accounts by eyewitnesses who shared what they remembered seeing in their journals or letters.
Heighway, who coined the name “The Squirrel Stampede,” said that white settlers came to what is now present day Hamilton County in 1818. He explained that this region was chosen as a settlement because it would be positioned along different trails. The area was once prominently forests, where land was then cleared all the way down to White River.
“The big thing is that nobody was expecting it. They were just starting to clear the land, to plant crops and build houses,” said Heighway. “So that’s why this has such a huge impact, because it was totally unexpected; it was totally out of the blue.”
Heighway said that there’s no confirmed total of how many squirrels came through–the total is estimated to have been in the thousands-or what specific breed they were. Yet, the root of the cause of the stampede can point to environmental changes.
“During the 19th century, Hamilton County was cleared of the forests,” explained Heighway. “And so as a result, the environment changed so drastically, it affected the squirrel population.”
Why Might Have Happened
While the cutting down of the region’s native trees had a significant impact, Heighway noted that another theory about this natural phenomenon is that the squirrels may have been driven by a lack of food sources.
Recorded accounts through personal letters indicate this phenomenon happened in September of 1822 or so around harvest time. Impacted farmers were said to have responded by using guns or other weaponry to push back and protect their crops; it’s been said that the occurrence ended after two weeks.
Heighway has researched this event along with other historians in Central Indiana. When asked about the bicentenary, Heighway noted that Hamilton County’s chamber of commerce and tourism board were honoring this history through a modern and amusing way. It’s also being celebrated for the first time ever.
“They’re recognizing that it’s a fun, goofy sort of a thing,” said Heighway. “And so they’re turning it into a positive thing.”
Having Fun With History
Previously, Heighway wrote a similar piece about the legend of Hamilton County’s White River Monster that became a tourism marketing promotion. A fiberglass version of this monster was constructed and public events held in honor of this faux water creature.
“It’s a community identity sort of thing,” said Heighway. “So that’s why it’s so popular right now and why this is a good time for them to do it.”
The month-long commemoration of “The Great Squirrel Stampede of 1822” kicked off in early September. It will culminate with a “Squirrel Stampede Celebration” on September 30 at Primeval Brewing in Noblesville.
Other events include a Squirrel Stampede 5k Fun Run at the Carmel Clay Historical Society on September 17. Various businesses within Hamilton County are selling related products. Indiana Artisan Gifts & Gallery in Carmel will carry acorn-themed home decor while Jack’s Donuts with various locations in the county will make nut-adored treats.
Sun King Fishers has created a specialty Great Squirrel Stampede cocktail that will be served at its locations in Carmel and Fishers. It is made with vodka, the brewery’s Scottish-style Ale, Wee Mac, bourbon cream and Nocino.
Other coinciding events are scheduled for October 14, November 11 and December 9.
Hamilton County Tourism’s Sarah Billman said that the festivities are a fun way to celebrate the county’s past. “Knowing the history of your community can deeply connect you to your home. We like to find some of the most unique stories—like who knew tiny little squirrels could destroy crops and cause mass destruction—and bring them to life.”