John A. Phipps of Owen Co., Indiana: Discoverer of Pirate Sword

A previous post recounted the tale that an unidentified John Phipps of Owen County, Indiana discovered an old sword there which was believed to have likely been left by pirates from the Gulf of Mexico in the 1820s. The sword was discovered by Phipps in 1875.

What would Gulf pirates be doing in Owen County, Indiana? As discussed earlier, quite a trade was in operation, transporting goods by water between Owen County, Indiana and New Orleans. Owen County is located on the White River. The White River is a tributary of the Wabash River, and the Wabash River flows into the Ohio River, which of course flows into the Mississippi.

In fact, Matthew Phipps of Owen and Clay Counties in Indiana (he had a farm in Owen County, but ran a store in Clay County) was presumed dead in 1841 when, as the story goes, he loaded a boat with produce bound for New Orleans but never returned. As the story about the sword indicated, pirates supposedly left the sword high in a tree to mark the spot where treasure was left. The treasure was never found, but John Phipps found what was believed to be the sword.

The previous post suggested that it was possible that John Phipps was John Presley Phipps, son of Thomas Jefferson Phipps. Thomas Jefferson Phipps was a son of Matthew, the man who disappeared after taking his flatboat to New Orleans.

Another possibility, as mentioned in the previous post, is that the sword’s discoverer was John A. Phipps, Thomas’s brother. John A. Phipps’s middle initial stood for Andrew, according to his grandson Jesse Phipps of Washington County, Missouri.

Now it’s looking more likely that the John Phipps of the sword story was, indeed, John Andrew Phipps (1836-1900), not his nephew John Presley Phipps (1863-1919). That’s because of a recently found news article which refers to the finder of the sword as not just John Phipps, but John A. Phipps:

From the Logansport Pharos, Logansport, IN, 8 Dec 1875, p. 3:

State Notes.

. . . A sword ancient in appearance, with a Latin inscription indistinctly observable on the blade, has been presented the State Geologist by John A. Phipps, of Middletown, Owen county. The relic was found under a decayed log in that county last June, but what its history is has not yet been satisfactorily arrived at. . . .

Although modern maps and other sources don’t refer to any place in Owen County called Middletown, an 1868 business directory says that Middletown had a population of about 75 in that year and was located in the southwestern part of the county. Blanchard, in his 1884 history of the county, refers to Middletown as having been located in Section 14, Township 9 North, Range 5 West.

Blanchard places this in Jefferson Township which, as the 1868 business directory, was in southwestern Owen County. This was slightly west of Franklin Township, where Freedom was located.

He says that Middletown dates back to about 1830, and that it was, at one time, “the distributing point” for a wide area. “A number of merchants have done business here,” he wrote, “and until within the last few years, the village was a very good trading point.” About 10-15 families lived there in Blanchard’s day.

John Andrew Phipps left Owen County, Indiana and moved to Madison County, Missouri, but not until 1877. That’s according to testimony by Anna A. Conder, a relative of his third wife Serena Elizabeth Conder (called Firebaugh because raised by Firebaughs) in his Civil War pension file.

John hasn’t been found in the 1870 census, but in 1860 he appears in Franklin Township. That’s where Freedom is located, the little town on the White River which is the one location which seems to have most closely been identified with the Phipps family in Owen County, Indiana.

A web page titled Treasure Trove Dreams refers to the Owen County pirate sword, calling the story of pirate treasure there a “persistent legend.” That page says that the treasure, according to the legend, was buried on a bluff above the White River near Freedom.

So, what happened to the sword? Locate it, please, and send us a photo so that we can post it here.

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