Down at Latta's Mill

By Lawrence T. Sullivan (Branch 1)

Mother couldn't have been madder if the fellow had broken in and stolen the family jewels. Which, in her way of thinking, was just what he'd done.

"The Lattas were never anything but good, upright people," she said. "He had no business using the name of an honest family for thieves!"

What had upset Mother was a little novel, The Salt and the Savor, which my sister Bettie had brought to her attention. The book draws heavily on historical sources to take the reader gently back to the pioneer days of LaGrange County, Indiana, where Mother's family had been among the earliest settlers. She loved the book, but thought it intolerable that the author would use her family name in vain.

"Someone ought to do something about it," was how she put it. I figured she meant me, since there was nobody else in the room when she said it.

Actually, only one character in the book is specifically identified as a Latta. He's a strapping and unruly lad named Buck Latta who "borrows" the schoolmaster's horse for a week of joy-riding and then dunks the fellow in an icy pond when he complains. Along the way the schoolmaster tries to teach Buck a thing or two with a horsewhip.

"But it didn't do any good, not then nor later on, ever," the hero-narrator observes.

Elsewhere in the book, the name pops up only in several references to Latta's Mill at Northport, just across the line in Noble County, as the meeting place of a gang of thieves known as "Blacklegs."

Alas, author Howard W. Troyer knew his history well. One of the leaders of the "Blacklegs," a notorious gang whose activities ranged afield as far away as Ontario, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, was indeed a William Latta.

We could probably pluck the rascal from our well-researched family tree, but I don't think I will. A 19th century county history says he married and settled down out west and died many years later highly respected by friends and neighbors.

But the "Uncle William" who erected the sawmill [16 William 4 of Branch No. 1] is in the clear. He sold out within a few years, moved away, became a probate judge, and made a fortune in banking and railroading. He was dead and buried long before the "Blacklegs" gang was smashed and scattered.

He was a younger brother of Mother's great-grandfather, the Rev. James Latta, who with their father established the Episcopal Methodist society in the Haw Patch region of LaGrange and Noble counties that began meeting in 1834.

An 1882 bi-county history describes Noble County in words that are hard to swallow considering its present bucolic nature:

Noble County at once became the headquarters of scores of convicts and criminals and soon gained national repute as a perfect hotbed of sagacious crime. In California, after the gold excitement had somewhat subsided, any man, it is said, who announced himself as coming from Noble County, Indiana, was regarded with suspicion and distrust. So it was as far east as Maine, as far south as Florida.

A more objective book, the Writers Project history, Indiana: A Guide to the Hoosier State, published in 1941, paints a similar picture:

South of Wolcotville is a fertile area that was once a dense tamarack swamp, the resort of a notorious gang of horse thieves and counterfeiters known as "Blacklegs," who operated in Noble County and throughout northeastern Indiana during the late 1840s and early '50s. ... Finally [in 1852] the State Legislature passed an act authorizing the formation of several companies of "Regulators, "whose duty it was to apprehend horse thieves and felons. When members of the gang were arrested it was discovered that several prominent citizens of the county were leaders of the "Blacklegs."

Troyer apparently drew his facts for the story from History of the Regulators of Northern Indiana, a booklet written in 1859 by M. H. Mott, a Kendallville lawyer and recording secretary of a group of vigilantes who called themselves the Central Committee of the Noble County Invincibles. Here's what Mott had to say:

On 17 January 1858, Gregory McDougall and eight others were arrested in or near Rome City. Taken to Ligonier, McDougall was brought before the Committee of Noble County Invincibles on the night of 25 January 1858 whereupon a committee of five men was duly appointed to examine the witnesses and report upon the evidence and the final disposition of the case. The committee, after having made a full and fair investigation of all the testimony ...recommended that the said McDougall be hung by the neck until dead on Tuesday, the 26th day of January 1858 [which is to say the following day!] at 2 o'clock p.m.

The hanging went off as scheduled - nine days after McDougall's arrest and some 18 hours after his "trial" before the Invincibles. As he stood on a makeshift gallows near Diamond Lake, just east of Ligonier, waiting for his executioners to drive the farm wagon out from under him, McDougall delivered an impassioned plea to the young people in the crowd exhorting them to heed his sorry fate and forego a life of crime.

The Regulators then set off in pursuit of William Latta, William Hill and George Ulmer, whom Mott describes as "the chief pioneers and leaders of the banditti."

Motivated by rewards of several hundred dollars, private detectives pursued Ulmer all the way to Pittsburgh and back. He was finally caught in Warren, Ohio, on 17 July 1858. After three quick trials, he drew a sentence of eight years.

Hill headed in the other direction and was nabbed later that summer along the Iowa-Missouri border and returned to Indiana. He escaped from the Noble County Jail on 6 March 1858 while awaiting trial and hadn't been heard from by the time Mott's little book went to press the following year.

Latta's final reckoning also is unknown. Without explaining how he got it, Mott shares with his readers a letter he says was written to Latta somewhere in Iowa by McDougall's brother John and dated 10 February 1858. In it John McDougall warns Latta, "You had better be on your guard [for] they intend to have you."

Except for this blot on the family escutcheon, the Lattas were an upright breed, as Mother would be the first to tell you. The family name -- which means "from the land of the Laithis," whatever that means -- first appeared along Scotland's Ayrshire coast. Sprinkled among the farmers and tradesmen of later generations are generous doses of ministers, doctors, scholars, teachers, poets and hymn writers.

The family genealogy traces our branch to an "Irish nobleman" named James M. Latta who lived in County Donegal, Northern Ireland, during the early 18th century. The Northern Irish Genealogical Society said there was no record of a Latta among the nobility of Ulster and suggested that James Latta probably was a wealthy merchant instead.

Whatever, Latta is said to have disinherited a son named William, forcing the young man to take his wife, Katherine, and head for the Colonies. They tried New Jersey, but quickly left to join the hordes of Scotch-Irish who were carving out the Cumberland Valley wilderness in western Pennsylvania.

When the Revolutionary War broke out, according to unverified family lore, William joined a militia raised at Carlisle, Pa., but oddly known as Morgan's Virginia Riflemen. The unit's official name was the 11th Virginia Regiment.

Our lineage follows William Latta's second-born son, Robert H. Latta (1773-1859), who went on to become an early settler of Fairfield County, Ohio, and later joined his son, Dr. Johnston Latta, on the Indiana frontier. Robert -- a giant of a man at 6 foot 4 and 300 pounds, according to family records -- eventually amassed nearly 1,500 acres in Indiana. Among his property was land he donated for the Eden Chapel and Cemetery on the edge of Topeka, where many of our ancestors lie.

He was the first settler of Eden Township. His son Johnston (1807-73) was the first physician of Goshen; his son James (1796-1855) - Mother's great-grandfather, as already mentioned - was the first minister of Ligonier; and his son William (1801-47) built the first sawmill in Noble County's Orange Township.

And that's where this tale began and ends.