Harrison County is located in the far southern part of the U.S. state of Indiana along the Ohio River. The county was officially established in 1808. It is part of the Louisville-Jefferson County, KY-IN Metropolitan Statistical Area. As of the 2010 census, the county's population was 39,364, an increase of 6.6% from 2000. The county seat is Corydon, the former capital of Indiana.
The county has a diverse economy with no sector employing more than 13% of the local workforce. Horseshoe Southern Indiana is the largest employer, followed by Tyson Foods and the Harrison County Hospital. Tourism also plays a significant role in the economy and is centered around the county's many historic sites. County government is divided among several bodies including the boards of the county's three school districts, three elected commissioners who exercise legislative and executive powers, an elected county council that controls the county budget, a circuit and superior court, and township trustees who oversee government function in the county's 12 townships. The county has 10 incorporated towns with a total population of over 5,000, as well as many small unincorporated towns. One Interstate highway and one U. S. Route run through the county, as do eight Indiana State Roads and two railroad lines.
Migratory groups of Native Americans inhabited the area for thousands of years, but the first permanent settlements in what would become Harrison County were created by American settlers in the years after the American Revolutionary War. The population grew rapidly during first decade of the 19th century. Corydon was officially platted in 1808 and became the capital of the Indiana Territory in 1813. Many of the state's early important historic events occurred in the county, including the writing of Indiana's first constitution. Corydon was the state capital until 1825, but in the years afterward remained an important hub for southern Indiana. In 1859 there was a major meteorite strike. In 1863 the Battle of Corydon was fought, the only battle of the American Civil War to occur in Indiana.
Humans first entered what would become Indiana near the end of the last ice age. The region around Harrison County was of particular value to the early humans because of the abundance of flint. There is evidence of flint mining in local caves as early as 2000 BCE; the stone was used to produce crude tools. Passing migratory tribes frequented the area which was influenced by succeeding groups of peoples including the Hopewells and Mississippians. One flint-working and camping location is known as the Swan's Landing Archeological Site; it is among the most important Early Archaic archaeological sites anywhere in eastern North America. Permanent human settlements in the county began with the arrival of American settlers in the last decade of the 18th century.
The area became part of the United States following its conquest during the American Revolutionary War. Veterans of the revolution received land grants in the eastern part of the county as part of Clark's Grant. Daniel Boone and his brother Squire Boone were early explorers of the county, entering from Kentucky in the 1780s. Harvey Heth, Spier Spencer, and Edward Smith were among the first to settle in the county beginning in the 1790s. Smith built the first home in what later became the county seat of Corydon.
Harrison County was originally part of Knox County and Clark County but was separated in 1808. It was the first Indiana county formed by the Indiana territorial legislature and not the Governor. The county originally contained land that is now parts of Crawford, Floyd, Washington, Jackson, Clark, Lawrence, Perry, Scott and Orange Counties. The county was named for William Henry Harrison, the first governor of Indiana Territory, and later a General in War of 1812, hero of Tippecanoe, and the 9th U.S. President. Harrison was the largest land holder in the county at the time and had a small estate at Harrison Spring.
Squire Boone settled permanently in what is now Boone Township in 1806. He died in 1815 and is buried in a cave near his home, Squire Boone Caverns. James, Isaiah, and Daniel (son of Squire) Boone settled in Heth Township during the first decade of the 1800s. The county's first church was built by Boone east of present day Laconia. The church, which has been reconstructed, is known as Old Goshen. Jacob Kintner settled near Corydon in about 1810. He was one of the wealthiest settlers and amassed a tract of land around Corydon, built a large home, and maintained an inn. Paul and Susanna Mitchem became Quakers and immigrated to Harrison County from North Carolina in 1814, bringing with them 107 slaves they freed after arriving. Although some of the former slaves left, the group became one of the largest communities of free blacks in the state.
The first road was built in Harrison County in 1809 connecting Corydon with Mauckport on the Ohio River. A tow-and-ferry line was operated there by the Mauck family bringing settlers into the county from Kentucky. This road and ferry greatly expanded the county's economic viability and ease of access to the outside world, leading to a rapid settlement of the area. The county's population more than doubled in the following decade.
Dennis Pennington, who lived near Lanesville, became one of the county's early leading citizens and speaker of the territory's legislature. Corydon began competing with other southern Indiana settlements to become the new capital of the territory after its reorganization in 1809. Hostilities broke out in 1811 with the Native American tribes on the frontier, and the territorial capital was moved to Corydon on May 1, 1813, after Pennington suggested it would be safer than Vincennes. For the next twelve years, Corydon was the political center of the territory and subsequent state. A state constitution was drafted in Corydon during June 1816 and after statehood the town served as the state capital until 1825.
The first division of the county occurred in 1814 when the northern portion of the county was separated to become Washington County. The county was again divided in 1818 with the western part of the county being separated to become Crawford County. A third division occurred in 1819 when Floyd County was created out of the eastern part of the county. Harrison County's eastern border has had minor adjustments through land transactions with Floyd County; the last change occurred in 1968.
The northern part of the county is known as the barrens, named by the early settlers for the lack timber there. For the first decades of settlement, settlers refused to purchase the land in the barrens because it was considered too far from the timber needed to build homes, fires, fences, and other necessities. The barrens were swept by annual wildfires that prevented the growth of trees. The largest barren ran from the northern edge of Corydon northward to Palmyra, and from the Floyd Knobs in the east, westward to the Blue River. The Central Barren covered most of the upper middle part of the county. As settlement expanded and farming grew in the early 19th century, settlers began to discover that the barrens were among the most fertile farmlands in the state, and they quickly filled up with landholders. As settlement increased, the wildfires were stopped and by the start of the 20th century the uninhabited parts of the barrens had become forested and have remained so until modern times.
In 1860 the first Harrison County fair was held in Corydon. The county fair has been an annual event since then and is the longest continuously running fair in the state. The county fairgrounds were built in the southwest corner of Corydon where the home of Edward Smith formerly stood. The fair's original grandstand burned in 1960 and the county purchased a new grandstand from the minor league baseball team at Parkway Field in Louisville, Kentucky.
The only Civil War battle fought in Indiana occurred in Harrison County on July 9, 1863, between the Harrison County Legion and Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan of the Confederate Army during Morgan's Raid. Morgan crossed the Ohio River into Harrison County on the morning of July 9. His crossing was contested by the Legion with artillery on the Indiana shore and an armed river boat. After Morgan opened fire with his own batteries from the opposite shore the legion quickly retreated towards Corydon. The citizens of Mauckport fled the town with most of their valuables. Morgan landed on the east side of Mauckport with two thousand cavalry and marched north burning homes, farms, and mills. The county militia made a stand to block his advance on the county seat and the resulting conflict is known as the Battle of Corydon. The battle was won by the Confederates and the town of Corydon was then sacked and stores were looted and ransomed. The battle left 4 dead, 12 wounded, and 355 captured. After the battle Morgan continued into northern Harrison County where he looted New Salisbury area with the main body of troops. Crandall and Palmyra were robbed and sacked by detachments. His forces left the county on July 10; they were eventually defeated and captured by Union Army.
The railroad reached Harrison County in 1869. A line was completed across the northern half of county in 1874 running from Floyd County connecting Crandall and then continuing west into Crawford County. A southward extension connecting Corydon to Crandall was completed in 1882. A train wreck killed three in 1902. The southern extension connecting Corydon was purchased by the Corydon Scenic Railroad Company in 1989 and operated as a tourist attraction until 2003 when it was closed because of financial difficulties, ending passenger service in the county.
The first county courthouse was a small log building. When Corydon became the territory capital in 1813, county and territorial officials shared the building. By 1816 a stone building had been constructed, and it served as both Harrison County Courthouse and the state capital building until the capital was moved. As more space was needed, other buildings were constructed to supplement the courthouse. In the 1920s, the latest of these office buildings was razed to make way for a new courthouse; the old building was acquired by the State of Indiana and preserved as the first state capitol building. The new courthouse was built from 1927 to 1928 at a cost of about $250,000. The building was designed by Fowler and Karges of Evansville and was constructed by J. Fred Beggs and Company of Scottsburg.
The Harrison-Crawford State Forest was started in 1932 when the State of Indiana purchased land in western Harrison County. The park is the largest state forest in Indiana and surrounds the O'Bannon Woods State Park and Wyandotte Caves, located in eastern Crawford County.
The Matthew E. Welsh Bridge was completed in 1966 in Mauckport. It connected Harrison County with neighboring Meade County. This is the only bridge over the Ohio River between Tell City and New Albany. In 1969 Dr. Samuel P. Hays donated the Hayswood Nature Reserve to the county. It was developed in 1973 by the Harrison County Park Board by adding public facilities to the western part of the preserve. It is the second largest nature reserve in the county.
Caesars Indiana opened a casino river boat, hotel complex, and golf course in 1998, boosting the county's tourism industry. The casino complex was purchased and became Horseshoe Southern Indiana on July 11, 2008.