The Town of Clarksville

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It began here

Welcome to the Town of Clarksville, Indiana.


The Town of Clarksville, which bills itself as the “Oldest American Town in the Northwest Territory” was chartered in 1783 by the Virginia legislature. The original town was composed of 1,000 acres set aside from the grant of 150,000 acres the legislature donated to George Rogers Clark and his men.

Ten trustees were named in the charter from Virginia. They were charged with the task of laying off lots of half an acre along with streets and public lots. The trustees could sell the lots and use the proceeds “…in such a manner as they may judge most beneficial for the inhabitants of the said town…”

The trustees were empowered to elect successors for vacancies due to death or other disability, and the trustees did not have to reside in Clarksville to serve. Although this special status of non-resident trustees was challenged at various times in Clarksville’s early history as a town, the practice continued for several decades. The original Indiana State Constitution in 1816 provided a special exception for the Town of Clarksville to the requirement that officials live within the boundaries of the communities in which they hold office.

The challenges of Clarksville residents to the self-perpetuating, non-resident trustee system were resolved in the late 19th century. The ten-member board stopped meeting in 1889. However, the three-member board that replaced it still may have consisted of non-residents, as one was appointed by the Floyd County commissioners, one appointed by the Clark County commissioners and one was elected by the residents of Clarksville.

At some point between 1889 and 1937, the board changed again to five members, all residents of the town elected by its citizens. However, records of this change were lost in the 1937 flood.

Two other changes occurred to bring Clarksville’s government to its present structure. In 1981, the State of Indiana recodified its statutes regarding local government, including changing the structure of town boards. Boards of trustees were designated town councils with council members rather than trustees. In 1990, the Clarksville Town Council expanded its membership from five to seven. The current council consists of one member elected from each of the five voting districts and two at-large members.

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The area surrounding Clarksville, Indiana boasts a proud heritage with diverse elements, some dating back 350 million years. This area played a major part in the story of Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark and was the gathering point for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of the Louisiana Purchase. Native Americans set up camps near the area that was to become Clarksville because of its proximity to the crossing of the Buffalo Trace across the Ohio River. John James Audubon was one of several naturalists who studied the rich variety of wildlife in the area.

The Falls of the Ohio, a series of rapids along the 350 million-year-old Devonian fossil beds, created a natural stopping point for settlers and commerce moving west along the Ohio River. The rapids also created a natural defense for Gen. George Rogers Clark and the families of the troops he gathered for an assault on the British forces in 1778 and 1779.

Clark’s successful campaign against the British in the Northwest Territory was the basis of a continuous connection to the area that would become Clarksville that lasted until his death in 1818.

Immediately after the Revolutionary War, the Virginia legislature rewarded Clark and other veterans for their service with grants of land, including 150,000 acres in the territory north of the Ohio River.

Town vs. City

Often the designation “city” or “town” refers to the size of the municipality. In Indiana, however, the difference has to do with the structure of government. A town may not become a city if its population is less than 2,000. However, many towns in Indiana exceed this limit by a great deal and still remain towns. Clarksville, with its nearly 21,000 people, is the fourth largest town in Indiana.

The difference is that towns do not have separate executive (mayor) and legislative (council) branches. The town council is elected by the voters and, in turn, selects a member to be council president. The president officiates at meetings and performs some of the executive functions, but still maintains the legislative functions of a council member.

Questions are often raised whether it is more advantageous to be a city than a town. Sometimes day-to-day decisions that are often made by a mayor, may be hampered with the town council form of government. The Town Manager Law passed in 1971 provides a solution to this problem. Revenues and grants are based on population and other factors, not the form of government. There are no strong advantages or disadvantages to city vs. town in Indiana. Both of the forms have produced efficient, well-run governments, as well as the opposite kind.

In 1980, legislation was completed to make Indiana a “Home Rule” state. Home Rule grants municipalities all powers granted by statute, as well as any powers not specifically denied by the Constitution of the State of Indiana or other statutes. This applies to towns as well as cities, and allows local governments to make decisions and carry out programs they feel are in the best interest of their communities.

The council serves as the legislative and executive body of the town. One of their members is voted by the council to serve as council president, who has the power to sign contracts, ordinances, etc., that have been approved by the board. The president also represents the council at government and community functions. Also, the council appoints administrative department heads, with one council member serving as a liaison to that department, rather than the council members acting as department heads.

So, it is difficult to determine what structure town government falls under. However, in discussing structure of government informally with others at meetings and other opportunities, my impression is that forms of government vary widely across this country.