(Feb. 7, 1801-July 12, 1881). Born in Augusta, New York, Butler moved to Jennings County, Indiana, in 1817. Although primarily self-educated, he taught school for a few years, read law, and settled in Shelbyville in 1825.

An old sepia photograph shows a large gathering of people in front of a large, brick home.
Ovid Butler’s residence, on the northwest corner of 13th Street and Park Avenue, n.d. Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

While living in Shelbyville, he made unsuccessful runs for the state legislature and county clerk. He also met and married Cordelia Cole, the daughter of Judge Abel Cole of Hanover, Indiana. With Cordelia, he had three children who survived to adulthood. Cordelia died in 1838.

Butler moved to Indianapolis in 1836, established a law practice, and quickly became partners with another well-known attorney Calvin Fletcher. His father Chauncy (also spelled Chancy, Chancey, or Chauncey) came with him to Indianapolis and served as the preacher of Central Christian Church.

In 1840, Butler married Elizabeth Anne Elgin, a widow. Elizabeth had one child with her first husband. She and Ovid had seven children. One died in infancy. In 1846, Butler bought farmland north of the MILE SQUARE on what later would become the corner of 13th Street and Park Avenue in the OLD NORTHSIDE neighborhood. He named the property “Forest Home.”

After surviving a life-threatening illness, Butler retired from his law practice but not from active involvement with his adopted city. In 1850, he designed a university plan and drafted a charter for a Disciples Of Christ school to be established in Indianapolis. After the Indiana General Assembly approved this charter on January 15, 1850, the newly formed university board of commissioners appointed Butler its president. Butler continued to serve as president of the board of commissioners of the university, with some short interruptions, until 1871. He then became chancellor, a position that the board created for him. He held this position until the time of his death.

The square, classical brick home has a two-tiered portico entrance supported on each level by white columns. There is covered, brick porch on the right of the house and a porte cochere on the left. The roof is set with dormer windows.
Ovid Butler Shaw House, 1306 North Park Avenue, n.d. Credit: Indiana Landmarks View Source

Butler put his stamp on the new institution, making it more liberal and broad than it otherwise might have been, and worked to attract students from outside of Indiana. Butler also sold 20 acres of his own property to be the site of the Disciples of Christ school, North Western Christian University. The university was erected between 1854 and 1855 at what would become the 13th Street and College Avenue intersection.

Butler’s daughter Demia became the first female graduate as a member of the class of 1862. He endowed a chair in the English Department in 1869 in her memory, after she died in 1867. He created the chair specifically to be given to a female faculty member. Catharine Merrill was the first to hold the position. Butler also provided the school with a large endowment.

Following the Civil War, the school outgrew its first building. Although he did not approve, Butler supported a move to the Irvington neighborhood in 1875. Two years later, North Western Christian University was renamed Butler University in his honor, despite his protests.

In addition to his work for the university, Butler was active in Indianapolis civic life. Politically, he was first a Democrat, then a Free Soiler, and finally a Republican. He was also an early residential developer. He platted the land around his home and the university (between current 11th and 16th streets) into residential additions, helping to create some of the more fashionable districts on the city’s northside. He was a committee member and promoter of the Free School movement of the late 1840s and early 1850s. Part owner of the Indianapolis Journal, he also was a financial backer of a local antislavery paper, the Free Soil Banner.

Revised February 2021

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