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How They Came to Call it Xenia

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, July 10, 1932



By Howard Burba


     Largely because it is a most unusual word and one that has twisted a great many tongues in its pronunciation, there has been a lot of speculation over a period of more than a hundred years as to just how Xenia, Ohio, came by its name.

     There has long been a tradition to the effect that someone who had devoted their leisure hours to reading Greek history and who wanted to go back toward the beginning of time in the selection of a name for this pioneer Ohio county seat was responsible for the selection.  Another version is to the effect that the word itself is of Indian origin, and in the language of the Red Man means “new year.”  But traditions are in error.  It is a Greek work, but its meaning has nothing to do with cities, towns or hamlets, insofar as names are concerned.

     It’s an interesting story, though, and that it may be told as it should be told, let’s go back to the beginning.  To do that it is necessary to start in with the year 1803, or about the time Ohio was being divided into counties.  At that time Hamilton co. was spread all over this part of the state.  In parceling it out, the early legislatures took a generous slice of it and another off of Ross co. and christened the new county Greene.  Under an act of March 24 of that year the legislature provided that until a permanent county seat had been selected all sessions of court and all county legal business should be transacted at the home of Owen Davis in Beaver creek tp.  

   John Paul was a resident of what is now Trebeins, having settled there in 1800.  He was the first to harness the waters of the Little Miami river, establishing shortly after his arrival what was for 100 years known as Paul’s mill.  Tradition has it that while living at Trebeins and operating his mill he had an “inside tip” that with the formation of the new county, the seat of justice was to be located at the forks of Shawnee creek.  Wise man that he was, he hied himself to Cincinnati, verified the report and immediately proceeded to buy up, for a few cents an acre, an immense tract of land where the city of Xenia is now located.

     The first court for the organizing of Greene co. was held May 10, 1803.  William Maxwell, Benjamin Whiteman and James Barrett were the associate judges and John Paul was clerk.  Paul’s close association with the judges may have been responsible for this uncanny knowledge of exactly where the county seat would be located when the time came for establishing it.

     The first court for the trial of cases was held in the same house on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 1803, and it is interesting to resurrect the notes of a pioneer Ohio historian and from them secure a picture of the deliberations of that “august tribunal.”  The same associate judges were on the bench, while the presiding judge was Francis Dunlavy, Daniel Simms serving in the capacity of prosecuting attorney.  “And,” reads the historic records, “there came a grand jury, to-wit: William J. Stewart, foreman; John Wilson, William Buckles, Abraham Van-Eaton, James Snodgrass, John Judy, Evan Morgan, Robert Marshall, Alexander C. Armstrong, Joseph C. Vance, Joseph Wilson, John Buckhannon, Martin Mendenhall and Harry Martin.”

     From a careful examination of the records and other sources of information it is impossible to determine if there was any business for the grand jury to consider when they convened in a little log smokehouse adjacent to the dwelling in which the court sessions were held.  But they were not permitted to remain long idle.  It is recorded that the spectators in attendance took the matter under consideration and, feeling it a travesty on justice to have a court and nothing for it to do, they cut out employment for the grand jury by engaging in divers fist fights, knochdowns, and drag-outs.

     “It seems our pioneers fought for the benefit of the court,” declares our old historian.  “At all events, while their honors were waiting to settle the differences according to law, they were making up issues and settling them by combat.”

     He relates an instance in which a Mr. H-----, from over in Warren co., figured.  Owen Davis, who, incidentally, was quite celebrated as an Indian fighter, charged this Warren countian with stealing hogs.  The insult was resented, a combat followed and Davis was the victor.  He then went into court and, planting himself before the judges, he said, addressing himself particularly to one of them:

     “Well, Ben, I’ve whipped that damned hog thief.  What’s the damages?’  And thereupon, suiting the action to the word, he drew out his buckskin purse, containing $8 or $10, and slammed it down on the table.  The, addressing the judge again, he said: “Take your change out of that, Ben, and if you’d steal a hog, damned if I wouldn’t whip you, too!”

     Seventeen witnesses were sworn following the various fist fights and sent before the grand jury.  Nine true bills were returned, all for assault and battery, committed after the court was organized.  To these indictments the parties pleaded guilty and were fined, Davis among them.

     Then the following entry was placed upon the records of the court:

     “The court then proceeded to examine the several candidates for the surveyor’s office and James Galloway, jr., being well qualified, was appointed surveyor of said county.”

     On the second day of the term Joseph C. Vance, whose son later served as governor of Ohio, was appointed to make the necessary arrangements for the establishment of the seat of justice.  Along with David Hunter and Joseph Wilson, as assistants, he entered into a bond of $1500 for the faithful performance of his duties.  Vance then proceeded to direct the laying of a townsite, providing a square for a courthouse, and allowing for a sufficient number of streets and alleys to care for the growing settlement that residents of the new county visioned.

     In June, 1804, the last court was held at the home of Owen Davis.  William A. Beatty, of Kentucky, had promptly appeared on the scene when the site for the new seat of justice had been selected, and began the hurried erection of a tavern.  The logs for this he cut from the spot on which it was proposed to erect a courthouse.  Frederick Boner also saw the possibilities of the infant settlement, and he, too, started the erection of a large log structure about the same time that Beatty laid the foundation for his.  There was a race to see which would be the first completed, and Beatty won.  So the court was held on the upper floor of his tavern, while the commissioners, Ichabod B. Helsey, Balden Apsby and William McClellan went through the legal forms necessary to letting contracts for a courthouse.

     Boner built his cabin on a lot now occupied by the Eavy wholesale grocery warehouse.  Beatty’s tavern stood on the site of the Leaman block, opposite the present courthouse.  The tavern was opened to business on Oct. 4,1804, and consisted of a hewed log double structure, two stories high, its length running east and west.

     The spot selected for a courthouse was at this time covered with a dense growth of forest trees.  As an early historian described it: “The whole country around was an unbroken forest, beneath whose sylvan shades the timid deer laid down to rest; among whose branches the playful squirrel sported in freedom; the songs of birds made the forests redolent with music.  It was altogether a scene of natural beauty and harmony—delightful and enchanting.  But as if nature could not blend in such harmony, the charm is broken, the spell dispelled by the dismal howl of the wolf, or the blood-curdling whoop of the red man.  ‘Mid such surroundings our forefathers hewed a home for themselves and made it possible for us to have the beautiful homes we have today.

     Down in what is now known as Clermont co., on its southern border near the Ohio river, was a little town named “Bullskin,” christened for a creek by the same name which flowed into the Ohio a few miles away.  From Bullskin running north was a trail passing through New Burlington and along what is now Detroit st., in Xenia, thence north to terminate at Urbana.  Starting west was another trail through Franklinton, near the present city of Columbus, thence west over what is now Main st., in Xenia, intersecting the Bullskin trail at the site of the new county courthouse.  The Franklinton trail led down through Waynesville and Lebanon to Cincinnati.  I am telling you this that you may appreciate the strategic location of the new county seat—at the crossroads of colonial travel at the opening of the eighteenth century.

     On the farm of Paris Peterson, four miles southeast of Xenia, had been commenced about the year 1800 what was known as the town of Caesarville.  Here again the foresight of the sturdy old pioneer is evident, for Thomas Crawford, who laid out Caesarville and who owned all of the land on which is was located, actually erected a large log structure to serve as a courthouse.  Nearby he dug a public well.  Log cabin homes were scattered about it in generous numbers.  In the early days of the community many pioneers were married in the Caesarville courthouse, though it had not as yet secured official recognition since the actual formation of a county had not been accomplished.

     Caesarville served as the voting place for the voters of that section until the formation of Xenia tp. On Aug. 20, 1805, the voters went to and from this voting place over a trail that is now the Xenia-Wilmington pike.

     Just a few years ago there died in Springfield, at the age of 93, Mrs. Maria Stone, youngest daughter of Gen. Benjamin Whiteman, a pioneer settler of Greene co.  She was the last living person who heard from the lips of their forefathers the story of how Xenia got its name.  She recalled, and her interview is now an accepted part of Greene co. history, of having often heard her father relate details of the town’s christening.  He, with his father-in-law, Owen Davis, had received an invitation from James C. Vance, John Paul, William Beatty and others to meet with them at the crossing of the Bullskin and Franklinton trails, and assist in selecting a name for the new seat of justice.  Of course, the invitation was accepted.

     The day of the christening saw a considerable gathering of settlers at the crossroads.  It was made a holiday, and since many of the families were forced to bring along their picnic baskets, the journey in some instances being a lengthy one, the event took on nature of a community outing.  When the time came for choosing a name, many were suggested.  Chief among them were Washington, Wayne and Greenville.  Along in the afternoon, no name having been selected, a stranger, tall, scholarly-looking and courteous in bearing, stepped forward and said:
     “Gentlemen, allow me to suggest a name for your county town.  In view of the kind and hospitable manner in which I have been treated while a stranger to most of you, allow me to suggest the name of ‘Xenia,’ taken from the Greek language and meaning ‘hospitality.’ ”

     The name was accepted and placed among the others already suggested.  The balloting proceeded and narrowed down to a tie between Wayne and Xenia.  At this point someone in the crowd suggested that out of compliment to Owen Davis, who had so long shared his home for court purposes, his wife, Laticia, be permitted to cast the deciding vote.  The proposal met with unanimous approval.  And Laticia Davis christened Xenia, O., when she cast her vote in favor of it instead of the name of Wayne.

     It is recorded that the stranger, as he started to ride away after hearing the deciding vote, said: “Gentlemen, I thank you for deciding in favor of Xenia.”

     That stranger was the Rev. Robert Armstrong, who one year later became the pastor of the Massiecreek and Sugarcreek associated congregations of Greene co.  He spent the remainder of his life in religious work in the county and at his death was one of the best known residents of all this part of the state.

     Close on the heels of the christening of the county seat and before it had started the steady growth which built it into a considerable settlement by the time the nation entered its second war with England, came news of startling discoveries but a few miles to the north.  Early pioneers had come upon strange and unusual waters bubbling from the earth, yellowish in appearance, remarkably effective in medicinal power.  For a long time the site of the new discovery promised to prove a powerful competitor of the newly-formed seat of justice.  The land on which the waters was discovered was owned by Lewis Davis, and he christened the place “Yellow Springs.”

     Davis saw a chance to commercialize his holdings, so he built a boarding house and passed out word to occasional hunters and wandering pioneers that he would accept as boarders any afflicted persons who wanted to recover their health through the use of the medicinal waters.  A Frenchman by the name of Thomas Fream came along about he year 1804, and erected a crude log cabin near the springs.  He traded with the Indians who inhabited all that territory, and with occasional hunters who happened along.  He also enjoyed the distinction of owning the first pack of hounds ever brought into Greene co.   Gen. Benjamin Whiteman, who had married a daughter of Owen Davis, owned a vast acreage in the neighborhood of the springs, and when Lewis Davis succeeded in establishing a settlement there it was largely the Whiteman land that went into the site of the present town of Yellow Springs.

     While Yellow Springs prospered, and between the years of its founding and the outbreak of the Civil War became one of the most famous health resorts west of the Alleghany mountains, it never developed into a serious rival of Xenia as a trading center.  The location of the county seat in those days gave a town a prestige which it was difficult for another settlement in the same county to overcome.  In this case there was no exception to that rule.

     Xenia and Yellow Springs both flourished while almost midway between them the pioneer settlement of the whole Northwest Territory, and a place of much activity long years before either of these two towns were formed, fell into a state of disintegration.  Old Town, at it has long been known, “Old Chillicothe,” as it was known before the days of the Revolutionary War, declined as a settlement while its neighbors to the north and south advanced.

     But Old Town, like Xenia, the crossroads of pioneer travel, and Yellow Springs, Ohio’s pioneer health resort, cannot be robbed of its brilliant page in early history.  For it was to Oldtown in 1778 that Daniel Boone was brought as a captive; at Oldtown where he permitted the Indians to win victories in shooting matches that they might consider him harmless and thus relinquish their vigilance over him.  And it was on the 16th of June of the same year that he made his escape, covering the distance of 160 miles between Oldtown and Boonesboro, Ky., in four days.

     It was to Oldtown in 1778 that Simon Kenton was brought as a prisoner of the Indians, and where he was forced to run the gauntlet, stripped to the waist and still suffering from wounds inflicted while he had been bound to the stake as a captive.

     Old town must always remain typical of its name.  So must Yellow Springs, for the curative waters that figured in its christening have never ceased to flow.  As for Xenia, it will always typify that which its unusual name signifies—“hospitality.”