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Dayton's First Families


This article appeared in the Bicentennial Issue of the Dayton Daily News, Sun., July 4 1976
Dayton’s first families
Exploits of city’s founders weren’t fully recorded
By Carol V. Roberts
Whatever became of the first families of Dayton, those hardy, hopeful pioneers who settled the town?
Some can be traced, some cannot.  Some did not really have a hand in the founding, as such, having only paused here before forsaking the green forest for greener farm fields elsewhere.
Then, too, the first substantial histories were not written for almost 100 years, publication in most cases coinciding with the city’s own Centennial in 1896, although two came out earlier.
Samuel Thompson was leader of the first party to arrive, by way of the Miami River.  Fate willed that he leave in a similar way.  Thompson drowned in the Mad River in 1827 at 75.
HIS WIFE, CATHERINE, whose first husband, John Van Cleve, was killed by an Indian, outlived several of her eight children.  She died here in 1837 when she was 82 years old.
Her oldest son, Benjamin, was 23 when he and William Gahagen poled the pirogue upstream from Cincinnati that spring of 1796.  Benjamin was the first schoolteacher, court clerk, librarian, postmaster and bridegroom.  He was only 48 when he died in 1821, 11 years after his first wife died and four years before his second wife died.
Soon after arriving, Gahagen was married to one of the daughters of William Hamer, another first settler, and moved to Miami County at that time.  He died there in 1845 when he was about 75.
Widow McClure, whose first name was lost to the records before she and her four children embarked on the trip to Dayton, also moved to Miami County some years later.  Her age and the date of her death went unrecorded, too, along with the histories of her children.
MARY VAN CLEVE, believed to have been the first off the boat on Apr. 1, 1776, when she was 9 years old, outlived two husbands and had 10 children.  She is believed to have lived into 80s.
William Van Cleve, who drove the Thompson family cow from Cincinnati to Dayton when he came with George Newcom’s second arriving group, farmed in what is now Kettering and later ran a tavern at Warren and Jefferson Sts.
He was twice a widower and three times married.  His death in 1826 at the age of 49 was blamed on recurring illnesses stemming from his service in the War of 1812.
Most of Newcom’s large group moved elsewhere in the Miami Valley soon after coming here and could not be traced by the early Dayton historians.  Thus it was with William Chenoweth, John Dorough, Daniel Ferrell, Solomon Goss, James Morris and Thomas Davis.  Abraham Grassmire stayed in town for awhile and made and sold looms, but then disappeared from history.
GEORGE NEWCOM SR., who was described as an old man when he made the trip, is believed to have died before 1805.
His other son, William, about 20 in 1796, is known to have married and then died during the War of 1812 as a result of exposure in cold weather.
Facts are not available about the two others in that party.
John Davis lived fewer than four years after he came to Dayton.  His death in the winter of 1799 came as a result of the town’s first fatal accident.  He was shopping ice from around the frozen water wheel of Daniel C. Cooper’s Mad river corn cracker mill when the wheel started suddenly, sucked him under and crushed him.
AS FOR LEADER Newcom, his is one of the best known first family names.  He had the first tavern, which was also the first two-story house in Dayton and served as the first ‘seat of justice’ and social center of the town.  Church services were held there.
Newcom was the first sheriff, serving for five years; was a colonel in the War of 1812; was clerk of the court, succeeding Benjamin Van Cleve in 1821.  He served five years in the Ohio House and eight years in the Ohio Senate.
His first wife died in 1834 and his second in 1850.  Newcom died in 1853 at 82.
The last party to arrive here was led by William Hamer, a Methodist lay preacher, and included bachelor brothers Jonathan and Edward Mercer, Hamer’s wife, Mary, and their six children.
THE MERCERS LOCATED up on the Mad River, near the Clark-Greene County line.  Historians record nothing of their lives afterward except that they came into town a couple of times in the first years as a result of Indian scares.
The Hamers settled well out from the town plat, on what became the Springfield Pk. Near the present city corporation line.  The Hamers had two boys and four girls when they came.  Two girls and another boy, the first child born in the area, came along later.
Eight of the children married and settled elsewhere, one as far away as California, one daughter remaining single.  Hamer died in 1827 at 75 as a result of injuries suffered in accident while traveling to Cincinnati.  His wife Mary, died in 1825, at about 70.
Three other men are considered among the first settlers, although they did not arrive until about two months after the first 60-odd people, and all three had been here with survey parties the previous fall.
JEROME HOLT MARRIED Ann, the oldest of the Van Cleve girls, while the family was still living in Cincinnati.  He was 33 and she 21 when they came to Dayton and settled in what is now Wayne Twp.
He was appointed constable of Dayton Twp. in 1800, then served as Montgomery county sheriff from 1808 to 1811.  He was a colonel of a militia regiment during the War of 1812.  He was 77 when he died in 1840.  Ann Van Cleve Holt was 83 when she died in 1858.
Robert Edgar was 26 and single when he arrived about June 1, 1976.  He was working as a carpenter and mill operation when he made the three-day walk to Cincinnati in September 1798 to buy a horse and bring back his bride, the widowed Margaret Gillespie Kirkwood, and her infant son back to Dayton.
HE LOCATED SOON after ward on a farm on Wayne Ave., near Wyoming St., and opened the first limestone quarry about 1805.  They had seven children, two dying in childhood.  The youngest, John F. Edgar, wrote one of Dayton’s Centennial histories when he was 82 years old.
Robert Edgar served in the War of 1812.  In addition to running his farm and quarry, he became a bridge contractor in 1827, building the Third and Fifth St. spans over the canal.
He died in December 1838 and she in November 1844.
Daniel C. Cooper’s name is, of course, the best known of the three men who came to town two months after the first boat arrived.  Despite his experience in surveying and his status as agent for the four “proprietors” of Dayton, he was only 23 years old.
AS IS RECORDED elsewhere in this edition, he soon owned most of Dayton, along with considerable other acreage, and owned the first industries—cracking, grist, wool carding and lumber mills and a distillery.  He was half owner of a dry goods store for a time and of the second Dayton-Cincinnati stage coach line.
Cooper was the first justice of the peace of Dayton Twp., serving from 1799 until Montgomery County was established in 1803.  He was in the Ohio House of Representatives for three years and the Ohio Senate four years.  He served a dozen years on the Town Council and was council president two years.
He was a leader in and big contributor to the First Presbyterian Church, and his death on July 13, 1818 when he was only 45 years old, is linked to the church by Dayton’s first major historian.
A NEW BRICK church had been built in 1817 at the northwest corner of Second and Ludlow Sts., complete with bell tower.  It was not until around June 1 of the next year that the fine, big bell arrived, being delivered to Phillips’ dry good store at the southeast corner of Second and Main.
Historian Edgar wrote that the heavy bell was loaded onto a wheelbarrow and that Cooper single-handedly wheeled it across Main, down Second and across Ludlow to the church, rupturing a blood vessel.  This led to his death six weeks later. Edgar reported.
Cooper was married in 1803 to Sophia Greene Burnett, A Cincinnati widow.  The only one of their six children who grew to maturity died in 1836 at the age of 24.
Two years after Cooper’s death, his widow married Gen. Fielding Loury.  They had one son.  She died on May 17 1826, short of her 46th birthday.