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First History of Dayton Ever to Appear in Print


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, December 31, 1933



By Howard Burba


            Fingering through the files of Dayton newspapers dating as far back as the year 1812, I have discovered the first history of Dayton ever published.

            Exactly 100 years ago there existed in Dayton an organization known as the “Dayton Lyceum.” It had been formed but one year before, and it was at its first anniversary meeting that the history – the first document of its kind – was read to those assembled. The organization, conducted along the lines of the early literary societies for long years recognized as important institutions in almost every town, numbered among its members the most cultured and socially prominent residents of the community.

            Dayton was but a little more than 30 years old when the Lyceum members met to celebrate their first anniversary with a special program of music and addresses by local citizens. But the settlement had long since kicked out of its swaddling clothes, and boasted a population of some 4000 souls. Not only that, it had found its place in the sun as a market center for a vast area then rapidly filling up with settlers from the states of Kentucky and Pennsylvania. It had established itself as both a permanent and a progressive seat of industry and commerce; the center of a rich and fertile valley whose acres even then had scarcely felt the movement of the pioneer’s mole-board plow. It boasted, of course, the usual number of churches and schools, stores and shops, and its citizens must have felt when their Lyceum was organized that the end of the path to social advancement had been reached.

            For a full year before this anniversary meeting one finds frequent mention of the society’s activities in the daily paper, which also promoted the same cultural purposes as the organization. As a rule the weekly program consisted of papers prepared on subjects of either state or national interest, or both. In fact, it was not until the anniversary meeting held 100 years ago – 1833 – that anyone saw fit to bring forth something treating in intimate detail with the settlement and early life of those who had snatched this town-site from the wilderness, defended it from the Red Man and set about making it safe for the white race forever.

            When I found a paper containing a report of that anniversary of the old Dayton Lyceum, and came upon the brave little headline, its ink dimmed by the years, it was then I realized I had found, apparently beyond question, the first printed history of Dayton. You have here the source of names and dates, the story of community life in the settlement pictured by every history, and every historical sketch that has been written of Dayton during the past 100 years. Your history of 50 years ago, and your history of more recent times, is but a repetition of a sketch of the settlement of Dayton read before the Dayton Lyceum 100 years ago. So, here it is, the oldest history of Dayton, now republished word for word as it originally appeared in print just 100 years ago:



            In the latter part of the year 1791, the army of Gen. St. Clair, on its advance into the Indian country built Fort Hamilton, where the town of Hamilton now is, and another fort about six miles northerly of the present town of Easton. Gen. Wayne afterward built others which formed a chain of posts extending from Cincinnati to the mouth of the Auglaize. At length his victory over the Indians, on the 20th of August, 1794, brought on a general treaty with all the hostile tribes, which was concluded on the 3rd day of August, 1795, by which peace was established, boundaries were defined, and the country was thrown open for settlement.

            Seventeen days after the treaty was concluded, Arthur St. Clair, James Wilkinson, Jonathan Dayton and Israel Ludlow made a contract with John Cleves Symmes, who assigned them his claim to two ranges of land extending from the Great Miami to the Little Miami, upon their binding themselves to make three settlements within their purchase – one at this point, one upon the Little Miami and one on Mad river. On the 21st of September, 1795, they dispatched two parties of surveyors from Cincinnati – one under Mr. Daniel Cooper, to survey and partially to clear out a road from that place to the mouth of Mad river, and the other under Capt. John Dunlap, to run the boundaries of their purchase. Dunlap’s party was accompanied by a man named Bedell, who was moving to a point about six miles west of Lebanon where he was about to make a settlement, which was the first one established in advance of the old stations. Previous to that time, the frontier in that direction was a station on Mill creek, only 11 miles from Cincinnati. At that point the surveying parties separated, and that of Dunlap arrived at this place on the 27th of September, and on the banks of Mad river, about 30 miles from its mouth, found a party of six Wyandot Indians encamped.

            From having been so long accustomed to consider each other as enemies, both parties were at first a little alarmed and manifested some shyness, but soon became friendly and confident, and made exchanges of provisions, knives, belts and other articles. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Cooper’s party arrived, in company with some men from Kentucky who had come to view the country with an idea of becoming settlers. But on the next day, they went a mile or two up the river and finding the land covered with vines and rank weeds, so that it was difficult to get through them, they became discouraged and returned to Kentucky. Mr. Cooper’s party started back to Cincinnati, and the other proceeded to finish their survey, which employed them about a week longer, during which their c amp was visited by some Indians, who robbed them of their provisions, and threatened the pack-horseman and hunter who had charge of it but did not attempt to do them any personal injury. The party reached Cincinnati on the 5th of October.

            About the first of November Mr. Ludlow, one of the proprietors, came up and finished laying out the town. Having finished his work on the 4th, he gave it the name of Dayton. In order to promote the speedy settlement of the place the proprietors had offered certain donations and privileges to such as would engage to become settlers, and 46 persons had accepted the proposals and entered into engagements to that effect. They were each to have an in-lot and an out-lot in the town and the privilege of purchasing 160 acres of land at the rate of one French crown per acre. On the day after the town was laid out a number of them attended, and a lottery was held in which they drew lots for themselves and their friends. Out of the 46, however, only 15 fulfilled their engagement.

            On the first day of April, 1796, four of them arrived here in a periauger after a passage of 10 days down the Ohio and up the Miami rivers. Two or three others had arrived during the winter and the remainder soon followed, together with four more who had entered into the engagement with the proprietors, subsequently making 19 persons who entitled themselves to donation lots by becoming settlers. Those 19 persons were William Gahagan, Samuel Thomson, Benjamin Van Cleve, William Van Cleve, Solomon Goss, Thomas Davis, John Davis, James McClure, John McClure, Daniel Ferrell, William Hamer, Solomon Hamer, Abraham Glassmire, John Dorough, William Chenoweth, James Morris, William Newcom and George Newcom. The only one of the number now a citizen of Dayton is George Newcom, and only two of the others are supposed to be yet living.

            About the time that the first residents of this place removed here a few families located themselves where Miamisburg has since been laid out, the place then being called Hole’s Station; a few settled upon Clear creek, about where Franklin now is; and some on the Big Prairie, a little below Middletown. Shortly after, during the same spring Jonathan Mercer settled on Mad river, eight or nine miles above this place, and some other persons established themselves higher up the river at its fork, some on the Miami at the mouth of Honey creek, and some at Piqua. The people at Mercer’s Station at one time became so much alarmed at the conduct of the Indians, by some of whom they were threatened and abused, that they abandoned the place, but in a short time returned again. The other settlements were not molested in any manner, except by having horses stolen.

            The ground which is now laid off into out-lots on the west side of the town was an open prairie when the people first removed to this place and they raised a considerable crop off corn upon it the first season of their residence here. Until that was gathered they were obliged, of course, to bring all their provisions of that kind from Cincinnati, where a barrel of flour cost them $9 and a bushel of corn meal $1, while the transportation to this place was an additional expense of $2.50 per hundred weight.

            These disadvantages and the other difficulties incident to the settlement were gradually over come and the people began to acquire the necessities of life from their own fields. The town was advancing a little in population and improvement and the land in the neighborhood began to be taken up for farms. A difficulty, however, soon arose with respect to the titles, both to the lots in the town and the land around it, which checked the progress of the settlement for some time.

            The settlers had all made their purchases and expected to receive their titles from St. Clair, Wilkinson, Ludlow and Dayton, the assignees of Judge Symmes; but Symmes found himself unable to fulfill his contract and make pay for the whole of the purchase; and the government at length gave him a patent for the amount of land he was able to pay for, and took back the residue in which were included the two ranges of townships which he had assigned and relinquished to St. Clair, Wilkinson, Ludlow and Dayton. When this became known the people were very much alarmed on account of the apparent danger that they would lose their lands and with them all the labor they had expended in their improvement, and all the advantages they had expected in becoming settlers.

            They had ventured into the wilderness considerable in advance of the frontier – they had encountered difficulties without number, labored under many disadvantages, expended their limited means, worked hard and suffered privations to provide homes for their families, and, after all, found it doubtful whether they should be able to preserve them. The situation of things, while it disheartened those who had already located themselves here, and caused some of them to abandon the country and remove to other parts where the same difficulties did not exist, discouraged and prevented other persons from coming who otherwise would have done so. The title under Symmes had failed and the government had not yet made provisions for the sale of the land at the public land offices. The country, therefore, promised nothing but loss and disappointment to those who were already here, and offered no inducement to others to come.

            Affairs remained in this state some time. At length, on the petition of inhabitants, congress on the 2nd day of March, 1799, passed an act, usually known by the name of the pre-emption law, by which all persons who had made any contract in writing with John Cleves Symmes previous to the 1st of April, 1797, for the purchase of lands between the Miami rivers, not comprehended in his patent, were to be entitled to a preference in purchasing the same lands of the United States, at the price of $2 an acre, to be paid in three annual installments. This law, however, did not give sufficient relief, and only three or four persons accepted its conditions and entered their lands.

            During the summer of 1799 the people of the Miami county became alarmed at the disposition manifested by the Indians, who, it was supposed, had been operated upon by the British traders among them, and had become dissatisfied with the cession that had been made of their lands and the boundaries established. The alarm was so great as to cause the people in all the different settlements to build block houses for protection. One was build in Dayton, on the river bank, at the head of Main st. The Indians, however, remained quiet and did not engage in hostilities, and the feeling of security was again restored.

            On the 3rd of March, 1801, congress passed another pre-emtion law, extending the privileges granted by the first act to all persons who had made contracts in writing with Judge Symmes, or his associates, or had made payments of money, for the purchase of lands, and giving longer time to substantiate claims and make payments. In addition to the price of $2 an acre it provided that the claimant should pay surveyor’s fees and some other incidental expenses. The price which Judge Symmes was to pay for his land was two-thirds of a dollar per acre, and his assignees, St. Clair, Wilkinson, Ludlow and Dayton, would have had their purchases at the same rate.

            Accordingly, the settlers who had bought lands of them had generally bargained for them at a small advance on that price and probably had not, in any case, agreed to give as much as $2 per acre. The pre-emtion law, therefore, although it afforded them a considerable relief, of which they were glad to avail themselves, did not place them in as good a situation as they would have been if they could have got their lands according to the terms of their contracts with St. Clair and his associates, and those who had entitled themselves to donations, by becoming settlers under their agreement with the proprietors, lost their gratuities and were only permitted to enter their town lots at the price of $2 an acre in preference to any other persons.

            St. Clair and his associates, if they had chosen to do so, might have availed themselves of the law and entered the whole tract which Judge Symmes had relinquished to them; but in that case they would have had to pay the government $2 an acre, instead of 66c, which they would have cost them under the contract with Judge Symmes. This rise in the price, and perhaps the circumstance that they had sold out a considerable quantity of land at less than $2 an acre, and would have to complete the titles to the purchase at a positive loss to themselves instead of realizing a profit if they purchased the land of the United States, determined them to abandon their speculation and decline availing themselves of the benefit of the law.

            They accordingly notified the commissioners, who had been appointed by the government to examine and decide upon claims to the rights of the pre-emption, of their relinquishment of their right, and assisted the settlers who had purchased of them in obtaining the allowance of their claims. Accordingly, all those who chose to do so procured patents, not only for their lands but also for their inlots in Dayton – for which they paid at the rate of $2 an acre – making the lots, with the additional fees, cost about $1 each.

            At the same time that the pre-emption law took effect, the land offices were opened for the general ale of the government land, and the country commenced filling with inhabitants. The year 1801, therefore, may be considered as the real beginning of this improvement and consequent prosperity. During that year a list was taken of the free males who were 21 years of age in Dayton township, which then formed a part of Hamilton co., and included the whole Miami co. north of a line running a short distance below Miamisburg. There were 28 west of the Great Miami, 20 east of the Little Miami, and 382 between, making 430 in all.

            The opening of the United States land offices gave an impulse to emigration into the eastern portion of the territory, that soon increased the population to the number requisite to entitle it admission into the Union; and on the 30th of April, 1802, congress passed an act authorizing it to form a constitution and to enter into a state government. The convention met for the formation of a constitution on the first of November following, and the first state legislature assembled on the first of March, 1803.

            Among its earliest acts was one for the division of the counties of Hamilton and Ross. Hamilton co. which then comprised the whole Miami county was reduced to its present limits; Butler and Warren were organized with their present boundaries; and Montgomery was established with a view to its ultimate reduction to its present size, but for that time was made to include all the country north of Butler and Warren, to the northern boundary of the state; out of which has since been formed the counties of Preble, Darke, Miami, Shelby and seven others. Dayton was made the county seat and courts were directed by the act to be held at the house then owned by George Newcom and now by John Thomson at the head of Main st. It is now the oldest building in the town and when it was erected was the best, the others being all cabins.

            Previous to the establishment of the county seat in Dayton, many of the first inhabitants had removed to farms in the country and at that time there were only five families residing in the place. They all lived near the river bank and that neighborhood remained the principal part of the town for many years. From then it gradually spread in different directions and the business removed further away from the river, until it became stationed about the four corners at the intersection of Main and First sts. In 1805 the first brick building was erected. It was the one on Main st. now occupied by the Franklin Coffee House. In 1806 the courthouse was built and within a year or two after that three other brick buildings.

            In 1810 the population had increased to 383. The war commenced two years afterward and Dayton then became a thoroughfare for the troops on their way to the northwestern frontier and a place of collection and deposit for provisions. The improvement and population of the town advanced rapidly. At the close of the war the business had increased and spread further south; so that it extended down to the corner of Main and old Market st. Improvements continued to progress rapidly after the war, particularly in 1816, and by the year 1820 the population had increased to 1139, which was very near three times what it was in 1810.

            Soon afterward the general breaking up of the banks in the western country took place; the flood of paper money with which the country was inundated sunk away; the prices of every description of property fell and a great depression ensued in all kinds of business. All improvements ceased in Dayton and the place remained at a standstill, neither gaining nor losing much in the amount of its population until the commencement of the canal gave it new life.

            The division of the Miami canal extending from Middletown to Dayton was put under contract in May, 1827, and during that year building recommenced with considerable activity, and old neglected houses were repaired and crowded with inmates until dwellings could with difficulty be secured as fast as the increase of population required them. In May, 1828, a census was taken and inhabitants were found to amount to 1697, showing an increase from 1820 of 558, nearly all of which had taken place within the preceding year. In June, 1830, when the inhabitants were enumerated by a United States deputy marshal, the population had increased to 2954, the gain in a little over two years having been 1237. Eighteen months afterward, at the close of the year 1831, the census was again taken and the inhabitants amounted to 3258.

            The improvement of the town in the meantime set pace with the increase of its population. At the end of the year 1828 the whole number of buildings amounted to 370, of which 125 were of brick, six of stone, 239 of wood. In 1829, 46 brick buildings were erected and 54 of wood, making a total of 100. In 1830 the new houses built were 35 of brick and 46 frame, total 81. In 1831 the number was still greater, brick dwellings amounting to 50 and those of wood to 62, in all 112. In 1832, 51 brick buildings and 44 of wood were added.

            The canal was opened for navigation to this place early in January, 1829. The population in the preceding May was less than 1700, and it is now probably 4000. The number of houses was then 370 and 388 have been erected since that time, greatly superior to those built before both in average size and quality.

            In connection with this sketch of the commencement of the settlement and the progress of the improvements of the town, some other circumstances may be noted which will probably not be uninteresting.

            In the spring of 1805 Dayton was inundated by an extraordinary rise of the river. In all ordinary freshets the water used to pass through the prairies at the east side of the town, where the basin now is, but the flood of 1805 covered a great portion of the town itself. There were only two spots of dry land in the whole place. The water came out of the river at the head of Jefferson st. and ran down through the commons at the east end of old Market st. which a horse could not cross without swimming, leaving an island between it and the mill. A canoe could be floated at the intersection of First st. with St. Clair, and the first dry land west of that point was about where the house of Mr. Brabham now stands.

            The western extremity of that island was near the crossing of Main and First sts., from whence it bore down in a southern direction, toward where the saw mill now stands leaving a dry strip from the point on the south side of Main cross between Jefferson st. and the prairies to the river bank at the head of Main st. Almost the whole of the land was under water, with the exception of those two islands, from the river to the hill which circles around east and south of the town from Mad river to the Miami. The water was probably eight feet deep in Main st., at the courthouse, where the ground has since been raised several feet.

            In consequence of the flood, a considerable portion of the inhabitants became strongly disposed to abandon the present site of the town; and the proposition was made and urged very strenuously that lots should be laid out along the plain upon the second rise southeast of the town through which the Waynesville road passes and that the inhabitants should take lots there in exchange for those which they owned upon the present plot, and thus remove the town to a higher and more secure situation. The project, however, was defeated through unyielding opposition of some of the citizens, and it is no doubt for the advantage and prosperity of the place that it was.

            Some time afterward a levee was raised across the low ground at the grist mill to prevent the passage of water through the prairie in freshets; but not being built of sufficient strength and elevation, the floods rode over it and washed it away several times, until at length it was made high and strong enough to resist the greatest rises of water that have occurred since 1805, although one like the one of that year would still pass over it. The last time it was washed down was in August, 1814, and this time the water was deep enough to swim a horse where the warehouses stand at the head of the basin, and a ferry was kept there for several days. The water at that time also passed through a considerable current, from the head of Jefferson to the east end of Old Market st., and through the hollows in the western part of the town; and the plain through which the feeder passes east of the mill race was nearly all under water.

            Before the erection of the numerous mill dams upon the Miami, it was navigable during the principal part of the year for keel boats by which considerable business was done upon it, above Dayton as well as below. A few years before the war a couple of the citizens of this place built two small keel boats, in Main st., opposite the court house, from whence they were hauled to the river and launched. Having ascended the river to Loramie, one of them was taken out of the water and hauled over to St. Marys river, a distance of about 12 miles and thus a connected line was established – one boat plying upon the Miami and the other upon the Maumee with which the parties carried on a considerable trade from some time, making tolerably regular trips. Some business continued to be done on the Miami, with keel boats as late as the year 1820, when navigation became so much impeded by mill dams.

            At the same time that the price of wagon transportation between Dayton and Cincinnati had dropped down to such a low rate that they could no longer be run with a profit, and ceased to be used. From that time until the construction of the canal the only species of navigation witnessed by Dayton, was the descent of the flatboats bound for New Orleans, a considerable number of which were usually freighted and taken down every spring. Boats of that kind ran from Dayton as early as 1809, if not previously.

            On the 25th of January, 1829, the first boat from Cincinnati arrived in our basin. She was called the “Gov. Brown,” and there was something appropriate in that name, being borne by the first boat that traversed the Miami canal, from Cincinnati to Dayton. Gov. Brown as long back as 1819, was engaged in urging the connection of the two places by means of a canal and was one of the most energetic and efficient of the public men in our state in devising and carrying into execution the grand scheme of internal improvements, which has so much exalted the character of Ohio.

            A postoffice was established in Dayton in 1803. For some years, the only mail received in the place was one which left Cincinnati once a week, and went up the Little Miami through Lebanon and Xenia, and then down through Dayton and Hamilton, to Cincinnati again. Thus a letter from Cincinnati to this place went the whole route, by Lebanon, Urbana and Piqua, before it reached its destination; and one from Dayton to Piqua, or from Franklin to Dayton had to go down to Cincinnati in the first place, and take the whole circuit of the post route, and would then be received at the place to which it was directed, a week after it was mailed.

            The first improvement upon this state of things was a weekly mail from Zanesville, by way of Franklinton and Urbana, to this place, and that was succeeded by one through Chillicothe which continued to be the principal channel of communication with the east until a few years ago when a more direct line was established through Columbus. In the spring of 1825, the first experiment was made in the establishment of a line of stages through Dayton. It was undertaken by Mr. Timothy Squier, who formed a connection with the mail contractors between this place and Cincinnati and Columbus, and commenced by running a stage once a week, occupying two days in coming from Cincinnati to Dayton.

            The undertaking was considered hazardous by many who thought the country too new to support it; but instead of its failing for want of support, the increase of travel soon demanded further facilities, and the stages commenced running twice and three times a week, and with increased speed; and at length a daily mail was established. Lines of stages have also been put in operation in other directions, affording means for traveling which leave little more to be desired, except a general improvement of the roads to put the country on an equal footing in this respect, with that east of the mountains.

            The first newspaper printed in Dayton was called the Dayton Repertory. It was issued by William McClure and George Smith on the 18th of September, 1808. The first five numbers were printed upon common writing paper and the publication was then suspended for nearly four months for want of paper. After that it was issued regularly on a sheet of the ordinary size then used for newspapers in the western country, and a paper has been published in Dayton ever since.

            When the county was organized, Benjamin Archer, Isaac Spinning and John Ewing were appointed associate judges of the court of common pleas, and Francis Dunlavy of Warren co. was president of the circuit. The first court was held in Dayton in July, 1803. Mr. Newcom, in whose house it was held, kept the only tavern in the place, and a part of his house was occupied by the only store. He had been elected sheriff of the county and his house, therefore, was courthouse, jail, tavern, store and dwelling. At the first term of the court one civil action was commenced, and a grand jury found three indictments for assault and battery.

            When the first settlers came to Dayton the ground which the town occupied was covered by a growth of scrub oak, hawthorn, plums and other small trees, but had very little heavy timber on it. Its appearance was very similar to that of the margins of our barren prairies. While the inhabitants all lived upon the river bank, it was no uncommon thing for strangers, on coming into the place, after threading their way through the brush until they had passed through the whole town plat from one extremity to the other, and arrived at the first of the few cabins that constituted the settlement, to inquire how far it was to Dayton.

            They were of course informed that they had just passed through it and had arrived in the suburbs. The fact seemed rather ridiculous and it was very natural for them to think that the projectors of the town had calculated much too largely in laying it out upon so extensive a scale. The inhabitants themselves, indeed, partook of the same opinion. The lots on the east side of Main st. opposite the courthouse were considered so far out of the way that it was not thought probably that the town   would extend much beyond that, and they were accordingly appropriated for a graveyard, and remained so until the year 1805, when the present burying ground was selected, which has been used by the town and adjoining county ever since.

            The business and improvements of the place, instead of being limited to the vicinity of the river as was then expected, have spread very generally over the whole ground originally laid out in the building lots, and additions have been made to them on every side. Those who have been citizens for only a few years have witnessed principal improvements that have taken place, and doubtless have taken much interest and pleasure in seeing it advance in prosperity; but they who have seen it and the surrounding country change from its wilderness state to what it is now, must possess their feelings of interest and gratification in a high degree.