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Dayton, Ohio - An Intimate History
Chapter Six





It is said that history and biography are one; that the life of an individual is the narrative of the times in which he lived. If this be true of the large general things it is no less true of our city of Dayton. More than in most places the citizen made the town; one cannot write of one without the other.

Therefore it seems high time to introduce the reader to some of the First Families of Dayton. First in occupation, first in constructive ability and first in ambition for the town they had founded. But we must hasten to say that space denies the mention of all, or of a half, or even of anything but a partial minority. In this chapter will be considered only those who came here in the first two decades, from 1796 to 1816, and of these merely the most outstanding individuals – the ones except for whose personal service Dayton would have perished from off the earth. Those who are interested to find a full list may consult John E. Edgar in whose “Pioneer Life in Dayton” are many interesting details of the first families. Mary D. Steele in her “Early Dayton” goes further into facts regarding pioneers.

Benjamin Van Cleve will easily head the list of the F. F. D.’s on all three counts, for he was almost the first if not the very first to set foot on our shores; he devoted his whole life to furthering Dayton projects, and his loyalty was never questioned. It is impossible to write a page about the first Dayton years and leave him out. No one merited more than he the name “pioneer.” A boy of ten when his father drove the family wagon over the mountains on all but impassable roads, the wheels lurching in and out of the half-frozen mud-holes, reaching frontier taverns with exhausted horses and frost-bitten children to find every bed full and obliged to sleep in the wagon. . . . Benjamin Van Cleve certainly knew what privation was. A boy of twelve, looking from their cabin door on the farm lot near Cincinnati, he saw a savage dart from the underbrush, scalp and kill his father who was ploughing. . . . Van Cleve knew what terror was. A stripling of fifteen, when the flat-boat reached the bank at the head of Main Street, Dayton, and he clambered up the dirt slope, he knew what adventure was in search of a home. Taking his father’s place as best he could with his mother and the younger children, hewing trees, hunting game for food, Van Cleve knew what self-discipline was. Self-taught he must have been, for there were few schools and no time for schooling in his crowded life. Yet he stood always for the higher things and quoted the classics. His various activities from first to last would make a stirring book. He was schoolmaster, as we know, county surveyor and engineer; was appointed by the President of the United States to explore and mark out a road from the Miami to the Western Reserve; a faithful diarist almost to the point of an historian; assistant to his uncle who was quartermaster in St. Clair’s Army (at fifteen dollars a month) during which time he was sent to the War Department at Philadelphia with important secret dispatches (and allowed forty dollars for his personal expenses during a whole winter). It is told of him that during this, his first trip to the eastern coast, he found time to read everything he could lay his hands on and  bought twenty-five volumes out of his own scanty sources. How many of those books found their way onto the shelves of that first public library of Dayton would be interesting to know.

This entry in his diary makes Benjamin Van Cleve our historical if not legal ancestor.


April 1, 1796. Landed at Dayton after a passage of ten days. William Gahagan and myself having come from Cincinnati with the Thompsons and McClure’s families in a large pirogue.


Bad luck came his way at first. He spent twenty dollars for a cow and it died. He gave eighty dollars for a yoke of oxen and one of them was shot. He farmed a whole year and at the end of it was forty dollars in debt. He raised a good crop of corn but it was destroyed. (Flood?). So when orders came to survey the United States Military lands between the Scioto and the Muskingum rivers with Israel Ludlow he was glad of the chance to go. The weather was bitter cold and game hard to shoot because the crusted snow left no traces; for five whole days they had but four meals and those scanty, no bread at all. The expedition over, Van Cleve was glad to get back to civilization which was Dayton. His bad luck was waiting for him there in the shape of rheumatic fever contracted while digging a sawmill pit for D. C. Cooper. Thereafter we know what his life was – storekeeper, postmaster, schoolteacher, hunter, librarian, promoter of frontier welfare and commercial prospects. Outside of his home town Van Cleve was clerk of the first Legislature. In 1896 twenty-nine persons of various degrees of consanguinity could be counted in Dayton and neighboring communities as descendants in direct like from Benjamin Van Cleve.

At the intersection of Main Street and Brown, now called Far Hills Avenue, there stands a relic of one of our most influential First Families of Dayton. It is the original home of Colonel Robert Patterson whose migration with his family and flocks and herd from Kentucky into Ohio we have already chronicled. The cabin, built of logs hewn by the owner himself was to be the home of his bride, Elizabeth Lindsay, when he brought her out from her Pennsylvania home into the wilderness. Twenty years ago it was discovered by the writer in an obscure backyard in Lexington, Kentucky, being used as a tool-house but keeping its identity as the first house built in that city and the home of its founder, Robert Patterson. His grandson, John H. Patterson, had it removed and brought to Dayton where it probably will remain for the rest of its existence. It was built in 1787. The land it now occupies is a part of the original grant and has changed hands only once in a hundred and thirty-six years, from D. C. Cooper to Robert Patterson, thence to the Patterson heirs.

Its original owner being a “F. F. Lexington” became on his arrival a “F. F. Dayton.” Although no longer a young man he transferred his interest from the roads, schools, libraries, tree-planting in Lexington to similar activities in Dayton. It was in the nature of a personal celebration when the Patterson family one summer afternoon in 1829, went down to the canal bank near their home to watch the first boat go by. Their father was not with them for he had passed away two years before, but so valiantly had he worked for the canal that it seemed his own accomplishment and his noblest monument.

Robert Patterson lived in Dayton from 1804, when he came, to 1827, when he died, and all those years participated in promoting everything from gristmills to church and library. On his farm land now stands the huge factory for the manufacturer of cash registers. His descendants are Mrs. Julia Patterson Crane, Frederick Beck Patterson, Mrs. Dorothy Patterson Judah, Mrs. Roger Woodhull, Mrs. Caroline Patterson Bush, Jefferson Patterson, Mrs. Mary Patterson Davidson, Robert Patterson and family, Robert Dun Patterson,  Jefferson Patterson Crane, and Joseph Halsey Crane.

The leading name in Dayton during its first years was that of George Newcom who piloted one of the parties from Cincinnati to Dayton in 1796. He built his cabin on the southwest corner of Main Street and Monument Avenue, and later replaced it with a stout two-story structure, how stout may still be seen by one who is curious enough to visit it in its hale old age as it stands on the bank of the river, a monument both and in to the brave and hard working pioneers. It is a monument also to the loyalty of that almost forgotten organization, the Dayton Historical Society, which rescued it from the destructive axe of a contractor, stripped off its plebian sheathing of clapboards, restored its ancient log walls to view and moved it to a location where it would never be disturbed. The renewal of interest in our town history aroused by the celebration of our centennial in 1896, brought from remote garrets some of the original furniture and implements that had been used in the Newcom Tavern a century before, and placed them in the cabin where they still remain recalling to the vision of today the primitive life of our forefathers.

Up to 1805 Dayton lacked a lawyer. Circuit judges came and went, trying cases in the Newcom Tavern, but a lawyer of her own she never had until Joseph H. Crane, a boy of twenty-one, but already admitted to the New Jersey bar, came to Dayton. He and his descendants must surely be counted among the early F. F. D.’s for, in 1809, he was elected to the Ohio Legislature, served in the War of 1812, was made prosecuting attorney in 1813, and judge in 1817. Like other citizens of that time, he contributed to the cultural advantages of the town, was on the committee to buy the first books for the public library and it is said he would not yield to the popular demand for light literature but purchased only the best. He took his place at the head of his profession and gathered around him men that acknowledged him as leader. It was said that, more than any other, Judge Crane molded the character and directed the ambitions of young lawyers, so that the spirit of integrity dame to be a characteristic of the Dayton bar. Of this early group of lawyers many took foremost places; Charles Anderson became Governor of Ohio, four were judges, two members of Congress and ten of the Ohio Legislature. Forty years ago Mary Steele wrote that “Dayton received an impetus in the right direction from the cultivated and far-sighted men who came during the first ten or twelve years of the town’s history which is felt at the present time.” That declaration is as true now as when it was written.

The Steeles were F. F. D’s from the beginning. James Steele, having come from Kentucky in 1805, was another of those public-spirited pioneers who gave time and labor and money to schools, libraries and churches. What they one called the “new” Presbyterian Church, erected in 1839, was due largely to his efforts. He was associate judge of  Montgomery County, and for four years a member of the Ohio Senate. When his friend, Henry Clay, ran for the Presidency, James Steele was one of the electors of the State of Ohio. From 1815 to 1822, he was first director was first director and then president of that first bank in Dayton, on North Main Street, since demolished to make way for the Steele High School. This bank under his leadership had the honor of being one of only three banks in the United States to continue to pay specie to its depositors during the financial panic of 1837.

The name Peirce is so interwoven in the early days with that of Steele that they can scarcely be considered apart. Connected by both marriage and business, both families contributed much that was valuable to our community. The Peirces were of Quaker stock and carried out to the letter the principles of plain living and high thinking. Joseph, the progenitor of all this large relationship, was born in Rhode Island and brought as a child of two to Marietta with his father, who was aide-de-camp to General Horatio Gates in the Revolutionary War. The boy spent his childhood in the stockades which in those days were the only safe dwellings for mothers and babies.

In 1805 Joseph Peirce came to Dayton and entered into partnership with James Steele, a connection which endured throughout his long life. The store was on the corner of First and Main; in it was kept a miscellaneous stock of wearing apparel, farm utensils, dishes and food supplies. Large orders were shipped by the firm to the army in the War of 1812, for the liquidating of which the government took its time, being like the individual of that day, chronically hard up.

Mr. Peirce was president of the Dayton Bank. He fell victim to a mysterious fever which was prevalent in 1821. Two sons survived him, Joseph C. and J. H. The first married Louise Smith and died without issue. The second married twice into the Bruen family. The children are all gone; grandchild surviving is: Elliott; great-grandchildren: J. P. Davies, Mrs. George Wood, Mrs. Coolidge, Mrs. Morrison, and Mary Frances Peirce.

The Peirces bring us by natural transition to the Bruen family with whom they are so closely connected. Luther Bruen was known for two things, his skill as a surveyor and engineer and his strong sentiment against slavery. Happening to be in Yellow Springs, in 1804, he stopped on his way through Dayton to Cincinnati to pay his respects to his uncle, Isaac Spining. Here he met pleasant relatives and saw good prospects in the new town. He made shoes for the whole family, that being his métier, and from the family branched out to the general public, built a store, worked hard, laid up money, and by 1810 had bought a large tract of land across the river. The Peirces bought property in the same neighborhood and friendship followed.

Luther Bruen was a fanatic on the subject of abolition of slavery, a most unpopular subject with public feeling mounting on both sides of the question. It was a time of free opinions freely expressed, sometimes in harder things than words. An abolitionist was in danger of physical violence from people who did not respect the Quaker position. Luther Bruen built a meetinghouse where he induced radical speakers to come and discourse, at the risk of their skins, sometimes, if not of their lives. He taught and preached the sin of one man holding another in bondage. The incident of the arrest and subsequent of self-destruction of Black Ben has already been told. This was the impetus that abolitionism needed in Dayton, and following it we find a notice in a Dayton paper calling those who believed that slavery should be abolished to meet with Luther Bruen at the meetinghouse on Main Street below Fourth and organize into an Anti-Slavery Society. The end of this story is the Civil War but, twenty years before it broke out, Luther Bruen, having done his bit, was dead of the cholera which swept over Dayton in 1842. Daniel C. Cooper, who belongs chronologically in this connection, has already been treated in a previous chapter, but he was not the only early local patriot from whom the young town benefited. There was, for instance, Horatio G. Phillips from New Jersey, whom Cooper induced to try his fortunes in the growing frontier city of Dayton, and who did come, in 1805, bringing with him the gifts of business enterprise, civic acumen and social prestige. He married Eliza Smith Houston and brought her via horseback through Pennsylvania, by flat-boat from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati and wagon to Dayton, the standard wedding trip for all those early brides. Mr. Phillips was wise in the choice of both his wife and his business partners. She gave to the little community the grace and culture of her personality, and her granddaughters and great-granddaughters still rise up and call her blessed.

His business associates were Alexander Grimes, Daniel Beckel and Samuel Edgar. The contributions of this far-sighted trio to Dayton were the founding of the first Dayton bank, the promotion of the Dayton Hydraulic Company, the establishment of the village of Alexandersville, named after one of the partners, and the promotion of various extensive business interests all up and down the valley. The children of Horatio Phillips were Jonathan Dickinson, who married Luciana Greene; Elizabeth (Mrs. Worthington); and Mariana (first Mrs. Robert Thruston, afterwards Mrs. John G. Lowe). From one generation to another the members of the family have been ornaments to the life of the city. The son, J. D. Phillips, followed in his father’s footsteps; a man of culture and taste, he was as generous as he was socially delightful and his gifts to public things were known to only a few friends. The first public library was especially indebted to him for its housing in the “new” Phillips block on the corner of Main and Second streets. The Phillips House was built by him and named in honor of his father. It was for eighty years the center of social and business life in Dayton and the best hotel in this part of Ohio. It is now destroyed. J. D. Phillips had one son, Horace, and four daughters: Mrs. A. D. McCook, Mrs. J. P. Davies, Mrs. J. Harrison Hall and Miss Sophie Phillips. All are deceased. Mrs. Kathleen McCook Craighead, J. P. Davies, the Misses Alice, Eliza and Agnes Hall are grandchildren; Mrs. Katherine Houk Talbott and her nine children, and their twenty-eight children, are third and fourth generation descendants of the Phillips family.

One cannot think of banking and business interests in Dayton in the early years and not recall the name of Jonathan Harshman. He also was an 1805 settler who purchased forty acres in Mad River Township where he proceeded to erect on the banks of that stream a flour mill and a distillery, one in those days being just legitimate and respectable as the other. He accumulated great wealth, and his eight sons and daughters, who invariably lived in the biggest houses in the town, were wont to recall that their father hung the door of his first cabin home himself and put in one four-light window. His later home, which was a palatial one, and his mills formed what is still known as Harshmanville. Mrs. Harshman was Joanne Rench, the sister of his partner, John Rench, and his children were Elizabeth (Mrs. Huston); Catherine (Mrs. Valentine Winters); Jonathan, who married Abigail Hiveling; Mary (Mrs. George Gorman); Joseph, married Caroline Protzman; George, married Ann Rohrer; Susannah (Mrs. Daniel Beckel); and Reuben D., married Mary Protzman. From this union are all the Renchs, the Winters, the Beckels, the Hivelings, the Hustons and the Huffmans.

Abram Darst was another 1805 settler, coming from Virginia, who built his home on the west side of Main Street on the site of the Rike-Kumler store on a lot for which he paid Benjamin Van Cleve seventy-five dollars. Here he carried on a successful business for many years. His children were ten: Julia (Mrs. James Perrine); Christina (Mrs. William B. Dix); Mary (Mrs. Jacob Wilt); Sarah (Mrs. W. C. Davis); Martha (Mrs. George M. Dixon); Napoleon, married Susannah Winters; Phoebe, and John. Abram Darst’s descendants have also multiplied and replenished the earth to good purpose, their names being Perrine, Barney, Dixon, Wilt, Dix, Bimm, Shaw, &c.

Among the first, if not the very first ministers who came to Dayton was Dr. James Welsh, who was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, also practicing physician, and kept the only drug store. There was room enough for all three occupations in 1804. On Sunday he preached and on week-days he administered “Yellow bark, oil of vitriol, paregorick, Venue turpentine, and polypodium – a famous worm medicine purchased by the late “King of France,” as his advertisement stated it, to his parishioners. Dr. Welsh was also a public-spirited man and had a hand in most of the advanced measures intended to make a Dayton a rival with the big cities in the east. He imagined that growing real estate necessities would make a suburb advisable and so he laid out one to the north and west of the city and called it Dayton View. A ferry was also established by him from the foot of Salem Avenue to the end of First Street, but the public never believed in such radical adventures and rejected all inducements to go so far out to live. In 1821 Dr. Welsh applied to the court to vacate his plot. He was one of the incorporators of the Old Academy, the first school for boys in Dayton. He and Dr. John Elliot who succeeded him were both retired army surgeons. Both seemed to have some of the difficulties of a later day, as witness a notice which appeared not once but several times in the local press of that day.


I must pay my debts. To do this is impracticable unless those who are indebted to me pay me what they owe. All such are once more for the last time called on to come forward and make payment before the 25th of March next, or disagreeable as it is, compulsory measures may certainly be expected


                                                                                                                  James Welsh


In our enumeration of the very earliest settlers we must not forget those who bought land west of town, far out in the country it was at the time, now the busy section of Dayton known as the West Side. The three outstanding names were Isaac Spining, William King and John Harbert Williams, all Presbyterians who helped build and foster the church when it was a log cabin on the corner of Third and Main and after it was removed to the corner of Second and Ludlow. All bought large farms which have long since been swallowed up into city streets. In 1803 Isaac Spining was appointed one of the two first associate judges in Ohio. Like most of the professional men of that time he combined law and business, being another adventurous voyagers who made the journey to New Orleans with a load of flour, only having more initiative than the others he took his flour around the coast to Boston because he could not get the price he wanted in New Orleans. Three granddaughters are the only surviving descendants of Isaac Spining: Miss Bessie Mulford, the Misses Emma and Margaret Stewart.

John Harbert Williams was a strong force in building up the West Side. His descendants are Mrs. John H. Campbell, Miss Nancy Williams and Fowler Smith and family.

William King, another of those who came up from Kentucky because he was opposed to slavery, arrived in Dayton in the spring of 1801 and began his career by joining the Presbyterian Church. With a streak of the Covenanter in his disposition he maintained to the last of his life, which was a little less than one hundred years, the principles of temperance and uncompromising morality. His descendants bear the names of Osborne King, Scott and Brenneman and only a great-grand-daughter, Marian E. Brenneman, survives.

Among the western adventurers from New Jersey was a young man named Obadiah Burlew Conover. He came from Monmouth County, New Jersey, near Middlepoint, the same part of the State that the Schencks came from (populated in the beginning straight from Amsterdam), where half the stones in the graveyard are marked “Conover” and the other half “Cooven-hooven” then being the Dutch version of the name. The Schencks and the Cooven-hoovens intermarried, both in Holland and in New Jersey.

It was either in 1810 or 1812, the records differ, that Obadiah Conover alighted from a horse on Main Street and became a first citizen. He had learned the trade of blacksmithing, that being a most necessary craft in a frontier post, but also he planned to carry on a shop for the manufacture of ploughs, wagons, and other farm necessities.

Looking about him for a location, he thought he saw a good one, how good he did not know. It was on the southeast corner of Third and Main opposite where they were planning to build a courthouse. He purchased, supposedly of D. C. Cooper, the solid quarter of the block bounded by Main, Jefferson, Third and Fourth, and built a shop on the corner and a house back in the lot. It was a log house and a log shop.

The first step toward business was to make a surface on the quagmire that Main Street became when it rained, in order that horses could come up and be shod. Some time in the ‘eighties when excavations were going on the installation of a sewer system the workmen disclosed a quantity of walnut logs far below the surface which were laid down in the second decade of the last century by Obadiah Conover and sundry fellow-citizens who wished to improve the commercial facilities of the town.

In time the two buildings, the shop and the house, were changed to the more fashionable clapboard finish, and then property values increasing the residence was changed to Fifth Street. The store prospered and was rebuilt two stories high with a board awning, as pictured in Howe’s “History of Ohio.” This  old wood-cut shows the sign Keifer and Conover, for that time, the stock had expanded to include groceries and dry goods. It was by that time (1843) a son, Harvey Conover, a partner with Daniel Keifer (the father of Mrs. John Stoddard), who together conducted the store. In the ‘fifties the frame store was replaced by a dignified four-story brick building which was for fifty years the center of things in business Dayton. The leading law officers were under its roof, principal among them being the firm of Schenck and Conover, afterwards Conover and Craighead.

In the old store, as a part of the regular stock in trade, was a cellar full of kegs of whiskey and, even when Conover’s became the leading general store, there was always a jug of the beverage on the counter at the back where customers were wont to refresh themselves in the interims of business. Whiskey was a common table beverage and not confined to meal times. Every farmer had a still and old wood-cuts in the Dayton papers of that day called attention to the fact that they were made and for sale, like ordinary utensils, on the corner where the Phillips House was afterwards built.

In 1827 the temperance question began to be agitated for the first time in the community. Obadiah Conover was a man of strong convictions and a Presbyterian conscience. He believed that an honest man should live up to his principles. If whiskey was the bad thing it was represented to be (and its evil effects he could not doubt), then it must go. So, ignoring the loss of profit involved, he had the kegs brought up, the bungs drawn and every gallon emptied into the deep gutters on the corner of the street. Years later when this moral hero had been sleeping under his monument in Woodland for over half a century there came up the question of renting a storeroom in the building for saloon purposes. Recalling this story of her grandfather, one of the heirs declared that this incident placed the stamp of total abstinence upon the property and that if ever a saloon be allowed under that roof the name “Conover Building” should be given up. It did not get in but other influences did, namely commercial changes. The building was sold during the first years of the present century, another built, which bore another name, and that of Conover, which had been associated for ninety years with the corner of Third and Main was lost forever.

All through the years when Obadiah Conover lived and did business in Dayton, he took his place as an ardent Presbyterian and upholder of the Old First Church. His name will be found on the records of the schools, the library, the Sunday school and other public matters.

He married a daughter of John Miller, who came to Dayton in 1799, and had three sons and two daughters: Obadiah M., Wilbur B., and Harvey; Harriet (Mrs. Hiram Strong); and Martha (Mrs. Collins Wright).

Descendants of Obadiah Conover at present living in Dayton are: Mrs. Hannah Strong Frank, Alfred Swift Frank, Mrs. Fowler Smith, and Collins Wright.

The contrast between the business section of today and that of the early years of the last century is to be found in a yellowing letter written in June 1829, by John Van Cleve to Samuel Bacon. After some social gossip about the latest engagements he goes on to say:


If you were dropped down in Dayton you would hardly know it. Great improvement is going on. The streets are all busy, drays running, hammer and trowel sounding, canal boat horns blowing, stages flying – everybody doing something. The corporation  has graveled nearly all the streets in town and are now about erecting a new market house on Main street opposite Obadiah Conover’s store. (Across Market Street that is – building still standing. Ed.) The first idea was to build the market house in the middle of Main street. I did not like that so well. I am sorry to see Main street have anything in it which will obstruct the view.

Property is selling very high. A third of an acre at the head of the canal basin sold for $2920. The corner of Fifth and Brown streets was divided into twenty-seven building lots and sold for $220. The three lots behind the Presbyterian church (property afterward owned and occupied by Simon Gebhart, Lewis B. Gunckel, Martha Perrine and Chas. E. Pease) sold for $1800.


If the “dropping down into Dayton” could be put back just one hundred years and made operative on the writer of this letter and the recipient, would they “hardly know it?” We think not.  


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