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Dayton, Ohio - An Intimate History
Chapter One






Of course the “first settlers” were really Indians Perhaps, to be more exact, they were the Mound Builders whose mysterious relics are to be found here and there scattered over the Ohio country. But our story does not go back to those ancient days and concerns only the white men from the eastern states: traders, surveyors, farmers, penetrating the wilderness to make new homes for their families. The Indians were already here and made the first and most serious difficulty for the new comers. Most of the country now known as Ohio, Indiana and Illinois was occupied by the Algonquins, Southern Ohio their chief abode, if one can speak of so of a people who spent most of their time wandering from place to place. The valley bounded by the two Miami rivers was occupied by the Twightwees. Celoron de Bienville referred to our river as “Riviere a la Roche” – Rock River, but its present name came from a vulgarization, or a modernization of the name of the Indians who lived on its banks. The two Miamis originate within a few miles of each other, perhaps from a single source, divided by some elevation which sends one current one way and the other another. The larger one was named first, and because of the paucity of nomenclature in the early days the smaller was named after it with the prefix “Little.”

On the early maps the territory between them was named “the Miami Lands” and was so called by the first surveyors and land promoters. Back and forth across this territory swept migratory bands of Indians wherever game seemed most plenty. Their camp fires glowed in the woods, their trails meandered along the river banks where now sometimes a disinterred arrow-head or stone axe reveals the fact of their occupancy. But for hundreds of years no one disputed possession with them. Then came Celoron  with his rangers and, although he did not know it, the reign of the Indian was over. At least it was the beginning of the end for him on this continent.

Two years after Celoron had guided his expedition up our river another white man, Christopher Gist, with two companions passed over the same route on his way to trade with Indians in their wigwam towns up near the sites of Piqua, Xenia, and Springfield. The agent of an English and Virginian land company, he made his errand an excuse for looking over the land values in the Miami Valley. It was he who saw and recorded the buffaloes grazing on the site of Dayton in January 1751.

The next visitors to our valley were not explorers nor land agents but soldiers, for the Revolutionary War was on and its fringes reached into Ohio, the far frontier. English and Indians one side and a mélange of French, Scotch-Irish and settlers on the other were struggling for dominance of America. Colonel Byrd, with a detachment of six hundred Indians and Canadians and four pieces of artillery, introduced us to the fortunes of war. But he came down instead of up, leaving Canada in the spring of 1780, following the Maumee from its mouth at Lake Erie to the portage across to the head waters of the Great Miami and down stream to the Ohio. His journey was in the interest of conquest at that time, so whenever he found a few frontier stations he burned them and took loot and prisoners back to British headquarters.

General George Rogers Clarke was the next white man bent on conquest, but it was against the Indians, who from their villages in the Miami lands were making bloody raids into Kentucky, murdering the whites, driving off their cattle, and making life impossible for the founders of Lexington and Limestone. Clark and his Kentuckians (among whom was Robert Patterson whose name was to mean so much in the future annals of Dayton) destroyed a number of Indian villages and built a couple of block-houses on the Ohio between the two Miami mouths – afterward the city of Cincinnati. This was not the only expedition from Kentucky to Ohio; there were many and always with the same object, to punish the Indians and make life safe for the settlers.

But of all these adventurous souls who came to our Dayton vicinity none cared to stop. Why risk it? The woods were alive with Indians whose methods of warfare were bloody and treacherous. The mouth of Mad River was especially frequented by the savages and avoided by the whites who if they attempted settlement were outnumbered twenty to one.

But “Westward the course of empire takes its way” was truer than a truism. Land was what men wanted and land was what they must have. Groups of people here and there in the east, in New Jersey especially, were being first impressed and then engaged to take up land in the west. Returning travelers  all told the same story. The eastern states were rich but Ohio was richer. Land could be had for a song and land that “tickled with a hoe, laughed with a harvest.”

Among those enthusiasts who had made the trip across the mountains, was an adventurer in the best sense of the word, Benjamin Stites from New Jersey, who happening to be in one of those Kentucky raids into Ohio got a glimpse of the fertile Miami Valley. Charmed by the beauty of the country he hurried back to New Jersey and laid his information before Judge John Cleves Symmes of Trenton, a man of great influence. Stites’ enthusiasm communicated itself to Symmes and together they formed a land company to exploit the Miami lands. Congress had recently given such a grant to a company interested in the valley of the Muskingum and Symmes had no doubt but his petition would be as readily granted. Without, however, waiting for Congress to act on his petition Symmes deeded to Stites ten thousand acres of land between the Miami rivers thereby causing much confusion later as to property rights among the first settlers of Dayton.

Stites got out a glowing prospectus inviting settlers to select the most advantageous locations at the price of a dollar an acre and promising them deeds when Congress should have made the transaction legal. The current expression “a land office business” is said to have originated in connection with this enterprise. There was a rush of prospective settlers for the bargains in land. The center of trade was at the mouth of the Miami where Stites and several assistants spent busy days making out grants which were never recorded. It was not a dishonest transaction for Stites fully expected the government to stand by him. Eventually it did, but not until much distress was experienced by the new land owners.

Some of the pioneers came in from New Jersey as far as Fort Washington (Cincinnati), and stayed there in rough cabins around the two block houses. A natural hesitancy in penetrating what was becoming known as the “Miami Slaughter House” was apparent. It was not an inviting pseudonym for a real estate boom. A whole party of explorers, attacked at the mouth of the Miami and carried off by the Indians, (a much worse fate, if we may believe the early stories, than being killed outright) added to the apprehension. Three Kentuckians, Robert Patterson, John Filson and Mathias Denman became the first proprietors of the land on which the first log forts were built and named it Losantiville from which it emerged finally into Cincinnati. Filson, exploring on his own account up the Miami from its mouth in search of game or topographical information, was never seen again. As his bones were never found it was assumed he was carried off by a wandering band of savages. All this sinister uncertainty as well as the furious semi-annual floods in the rivers made an offset to the alluring description in the land offices, and events, as far as Dayton was concerned, dragged.

Cincinnati was definitely settled on December, 1788, but it was to be eight more years before the first cabin was built at the mouth at Mad River. Nothing was plainer than the uselessness of attempting to create cities and homes on the same ground as the Indians. Small  wonder then that the hope and aim of those few already on the ground was to get rid of their unpleasant neighbors. It was literally war to the knife, with no quarter, on both sides. Skirmishes were going on all the time. Indians prowled around the cabins in Cincinnati picking off with their arrows any settler who dared to go out to till his fields. A gun was left at the end of every furrow and a wife never knew when se saw her husband go to plough whether she would see him again. The old histories, Howe’s “Ohio,” Mary Steele’s “Early Dayton,” Galbreath’s “Ohio,” give story after story of such cruel murders, which left wives and babies burdens on a new community.

Of organized punitive expeditions there were not a few. Harmar in 1789 with fifteen hundred men, headquarters at Cincinnati, marched past the site of Dayton and somewhere up the valley was badly defeated. Great  elation among the Indians and great humiliations and terror among the whites. Then  St. Clair’s great promises and preparations and awful, unspeakable defeat. The raw red skulls scattered over the field after this battle reminded an old squaw who told of it of a “field of ripe pumpkins” was not the kind of crops to attract settlers. Then came General Anthony Wayne, “Mad Anthony” they called him, not so mad but that he saw the weakness of St. Clair’s military tactics, improved them, met the savages reinforced by British, at the Falls of the Maumee (August 20, 1794), whipped them unmercifully, leaving them only too glad to give up the sometimes successful but increasingly unequal struggle. In 1795 the Treaty of Greenville was signed between eleven tribes of Indians on one side and General Wayne on the other, the tenor of which was that the Indians should bury the hatchet and let the whites alone. Thus was settled “Who’s Who” in the Miami Valley. No Dayton until the Indians understood once for all that their rule was ended, at least in the area between the Miami rivers.

After this, events moved quickly. Just seventeen days after the signing of the Treaty of Greenville a company of men made a joint purchase from John Cleve Symmes of a large tract of land at the junction of the Miami and Mad rivers. Here we are at last at Dayton. If not paved streets and skyscrapers at least surveyors maps and blazed trees. A new member of the new company was Winthrop Sargent, secretary of the Northwest Territory, the land now comprising Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and all points north. The map of the United States at that time showed the seaboard towns, the Alleghany mountains, the western rivers in an indefinite way and then a blank. All north and west of the Ohio River, then practically unexplored, was called the Northwest Territory. From every returning traveler came the same reports of the extraordinary fertility of this district about to be opened to the world.

Our first legal proprietors, to whom our nomenclature bears witness, were General Jonathan Dayton, General Arthur St. Clair, General James Wilkinson and Colonel Israel Ludlow; but as far as can be ascertained the last was the only one who was ever on the spot to view his purchase. Of the actual occupants only nineteen out of the forty-six who subscribed gained their allowances of in-lots and out-lots and came. Nineteen  men, that is – women not being then counted in the census. When it came to cooking, baking, baby tending, weaving, carding, garden-making and washing they counted all right, but officially they resembled the mother of ten who, interrogated by the census-taker, replied, “no occupation.”

The names of these first settlers are in all the old histories. Few, if any, have survived until the present census of Dayton. One or two merit remembrance: Benjamin Van Cleve, George Newcom (whose dwelling still stand a noble old relic on the banks of the river where he landed) and Samuel Thompson. For greater convenience the party was divided into three groups. William Hamer, his wife and eight children in a two-horse wagon started first over the road which D. C. Cooper had cut, in the fall of 1795, when he came to lay out the new town. The other two parties, led respectively by George Newcom and Samuel Thompson started on the same day, March 21, one by land and the other by water. On the banks of the Ohio where now the river boats tie up under the suspension bridge, was then a rude craft built by the men who proposed to use it – a “pirogue” – low, light-draft, with a running board for the propellers to walk on, and a covered section at the back for shelter in bad weather. An old account tells now they did it. “The men, each provided with a stout pole with a heavy socket, stood on either side of the boat. They set their poles near the head of the boat and, bringing the head of the pole to their shoulders walked with their bodies bent, slowly down the running-board to the stern, returning at a quick pace for a new set.”

So, poling laboriously down the bank of the Ohio and up the Miami, avoiding as they best might the interlacing branches overhead that impeded their progress and the shallows underneath which strove to catch the keel in the riffles, huddled when it rained into the low shelter at the back (with eight children of different ages if we count right), going ashore at intervals to cook and to dry clothes, in terror always of lurking Indians – the boat party came at last to Dayton.

And, in a creaking-wheeled springless wagon, sometimes – often mired in the soft loam of the trail, cutting down occasional trees which blocked the road-way, fording streams where the current swept into the wagon bed, camping at night to cook whatever the men had shot on the way, keeping the children quiet under the canvas top for fear of attracting the ever-present savages – the party came at last to Dayton.

Is the picture too blackly painted? Were there no pleasures to chronicle in that long journey of sixty miles? A faithful historian should tell it all. In the first place it was a new undertaking with considerably more than a spice of adventure. That  in itself constitutes a joy unknown to the present dweller in the valley. Unless one travels to the interior of South America or Tibet there could not be found at this day such endless allure of the unknown. Then, it was April, or nearly April, along the Miami the charm of which has nearly disappeared with the deforestation and the inflow of traffic. April, with its snowy dogwood mingled with the deep pink of the red-bud, the white blossoms of the thorn, the soft grass in the woods dotted with anemones and blood-root, the wild grape-vines adding the sweetest of all the perfumes of spring – these lent their charm to the journey.

It was on April the first that the pirogue pushed its clumsy nose into the loam of the bank where they had been told they would find the town of Dayton. They could not be wrong for the contract said “at the mouth of Mad River” and there before them was Mad River with its full and rapid current swelling the volume of the Miami. Yet where was the town? Just several blazed trees along the bank, one of them marked “St. Clair” another “Jefferson,” another “Ludlow.”  Yes, this must be the place that Cooper laid out and named.

Testimony varies as to whom was the first to put foot ashore. Mary Steele says it was Catherine Thompson. Mr. Werthner inclines to the belief, supported by family tradition, that it was nine-year old Mary Van Cleve. But fathers and mothers a hundred years ago could not have been so different from those of today and in imagination we hear them saying “Mary, you go first.” This is guessing but then most history is guessing. Mr. Werthner suggests there be a monument erected to her in Van Cleve Park, right where he little shoe pressed the soil. The motion is herewith seconded.

The main thing is that they got ashore at last and proceeded to look around. Not a shelter of any kind. Nothing  to make home for them but the blazed trees and the street names. But resourceful and there were the boat timbers. These were quickly made into shacks with one side open to the protecting fire – shelter, warmth and protection. Further up Mad River were some Indians who disappeared soon, leaving the coast clear to the settlers.

Four days later came the land party and then Dayton began to be. What work for those sturdy men and women! All day long the sound of the axe was heard from sunrise to sunset. For  they could raise nothing until the ground was cleared. Trees took from the wealth of the soil and afforded shelter for Indians. Each family had to have its own domicile and all helped in the work. The finest of the new buildings was the Newcom Tavern with its puncheon floors, cat-and-clay chimney, and loft above the “room.” Each family had its out-lot-garden for vegetables besides the in-lot on which the cabin was built.

So here we have the Dayton of the first decade. A row of cabins along the edge of the river where they could see the boats going down filled with merchandise for sale in the south, which they did later when commerce had been established; a clearing of several rods where the wheel-tracks in the mud indicated the way to Cincinnati; and all around them unbounded woods. Thickets of hazel bushes made almost as heavy clearing as the big oaks and maples. Thick black loam, while it gave promise of abundant crops where it was cultivated, made weary work for the horses drawing wagons or ploughs. The wilderness was beautiful but threatening. It gave the food they needed but sheltered who knew what dangers? Bears and wolves and Indians might lurk behind any tree and often did. The worry of it was unceasing. If they did not worry it was because they were so far gone with malaria that they did not care whether they lived or died, and it was the woods and the soil which furnished the malaria. When one reads accounts of the sickness which prevailed even into the middle years of the last century one wonders how Dayton ever succeeded in getting established. When the prospectors in New Jersey told of the fertility of Ohio lands they told the truth, but only half of it. The richer the land is, the more likely it is to harbor the seeds of one of the most devastating illnesses ever known to man. Malaria is the inevitable accompaniment of the opening up new territory. Attempts to visualize and appreciate the hardships of our forefathers must always be accompanied with the realization of what they had to contend with in the ever recurrent chills and fever, the prostrating weakness and bone-racking pain. There were good days and bad days and in the interim they tried to make up for the idleness, being thankful that the bad days did not come on all the inhabitants at the same time.

Neither must the reader of pioneer annals neglect to supply from his own imagination the part that women took in the settlement of the new country. The pioneers themselves did not see fit to mention it, for wives were taken a good deal for granted in those days. Nevertheless their role was a strenuous one. A visit to Newcom Tavern will help to paint the picture. The first thing likely to strike the visitor will be the amazing ingenuity of both the men and their wives and their adaptation to the conditions of living. Part of their utensils for housekeeping had been brought from the east, wagon-wise such as three-legged “spiders” in which corn-pone was cooked, tin ovens to catch the heat of the fire, tin lanterns with perforations to let the candle-light through, and big iron kettles. But by far the largest part of the kitchen equipment was of home manufacture. A square tub on a stand with a hand-worked lever and a hole in the bottom for the apple juice to run out was their cider-press, and a good one too. A broom of shaved down withes on a hickory sapling did well enough to clear off a puncheon floor. An upright section of hollowed log, with a wooden mallet standing up out of it, used as a pestle in a mortar made an excellent hominy mill.

“Slaving over a cook-stove” is a modern phrase; slaving over an open fire was the lot of the early housewife. That meant stooping over, managing the huge cranes at the side of the fireplace by which heavy pots were swung on and off the blaze. The meat was turned on a spit and had to be kept moving. Biscuits were baked in the Dutch-oven on the hearth. Mush had to be stirred, hominy fried, coffee boiled – in every instance in a stooping posture, the hardest in the world for a woman. What back-breaking work it was to feed hungry men!

Not a history in the libraries even mentions the women’s work. The tombstones do indirectly in New England, at least, where they point the fact that it took sometimes three wives to last out one Pilgrim father. We may infer that it was no different in the Miami Valley. “Sacred to the Memory of Mary, beloved consort of So-and-So aged twenty-six,” a little farther on to “Sarah, aged thirty,” to “Josephine, aged thirty-five.” When they were dead they were “consorts” or “spouses.”  If they had a chance to outlive So-and-So they were registered as “beloved relics of the late.” . .    . . But they seldom had such good luck. Malaria, consumption, hard work, child-bearing carried them off. In the old Fifth Street graveyard where the writer used to play as a child among the lichened and leaning stones, it struck me that the wives were never “beloved” until they were dead. All these “relics” came originally from comfortable homes in the east – cheerful willing girls, to be broken before their time, to bear their babies in open wagons, to work as much in the field as in the house, to dread the Indians and never hear from home – the fate of thousands of unsung heroines in this and other countries who made a path that their sisters might walk easier.

As to the children – somehow our sympathies are not exercised in their behalf. An innate capacity for happiness dwells in every child’s heart. The world is his and it is a constant joy. Given a handful of stones and broken dishes, a little girl will play happily all day long; boys can fish and trap squirrels. Work they both had to, and there was plenty to do,*   but the work itself was a kind of play. If they had work they had no worries.


  *See “A Pioneer Family,” pg. 21. “The Story of Dayton,” Conover.

  Land grants they knew nothing about nor titles to property, malaria they had not yet

come to in the chronology of childhood. Indians (if we except the story of Mary Van Cleve crawling through a hole under the house and running in the night to Newcom Tavern to call for help against some drunken red-skins who were besieging the house for more whiskey) were scarcely actualities. There were never any battles in Dayton territory after the Treaty of Greenville and the depredations of the Indians were confined to stealing chickens. A block-house was indeed built at the head of Main Street, but its most war-like use was as a school room for Benjamin Van Cleve and his pupils. Until this unfortunate idea struck the parents it was a carefree life for the children. No books,  long days in the woods, fishing in the river, gathering nuts and wild grapes, trapping squirrels. The actual work they did do, which was not inconsiderable, was an education in itself. They felt the importance of being a part in the life of the community which children in modern times never do. They became self-reliant and enterprising and ambitious.

Our rich forefathers! How else can we look upon them? No bank stocks had they nor wealth as the world knows it. Indeed for long stretches of time they had no actual money at all. But whatever trials were their lot, hunger was never one of them. Before they had raised a row of corn or hill in beans, food in abundance was at hand. To how many millions in the world today would that be wealth untold? No money but three hearty meals a day; of clothes a very few and of home manufacture. No pictures graced the walls of the scanty settlement but they were not needed since every window framed a view of forest and stream; no dishes such as served the dinner tables back in New Jersey, but gourd dippers, horn spoons and platters made of hollowed sycamore slabs. These after all are but the symbols of wealth. The real wealth was temporarily shut up in their natural surroundings; the forest so recently penetrated in which they were to find food and clothes, both growing or on wild feet. From the forest, in time, they were to have fine venison steaks, rabbit-stew and turkey dinners. The children were to find butternuts and maple sap which combined to make a delicious confection; buckeyes to string on a cord like beads for their play houses. Mother was to find sassafras for tea, blackberries for pudding, grapes for jelly and walnut hulls to dye her petticoats. Out of the forest as years went by, the men would get boards for houses and fences, hickory for wheels and hoe handles, oak for furniture, maple for lasts and shoe pegs. We who have the benefit of an added century to give us clearer vision know that in the undeveloped wealth of the primitive forest lay some of the great commercial enterprises which have built the “City of Dayton.”

The river too, our now useless and devastating river, was to the pioneers a source of wealth. It gave them fish for their tables – fish that broke the seine with their numbers when it was let down and drawn up from the river; it gave them gravel for their roadways, sand for their mortar and clay for their bricks. But most of all was for the first Daytonians the great highway of transportation between them and the outside world.

The keys to all this wealth, the keys which along would unlock these marvelous riches were their own stout and willing hands and the gun or axe or jack-knife which they grasped. What uncomprehended, unending, and unescapable work it meant to unlock that door! If they had known it, would they have stayed, and would we have been here? We shall never know; but having made the journey they settled down to a mixed existence. On the one hand, mud and stumps, catamounts, poison-ivy, chills and fever, mosquitoes, rattlesnakes and an occasional wolf to raid the pig-pen; on the other the freedom of the air, the water, and the land, the magnificence of autumn foliage and summer sunsets, the glory of the seasons as they passed and went; good appetites and sound night’s rest. Best of all was the satisfaction of being the first to build for great things – greater than they knew.


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