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Dayton, Ohio - An Intimate History




Somewhere, buried in the gravel and silt of the river bottom where the Miami joins the Ohio, would be found if we knew where to dig for it, a leaden plate eleven inches long, seven inches wide and an eighth of an inch thick containing the origins of this city and county as they came into historical and political existence. That historical existence was French. No human eye has seen the plate since it was placed there in August, 1749 and none ever will, since the Miami River has a way of keeping what it gets hold of. But the original records, probably in the Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris, have kept the story.

There were six such plates, the inscriptions identical, and they were duplicated in tin. The leaden plates were buried and the tin plates were hung on the branches of trees near the confluence of the rivers emptying into the Ohio. They were called by those who buried them, “proofs of re-possession.”  The prefix “re” refers to the fact that the ownership of the territory in question had been settled, unofficially so to say, several years before by LaSalle himself who, at the mouth of the Mississippi, with a wave of his arm towards the north, appropriated to the Crown of France, all the lands drained by that river and its tributaries. It was a much larger order than La Salle knew at that time but it was something to report to his royal master at Versailles as a token of the result of the expense his journey had cost the state.

Whether La Salle’s title of possession was held to be weak legally, or whether others wanted expeditionary honors of their own is not plain at this day. But the idea of a colony of French peasants to settle in the heart of the rich Ohio lands was simmering in other minds. One of them was that of Glassoniere, the Governor-General of Canada, who had large plans for the development of the whole great middle west in the interests of France. The only one of these plans that materialized is the one we are interested in, which did not turn out exactly as he intended but which resulted in the first appearance of white men on the soil of what we know as Montgomery County.

Red men there had been in plenty. The lands bordering the two rivers we know best, the Miami and Mad rivers, were the biggest game preserve the Indians had. They came down the river in canoes from the Indian village at Piqua and up the river in their canoes from Kentucky to kill game and take it home for winter provision. But the brown skins have not counted much in history in the past.

So the Frenchman and his plates are the real beginning. This is the inscription, verified from the record by one plate which was discovered sticking out of the mud by boys fishing for other things and brought to the authorities at Marietta. It was not our plate but it tells the story.

In the year 1749, in the reign of His Majesty Louis XV King of France, We, Pierre Joseph Celoron de Bienville, Knight of the Royal Order of St. Louis; Captain commanding a detachment sent down the Beautiful River (the Ohio) by order of the Marquis de la Glassoniere, Governor General of all New France and of Louisiana, have buried this plate at the mouth of the Miami river as a token of the renewal of possession heretofore taken of the Ohio river and of all streams that fall into it and all lands on both sides to the sources of the streams as the Kings of France enjoyed it.

To the nearest tree trunk that overhung the current of the stream, Celoron caused to be hung the tin plate with the same inscription and the arms of France upon it.

So that is how Dayton was born. There is much back of it historically, relative to the treaties of Riswick, Utrecht and Aix la Chapelle which there is no time to go into here. But that far off beginning of our history was a continuation of the vast international struggle between France and England for dominance of the New World. The rich fertile fields of our Ohio valleys seemed to those cramped Europeans, tillers, shoulder to shoulder, of the narrow strips of worn out soil of their native land, a little less than paradise.

Why did it come to nothing? Why have we lost our French accent, so to speak, and kept the remembrance of our French origin only in our geographical nomenclature – Des Moines, Detroit, Bellefountaine and Wabash (which we spell with a W instead of Ouabache)? In the first place Louise XV was too busy throwing dice at Versailles to care about things so far away in the interior of North America, then as little known as the interior of South America to us. It is a long story but we must go back to the Sieur de Bienville and his plates.

There were two hundred and forty-four men in this expedition up the Ohio and into the Miami rivers. One captain, eight officers, six cadets, one chaplain, twenty soldiers, three French and white, and one hundred Canadians of mixed blood and eighty Indians: These last “Coureurs des Bois,”  Runners of the Woods made famous by Longfellow in “Evangeline.”

Fifty days it took the captain and his men to make that journey from Montreal to Pittsburgh. Starting from Lachine June 15, 1749, carrying their canoes from Lake Erie to Lake Chautauqua, down the Ohio to the Miami, up the Great Miami past the Dayton that was to be, across by portage to a French settlement on the Maumee and so back to Lake Erie, this was the itinerary of those doughty explorers.

A historian thus describes the appearance of the little army as it made its way down the waters of La Belle Riviere (the Ohio, so lettered on the few early maps of the period). “Soldiers and Canadians in their gay costumes and semi-medieval armor, the half-naked copper-skinned savages, the flying banners of France, all crowded in the frail white birch bark canoes that floated on the surface of the stream like tiny paper shells.”

When they reached the Miami it was the largest tributary passed since leaving what is now Pittsburgh and they had but one remaining plate. Bienville led his forces ashore and in impressive and flowery language addressed his followers and a few savages who had gathered about him. He extolled the honor and glory of their mission and how they would be remembered as thus adding to the glory of France by peaceful conquest of the great western lands. Then the ceremony of “plate sowing” was carried out, and until the next spring flood carried away the tree with the tin plate on it and buried the lead plate under tons of gravel this valley belonged to the King of France.

What these explorers saw of our Miami Valley was not what we see. Our present thin, shallow, useless streams were then the great highways leading from the civilization of the eastern states into the unpenetrated wilderness of the Northwest Territory. An old painting of the mouth of Mad River done by some anonymous native artist of the early years of the last century showed a deep channeled stream opening into another still wider and deeper, both so massed with forestry and bushes that the overhanging branches almost met overhead. One could imagine the easy possibility of future steamboats stemming the muddy current. It was by means of such abundant waterways that Montgomery County was penetrated and settled. No other way. Progress of the first explorers was on foot, blazing the trees to mark their passage for those that came afterward. On horseback it was still difficult; but when the first wagons attempted to make it, trees had to be felled every few rods to make passage for the body and wheels. No modern artist knows how to draw imaginatively the topography of a hundred and fifty years ago. They sketch some trees and some open spaces, but in 1750 there were few, if any, open spaces. Mile after mile of  almost impenetrable forest over all of southern Ohio. Here and there, along the bed of streams where the spring freshets made it difficult tor growing timber to find a foot-hold, there was grazing land for cattle.

Unfortunately Celoron de Bienville left no descriptions of the Miami Valley, but Gist did. Gist was the agent of the Ohio Land Company and the first investor who tried to sell real-estate on our territory. More of him hereafter. But he wrote to impress his fellow-Virginians of the attractions of the new country he was opening up; that he was “Delighted with the fertile well-watered land with large oak, walnut, maple and ash trees.” He told them that the country abounded with turkeys, deer, elk and all sorts of game, especially buffalo, thirty or forty of which were seen feeding in one meadow.” In short, he said” “it needs nothing but cultivation to make it a most delightful country. The land along the Great Miami is rich, level, and well-timbered, some of the finest meadows that can be. The grass here grows to a great height on the clear fields and the bottoms are full of white clover, wild rye and blue grass.”

This is what the first beholders of our valley saw. Richness of soil, beauty of landscape, green and sturdy woods, game in abundance; buffaloes grazing where now concrete bridges throw their arches across the stream, a literal paradise of plenty. It was to become less beautiful and less peaceful as it became the field for rivalry of possession between the Indians and the settlers and the continuance of age-old antipathies between France and England, of wars that reddened the fields and sometimes the current of the rivers and earned for it the title of “The dark and bloody ground.” The Indians contested every inch of the land they considered theirs by right of inheritance from their fathers. The French never arrived to settle the land they had so proudly claimed. The Indians were pushed westward and the English and Scotch-Irish came in, sturdy younger sons of good families, driving out in Conestoga wagons from Philadelphia and New York. Fine-fibered people, many of them were, along with the inevitable riff-raff that herds into a new country. But it was an epic – an epic that ought never to be forgotten by the older generation and always to be taught to the younger that they may receive with humility and carry on with faithfulness the heritage of their long-ago ancestors. 


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