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David Lowry Was a Grand Old Settler

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, May 13, 1934


David Lowry Was a Grand Old Settler

By Howard Burba


            Readers of the early history of Dayton and the Miami Valley are familiar with the name “Lowry.”  Older residents of the city recall a once substantial family by that name.  But the average resident of the Valley, those who have been on earth less than half a century, have little knowledge of the part the name played in the settlement of Dayton and the Northwest Territory.

            Even the youngest generation of Daytonians are perfectly familiar with the relationship of the Dayton and Simms and Van Cleve families to the settlement of the Miami Valley.  It is high time they were learning about still another family active in pioneer affairs and without which the planting of a once vast wilderness might not have been so speedily accomplished.  It is time we were learning some things about the old Lowry family which, for some unaccountable reason, historians failed to properly honor in their records.

            Back in 1896 there was a grand celebration in Dayton.  It marked the one hundredth anniversary of the settlement of the city.  But it had a lot of ramifications, and was not confined wholly to the corporate limits of Dayton.  In fact, a half-dozen localities found reason for celebrating an anniversary about the same time.  One of these was the little village of Donnellsville, northeast of Dayton, just over the Montgomery co. line in Clark co.

            It was at the Donnellsville celebration that a descendant of the original Lowry family read an historical paper.  It would have escaped the attention of Dayton residents had not a thoughtful man seen in it facts and details worth of preservation, since few of those facts and details had found their way into the histories of the settlement of the Miami valley.  Unfortunately the name of the author was omitted.  But the wording of that old paper, read at the centennial celebration up at Donnellsville, has been preserved.  And for those who appreciate pioneer romance, those who find in the story of Pioneer days in this section a fascination few other tales afford, I’ve sought out, found and bring to you that thrilling old document.

            The celebration at Donnellsville was held at the home of one R. M. Lowry.  He was a grandson of the original David Lowry, the first of that family name and among the first of all white men -to set foot on the territory which is now Dayton and the Miami valley.  It is believed this grandson had supervised the preparation of the document, since the old Lowry family Bible is known to have been in his possession, along with letters and personal papers of David Lowry, many of which gave intimate details of the settlement of the Miami and Mad river country.

            David Lowry was a man of high character.  Honest, upright and enterprising.  His descendants inherited those characteristics.  A hundred years ago there was no better known family name in all this section.  Today there is no finer strain than the descendants who, though far removed from the original branch of the Lowry family, still carry on in this section.  And now let us spend a few moments enjoying the romantic story of old David Lowry, pioneer scout, trail-blazer and builder of a new empire.

            “It was under David Lowry’s leadership,” reads the historic old document referred to, “that a hunting party in the fall of 1794 supplied the troops at Fort Greenville with venison and bear by pushing on across the forests to Mad river.  While on one of these hunting trips Lowry and a companion named Jonathan Donnell selected the site which they later purchased.  Before starting from Pittsburgh with his father and family in the fall of 1785 Lowry bought a cargo of lumber which he sold at Cincinnati at a good profit.  He was in no sense of the word a speculator, but was certainly a foresighted man.

            “Lowry had already partly prepared a site for his cabin, and when he and the Donnell family reached what is now Donnell’s creek late in 1795 the poles for a hut were there ready for use.  The hut was erected, covered with twigs, dry leaves and deer skins and the members of the two families slept in it the first night.  The cabins were then built and the families made comfortable for the winter, with plenty of corn and an abundance of game.

            “At the time David Lowry settled in this territory roving bands of Indians were still traversing it at frequent intervals.  Temporary protection had to be provided.  The men were, of course, all experienced woodsmen.  Surrounded by the dangers of frontier life they could rely upon their own skill, experience and resources for safety and a maintenance in their new forest homes.  With poles, against a bank or log, they built half-faced, or three-sided huts, open in front to face the fire and roofed with bark or skins as shelter for the families while the men were clearing away for the cabin sites.  The situation was not especially comfortable and, although wearied with the anxieties and dangers of border warfare, they lived in daily hope of being able to settle down and provide for their families.

            The men were on guard night and day.  By night and by day, at the cabins or in the clearings, the trusty rifle was ready for instant use.  When the cabin site was selected, all timber within rifle range was cut down, to deprive prowling Indians of shelter and temptation for a shot at the settler or his family.  While the men were thus at work, felling the timber the women, too, were busy with axes, grubbing out thickets and digging holes here and there, wherever possible between the roots and stumps, to plant corn and potatoes.  The men were in the clearings before day and, by light of the blazing brush fires, worked until late at night.  The axe was the important implement.  With it the backwoodsmen built the cabins, cleared the land, grubbed out the roots and stumps, cut the wood, blazed and opened the roads, marked his corners, split rails and built bridges.

            “After the huts were made as comfortable as possible, logs were gotten out for the cabins, that were generally put up one and one-half stories high.  When this much had been accomplished, neighbors would join in hauling logs, poles, puncheons and clapboards on sleds and drags.  Puncheons were split for the floors; doors were cut in the logs on one side of the cabin, and clapboard doors were hung upon wooden hinges, and fastened with a wooden latch.  The roof was of clapboards, held down by weight-poles.  The chimney was built of sticks and mud.  The upper floor was laid with loose clapboards, and a short ladder was used as a stairway.  Wooden pins were used to fasten the timers-nails or spikes were unknown in the days when David Lowry settled here.

            “The beds were constructed by driving two stakes between the floor puncheons, poles placed in the forks and the other end between the cracks of the logs in the wall.  Across these poles clapboards were laid for the bottom of the bed and dried grass and pelts spread over it.  Tables were made of a split slab, with four legs set in auger holes.  Three-legged stools and benches were made in the same manner.  Pins were driven in the walls on which clapboards rested for shelves or mantels.

            “Clothing was hung on pegs around the cabin, and the rifle, powder-horn and shot-pouch hung deer horns fastened above the fireplace.  Thus the primitive log cabin of the days of David Lowry was made.

            “As cabins were not always chinked or daubed, plenty of light came in between the logs and through the open door.  Feed for the horses and cattle was scarce, but they could find good picking in the grassy patches near the river.  There was no great variety of provisions, a single dish of broiled venison or wild turkey most often composing the entire meal.  This, however, arose not from the scarcity of game, but for the fact that they could not spare the time to go into the woods hunting until the supply of meat was fully exhausted. Corn, turnips, potatoes and tobacco were harvested the first season; nuts were gathered for winter use; wild grass and fodder were stacked for the stock, so that every tiny settlement was usually well supplied with necessities, and some few luxuries, for the first winter in the woods on Miami and Mad rivers.

            The next spring a settlement was made farther up Mad river on the opposite side by pioneers name Krebs and Brown.  Lowry arranged to supply their fish and game in exchange for crops.  With the arrival of others, the settlement soon developed a flourishing market for his meat and hides.

            “Game was very abundant in 1799, and David Lowry had deer and bear skins in bales, as well as a surplus of produce from his own farm and his trades.  So he determined to build a flatboat and take the stuff to New Orleans.

            “He built the boat on the bank of Donnell’s creek from heavy green oak and hickory timbers.  When the flatboat was completed it was launched and dropped down Mad river to Dayton, where it was tied up at the head of Wilkinson st. to await the arrival of spring freshets so it could be floated on down the Miami river to Cincinnati.  In the meantime, with his own team Lowry brought his wares down from his farm.

            “It has been erroneously stated in early histories that Lowry had pork as part of his shipment hat spring.  This could not be true, as the first hogs ever owned in this section were brought here by Daniel C. Cooper in 1799.  These were distributed only for breeding purposes, and it was several years later before the ‘elm peelers’ began to be sold on the market.

            “These hogs, the first to be brought into the Miami country, were long-legged, slab-sided, ugly and savage.  It was said that if one of them heard from a hundred yards away an acorn rattling as it dropped through the leaves, it could run and catch it on the first bounce every time.  They increased wonderfully in numbers, were marked by their owners and turned loose to feed and fatten.  Then in the fall, when butchering time came, the settlers would hunt them up in the forest and shoot them with a rifle.

            “The mast in 1801 and 1802 brought in wild turkeys in such numbers that they became a nuisance to the settlements, as well as destructive to the growing corn, and to save the crop it had to be gathered early.  The hogs fattened on the great crop of acorns and beechnuts, and did not suffer much from the attacks of wolves, as they had learned as a matter of defense to go in droves, and when threatened would form a circle around the young pigs, and when a wolf approached too near they became aggressive and would tear him to pieces with their tusks.

            “Sheep were brought to the colony in the spring of 1800, and Lowry was among the first to secure some of these. For many years, however, it was difficult to raise them, as they fell easy prey to wolves, being wholly unable to defend themselves.  It was not safe at any time to allow them to graze on the hills without the most careful watching, and it was necessary to keep them in strong pens at night.  Wool was carded by hand, spun in the cabins, dyed, woven and made into clothing by the women.  In later years horses and cattle were branded, hogs and sheep were marked by slitting, cropping or cutting the ears, so that each farmer could tell his own stock and each peculiar mark was registered with the township clerk.

            “Along toward April, 1799, Mr. Lowry loaded his boat with about 300 bushels of corn, some potatoes and maple sugar, several bales of wild animal skins and furs, 500 venison hams and corn meal and provisions of various sorts.  Altogether, he had about 12 tons of weight on the flatboat.  Neither boat nor cargo had cost him a cent of money.  The boat drew over two feet of water, and while there were but nine cabins in Dayton at the time he had plenty of assistance, as every one turned out to see him depart.

            “He made the trip alone and reached New Orleans safely after a voyage lasting two months.  He sold his cargo for about $1200 and returned on horseback to Mad river.  His father, shortly after, became ill and died and David buried him beside the mother in what in later years became known as the old Minnich cemetery, not far from the residence of R. M. Lowry.  The coffin was made of bark peeled from a tree, with ends pointed like a canoe, and with a bark covering.

            “David Lowry, sir., and his wife, Lettice, were married in 1762 or 1763, and had eight children, John Lowry being the first-born.  Archibald was born in Pennsylvania in 1765, and David, jr., in the same state on Sept 17, 1767.  Thomas was the fourth son, Robert was born in 1771.  He was married, and lived for many years near Medway, and is buried there with his wife and children.  Lettice, named for her mother, was the sixth child, and there was still another child whose name cannot be ascertained.

            “Archibald Lowry was married in Pennsylvania, where his first child was born in 1795.  They came to the Mad river country in 1796 and settled on the land now occupied by the city of Springfield.  He had a son, David, born in 1797, and a daughter, Letitia, born in 1799.  Archibald Lowry built in Springfield in 1803 the finest house in all that territory. a large, two-story, hewed log house on what is now Limestone st.

            “David Lawry, the pioneer, had been very successful in his business ventures and when he was 33 years old he began contemplating matrimony.  He married Miss Sarah Hamer, daughter of William Hamer, who came to Dayton with the very first party of settlers to arrive on the site on April 1, 1796.  They were married in the residence of the bride’s parents in November, 1801, amid great rejoicing and frestivity.  Their wedding tour was a 14-mile journey on horseback from the Hamer cabin on the hill overlooking Dayton to the Lowry cabin on Donnell’s creek.  They had four children; Nancy, who married William Wilson and reared a family of seven children; Susan, who married John Leffel and then George Croft; Elizabeth, who married Issac Peck, of Troy; Mary, who married Wilson Hart of Troy.

            “Mrs. Sarah Hamer Lowry died in August, 1801, and was buried in the Minnich cemetery.  Left with four little children, David remarried in 1811, to Mrs. Jane Hodge.  Their first daughter, Martha S., married Jesse S. Christie.  Other daughters were Mrs. John M., Garrison of Yellow Springs and Mary E. Christie of Springfield.  Mr. And Mrs. Christie died in Springfield, and were buried in Ferncliff cemetery there.

            “David Lowry, the pioneer of the family, built and operated the first grist mill ever erected in what is now Clark co., Ohio.  That was in 1800.  A little later he erected a sawmill on the same site, and still later established the first paper mill in this part of the country.  Afer that he built a straw-board mill.  It was the first one erected in the state of Ohio, and from these two latter industries grew the vast paper industry of the Miami valley, other paper-makers being encouraged to come into this territory when they saw the successful operation of the Lowry plant.

            “The latter years of David Lowry’s life were given over to farming, since that had always been his favorite activity.  He made a specialty of cultivating small fruits, and the first orchards of any note in and around Dayton were transplanting from his farm.

            “For an entire lifetime he was a member of the Christian church.  His wife was a Presbyterian.  Politically, he was a zealous Whig.  His muscular frame seldom grew weary under toil and exposure of pioneer life.  He died with his wife and children around him on Sept. 9, 1859, at the age of 92 years.  Mrs. Lowry lived to be 89 years of age, her death occurring on Aug. 15, 1867.  Both of these pioneers were buried in Ferncliff cemetery at Springfield.”

            Thus the centennial historian closed his paper at the celebration near Doonellsville in 1896.  He had presented a true and faithful life story of a man who did much to make possible the settlement of Dayton and Springfield and the counties of Montgomery and Clark.  There was no reference to those other pioneers who helped to plant this wilderness, nor was there any to compare the intrepid explorations of David Lowry with Boone or Kenton or Clark and others who had, in their wide ramblings, passed through htis valley, but only on Indian meanness bent.

            There was, in addition to the historian, another man present at that old centennial celebration whose voice was lifted in tribute to David Lowry.  Asa S. Bushnell of Springfield, who had just been honored with the highest office in the gift of the people of Ohio, the governorship, was introduced.  Happily, the old newspaper files have preserved the remarks of this once-great citizen of the Buckeye state, and they are appropriate at this point:

            “We gather here today,” said Gov. Bushnell  “for the purpose of celebrating the centennial of the settlement of this portion of our county, and in memory of the hardy and patriotic pioneers who were the first to make these fields and forests their home.  I feel it a great privilege to be permitted to preside over a meeting of this kind.

            “I have brought with me for the occasion a gavel made from one of the timbers of Commodore Perry’s flagship, the ‘Lawrence.”  While his victory did not occur until 17 years after the event we celebrate here today, I think you will agree with me that it can be appropriately used for this occasion as recalling another event of great historical importance.

            “David Lowry and Jonathan Donnell were the first white men to settle in this locality, and on this ground were we stand lived that grand old pioneer, David Lowry.  Mr. Donnell, who was his close personal friend and ho labored with him in the settlement of this territory, died early, and his untimely death cast a gloom upon the entire settlement.  Donnell’s creek and Donnellsville were both named for him.

            “These early pioneers lived hard and a back-breaking life.  But they lived happily and they lived well.  We are told that no more hospitable places were to be found than their pioneer cabins, and that the latch-string was always out to the weary and the hungry.

            “These early pioneers were not, perhaps, as temperate as the people of the present day would think best.  Let me recall an incident of their liberality with liquor which I remember hearing some years ago.  Up on Chapman’s creek a parson and his wife went out to make a pastoral call, the wife riding on the horse behind the parson.  They called upon a deacon and his family.  As they were about to leave the deacon proposed an apple toddy.  All partook of it quite freely, and then the parson and his wife started homeward.

            “They drew near Chapman’s creek and reached a place where the path was somewhat steep, and the pastor’s wife was jostled from her position on the horse, but she managed to hold on until the old horse reached the opposite bank.  As the horse started to ascend the other bank she slipped off and rolled down into the shallow water, unobserved by the parson.  When the parson arrived home the children cried:

            “Father, where’s mother?’

            “The parson was not able to look behind him, but in a loud voice he called for the children to come and help her off.  But the children saw she was not there, and, hurrying back, they found her lying upon the gravel in the creek bed with the water running in her mouth.  With one hand uplifted she seemed to be attempting to brush the water away.  And when the children arrived they heard her say:

            “ ‘Not another drop, deacon; not another drop.  I’ve had enough to last me until my next visit.’

            “Their lives were hard, their wants were few.  It required ruggedness to live their years, and hearts capable of sacrificing.  David Lowry visioned a better day and a better land, but he also realized that it would have to be of his own making.  He knew that the reward of his labors would be alone for the generations to follow him.  But the heart of David Lowry, like the hearts of all those who labored with him, held no room for selfishness.  They builded for us, their descendants.  And they builded better than they knew.”