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Early Dayton
Chapter One: The Settlement

Chapter I: The Settlement


Gist’s Visit to the Miami Valley in 1751- Valuable Timber- Well Watered- Wild Animals- Natural Meadows- A Most Delightful Country- Fertility and Beauty- Kentuckians Long to Dispossess the Indians- The Valley Called the Miami Slaughter-House- Dayton on the Site of the Indian Hunting-Ground- A Favorite Rendezvous for Indian Hunting and War Parties- General George Rogers Clark’s Expedition to Ohio- Clark’s Second Expedition- Skirmish on Site of Dayton- Logan’s Campaign in 1786- Second Skirmish on Site of Dayton- Venice on Site of Dayton- Venice Abandoned- General Wayne’s Campaign- Treaty of Peace- Site of Dayton Purchased from Symmes- Original Proprietors of Dayton- Survey of the Purchase- D. C. Cooper Cuts a Road- Dayton Laid Out and Named- Streets Named- Lottery Held on Site of Town- Lots and Inlots Donated to Settlers Drawn- Settlers Permitted to Purchase One Hundred and Sixty Aces at a French Crown per Acre- Names of Original Settlers of Dayton- Three Parties Leave Cincinnati in March, 1796- Hamer’s Party Travels in  Two-Horse Wagon- Newcom’s Party Makes the Journey on Horseback- Thompson’s Party Ascend the Miami in a Pirogue- Description of the Voyage- Poling Up Stream- Beauty of the Landscape- Supper in the Miami Woods- Names of the passengers in the Pirogue- Tens Days from Cincinnati to Dayton- Mrs. Thompson the First to Land- Indians Encamped at Dayton- Land at Head of St. Clair Street- The Uninhabited Forest All that Welcomed Them- Encouraging Indications- Temporary Protection- Log Cabins- Wholly Dependent on Each Other’s Society- Monument Avenue Cleared- Town Covered with Hazelnut Thickets- Dr. Elliott’s Purple Silk Coat- Dayton Hard to Find by the Traveler- Ague- Communal Corn-Field- Mary Van Cleve- Indians Attack the Thompson Cabin.


The Report of the French Major Celoron de Bienville, who, in August, 1749, ascended the La Roche or Big Miami River in bateaux to visit the Twightwee villages at Piqua, has been preserved; but Gist, the agent of the Virginians who formed the Ohio Land Company, was probably the first person who wrote a description in English of the region surrounding Dayton.  Gist visited the Twightwee or Miami villages in 1751.  He was delighted with the fertile and well-watered land, with its large oak, walnut, maple, ash, wild cherry, and other trees.  The country, he says, abounded “with turkeys, deer, elk, and most sorts of game, particularly buffaloes, thirty or forty of which are frequently seen feeding in one meadow; in short, it wants nothing but cultivation to make it a most delightful country.  The land upon the Great Miami is very 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, of which there are a great number, and the bottoms are full of white clover, wild rye, and blue grass.”  A number of white traders were living at the Miami villages and in one of their houses Gist lodged.  It is stated by pioneer writers that buffaloes and elk disappeared from Ohio about the year 1795.

            Long before any permanent settlement was made in the Miami Valley, its beauty and fertility were known by the people beyond the Alleghanies and the inhabitants of Kentucky, who considered it an “earthly paradise,” and repeated efforts were made to get possession of it.  These efforts led to retaliation on the part of the Indians, who resented the attempts to dispossess them of their lands, and the continuous raids back and forth across the Ohio River to gain or keep possession of the valley caused it to be called, until the close of the eighteenth century, the “Miami slaughter-house.”  The wild animals- wolves, wildcats, bears, panthers, foxes- which roamed through the valley now so peaceful and prosperous were scarcely more brutal and fierce than the inhabitants of the infrequent villages scattered along the borders of the Miami hunting-grounds- the terrible “Indian country,” the abode of cruelty and death, which the imagination of trembling women in far-distant blockhouses invested with all the horrors of a veritable hell on earth.  The pioneers of Kentucky looked with jealous and envious eyes on this great Indian game preserve.  The wily and suspicious savages did their best to exclude them; but, though they ventured over here at the risk of being burned, they frequently came alone or in small parties to hunt or rescue some friend captured in a raid into Kentucky by the Indians.  Before the Miami Valley had ever been visited by whites, the country lying between the Great and Little Miamis, and bounded on the south by the Ohio and on the north by Mad River, was used only as a hunting-ground.  Dayton lies just within this former immense game preserve.  Probably no wigwam has been built and no Indians have lived on the site of Dayton since 1700.  The site of Dayton was a favorite rendezvous for Indian hunters or warriors.  Parties came down the Miami in canoes, and, having formed a camp of supplies at the mouth of the mad River in charge of squaws, set out on their raids or hunts. 

            In the summer of 1780, General George Rogers Clark led an expedition of experienced Indian fighters to Ohio against the Shawnees near Xenia and Springfield.  He defeated the Indians.  By this victory the homes, crops, and other property of about four thousand Shawnees were destroyed, and for some time they were wholly engaged in rebuilding their wigwams, and in hunting and fishing to obtain food for their families.  Among the officers who held command under Clark was Colonel Robert Patterson, from 1804 till 1827 a citizen of Dayton.

            Finding the Indians were recovering from their defeat of 1780, Clark, in the fall of 1782, led a second expedition of one thousand Kentuckians to Ohio.  They met with no resistance till they reached the mouth of Mad River, on the 9th of November, where they found a small party of Indians stationed to prevent their crossing the stream.  A skirmish on the site of Dayton followed, in which the Kentuckians were victorious.  They spent the night here, and then proceeded to Upper Piqua, on the Great Miami.  Having destroyed Upper Piqua, they went on to the trading-station of Laramie, and plundered and burned the store and destroyed the Indians’ wigwams and crops.  These two expeditions, or campaigns, were campaigns of the Revolution, as the Indians were friendly to the British.

            For some time after the peace with Great Britain in 1783, the Indians, who had met with many reverses and losses during the Revolution, did not trouble the settlements as much as formerly, but about 1785 they recommenced hostilities, and in 1786 a force commanded by Colonel Logan was sent against the Wabash and Mad River villages.  One of the brigades was commanded by Colonel Robert Patterson.  They harried and ruined the Indian country, and destroyed eight towns and the crops and vegetables, taking a large number of horses, and leaving the Indians in a state of destitution and starvation from which it took them nearly a year to recover.  The Kentuckians returned to the Ohio by the way of Mad River, and at the mouth of the river found a party of Indians on guard.  With them was Tecumseh, at this time about fourteen years of age.  Having, after some slight resistance, beaten the Indians and driven them up Mad River and gained the second battle or skirmish between whites and Indians fought on the site of Dayton, they camped for the night.  Being well supplied with provisions taken from the captured villages, they remained here for two or three days examining land with a view to recommending a settlement in this neighborhood.  Having driven the Indians for the time being out of the Miami Valley, the Kentuckians, when they departed, left an uninhabited country behind them.

            In 1789 Major Benjamin Stites, John Stites Gano, and William Goforth formed plans for a settlement to be named Venice, at the mouth of the Tiber, as they called Mad River.  The site of the proposed city lay within the seventh range of townships, which they agreed to purchase from John Cleves Symmes for eighty-three cents an acre.  The deed was executed and recorded, and the town of Venice, with its two principal streets crossing each other at right angles and the position of houses and squares indicated in the four quarters outlined by the streets, was laid out on paper.  But Indian troubles and Symmes’s misunderstanding with the Government forced the to abandon the project, and “we escaped being Venetians.”

            In the spring of 1793 General Wayne was made commander of the Western army.  His victories over the Indians on June 30 and 31 and August 30, 1794, ended four years of Indian war.  August 3, 1795, a treaty of peace was concluded at Greenville, which was regarded as securing the safety of settlers in the Indian country.

            August 20, 1795, seventeen days after the treaty was signed, a party of gentlemen contracted for the purchase of the seventh and eight ranges between Mad River and the Little Miami from John Cleves Symmes, a soldier of the Revolutionary army, who, encouraged by the success of the Ohio Company, had, after much negotiation, obtained from Congress a grant for the purchase of one million acres between the two Miamis.  The purchasers of the seventh and eighth ranges were General Arthur St. Clair, Governor of the Northwest Territory; General Jonathan Dayton, afterward Senator from New Jersey; General James Wilkinson, of Wayne’s army, and Colonel Israel Ludlow, from Long Hill, Morris County, New Jersey.  On the 21st of September two parties of surveyors set out, one led by Daniel C. Cooper to survey and mark a road and cut out some of the brush, and the other led by Captain John Bunlap, which was to run the boundaries of the purchase.  On the 1st of November the surveyors returned to Mad River, and Israel Ludlow laid out the town, which he named for General Dayton.  Three streets were named St. Clair, Wilkinson, and Ludlow for the proprietors.  Another was called, as a sort of compromise, Jefferson, as the proprietors were Federalists.  Dayton was founded by Revolutionary officers, and bears their names.  It is also linked to the War of 1812 by a street called for Commodore Perry.  For many years Perry Street was down on the maps of the town as Cherry Lane.

            On November 1 a lottery was held, and each one present drew lots for himself or others who intended to settle in the new town.  Each of the settlers received a donation of an inlot and an outlot.  In addition, each of them had the privilege of purchasing one hundred and sixty acres at a French crown, or about one dollar and thirteen cents, per acre.  The proprietors hoped by offering these inducements to attract settlers to the place.

            Forty-six men had agreed to remove from Cincinnati to Dayton, but only nineteen came.  The following men and about seventeen women and children were the original settlers of Dayton: William Hamer, Solomon Hamer, Thomas Hamer, George Newcom, William Newcom, Abraham Glassmire, Thomas Davis, John Davis, John Dorough, William Chenoweth, James Morris, Daniel Ferrell, Samuel Thompson, Benjamin Van Cleve, James McClure, John McClure, William Gahagan, Solomon Goss, William Van Cleve. 

            In March, 1796, they left Cincinnati in three parties, led by William Hamer, George Newcom, and Samuel Thompson.  Hamer’s party was the first to start; the other two companies left on Monday, March 21, one by land the other by water.  Hamer’s party came in a two-horse wagon over the road begun, but only partially cut through the woods, by Cooper in the fall of 1795.  The company consisted of Mr. and Mrs. William Hamer and their children Solomon, Thomas, Nancy, Elizabeth, Sarah, and Polly, and Jonathan and Edward Mercer.  They were delayed, and had a long, cold, and uncomfortable journey. 

            In the other party that traveled by land were Mr. and Mrs. George Newcom and their brother William, James Morris, John Dorough and family, Daniel Ferrell and family, Solomon Goss and family, John Davis, Abraham Glassmire, and William Van Cleve, who drove Mr. Thompson’s cow, which was with the cattle belonging to the Newcom division of the colonists.

            Thompson’s party were steered and poled by Benjamin van Cleve and William Gahagan in a large pirogue down the Ohio to the Miami and up that stream to the mouth of Mad River.  A pirogue was a long, narrow boat of light draft and partly enclosed and roofed.  It required much skill and muscular strength to pole a boat up stream for many miles.  The men, each provided with a pole with a heavy socket, were placed on either side of the boat.  They “set their poles near the head of the boat and bringing the end of the pole to their shoulders, with their bodies bent, walked slowly down the running board to the stern, returning at a quick pace to the bow for a new set.”

            The Miami in 1796 wound through an almost wholly uninhabited wilderness.  Such a journey, it seems to us, looking back from this safe and prosaic age when steam cars whirl us up from Cincinnati, must have been full of danger and of exciting adventure, and yet not without its pleasures.  Imagination invests this little band of adventurers, laboriously making their way with their boat-load of women and children up the Indian-named river and valley to a frontier home in the ancient Miami hunting-grounds, with an atmosphere of romance.  On the borders of their ancestral corn-fields and game preserves lurked jealous and revengeful savages, gazing with envious and homesick eyes on the rich lands of which the pioneers had dispossessed them.  The Indian reign of terror, in spite of the treaty of peace, really lasted till after 1799, but travelers on the river were probably in less danger of surprise in early spring than when the foliage was in full leaf and the Indians could consequently more easily conceal themselves. 

            However unpropitious the season may be, there are always occasional sunshiny days in the early spring in Ohio.  Through the woods in 1796 were wet from recent showers, the rain seems to have been over before the pirogue began its voyage, and no doubt part of the time the weather was mild and bright.  The banks of the Miami were thickly wooded, and vocal with the songs of countless varieties of birds.  The flowers and foliage of the trees were just beginning to unfold, and the ground was covered with grass fresh with the greenness of spring.  For miles on either side of the Miami extended a fertile and beautiful country. 

            At the close of each day the boat was tied to a tree on the shore, and the emigrants landed and camped for the night around the big fire by which they cooked their appetizing supper of game, and fish, and the eggs of wild fowls, for which the hunger of travelers was a piquant and sufficient sauce.  Meat was fastened on a sharp stick, stuck in the ground before the fire, and frequently turned.  Dough for wheat bread was sometimes wound round a stick and baked in the same way.  Corn-bread was baked under the hot ashes.  “Sweeter roast meat,” exclaims an enthusiastic pioneer writer, “than such as is prepared in this manner, no epicure of Europe ever tasted.” “Scare any one who has not tried it can imagine the sweetness and gusto of such a meal, in such a place, at such a time.”

            In the pirogue came Samuel Thompson and his wife, Catherine; their children, Sarah, two years old, Martha, three months old, and Mrs. Thompson’s son, Benjamin Van Cleve, then about twenty-five, and her daughter, Mary Van Cleve, nine years of age; the widow McClure and her sons and daughters, James, John, Thomas, Kate, and Ann, and William Gahagan, a young Irishman.  The passage from Cincinnati to Dayton occupied ten days.  Mrs. Thompson was the first to step ashore.  Two small camps of Indians were here when the pirogue touched the Miami bank, but they proved friendly and were persuaded to leave in a day or two.  The pirogue landed at the head of St. Clair Street April 1, 1796.  The Thompson party was the first to arrive.

            Samuel Thompson was a native of Pennsylvania, and removed to Cincinnati soon after its settlement.  He married the widow of John Van Cleve.  Mr. Thompson drowned in Mad River in 1817, and Mrs. Thompson died at Dayton, August 6, 1837.  William Gahagan was a native of Pennsylvania, but of Irish parentage.  He was a soldier in Wayne’s legion, and came west in 1793, serving with the army till the peace of 1795.  Benjamin Van Cleve and he were friends and comrades.  He was one of the party which surveyed the site of Dayton.  In 1804 or 1805 he removed to a tract of land south of Troy, called Gahagan’s Prairie, which he owned.  Here his wife died and he married Mrs. Tennery.  He died about 1845 in Troy.  The McClures soon removed to Miami County.  Little is known of Solomon Goss, Thomas Davis, William Chenoweth, James Morris, and Daniel Ferrell.  Abraham Glassmire was  German and unmarried.  He was a very useful member of the little community, making looms and showing much ingenuity in contriving conveniences not easily obtained by pioneer housekeepers.  John Dorough was the owner of a mill on Mad River, afterwards known as Kneisley’s Mill.  William Newcom, younger brother of George, was born about 1776.  He married Charlotte Nolan, and had one son, Robert.  William Newcom died at Dayton from the effects of hardships and exposure during the War of 1812, in which he served as a soldier.  Biographies of other pioneers will be given later on in our history.

            We can easily imagine the loneliness and dreariness of the uninhabited wilderness which confronted the homeless pioneer families as they arrived by water or land at Dayton.  “The unbroken forest was all that welcomed the Thompson party, and the awful stillness of night had no refrain but the howling of the wolf and the wailing of the whippoorwill.”  The spring was late and cold, but though at first the landscape looked bare and desolate, before many days the air was sweet with the blossoms of the wild grape, plum, cherry, and crab-apple, and the woods beautiful with the contrasting red and white of the dogwood and redbud or of elder and wild rose, and the fresh green of young leaves.  The woods were full of wild fruits, flowers, and nut-bearing trees and bushes. 

            As a temporary protection against the weather the pioneers, on their arrival, built, with the lumber of which the pirogue was made, against a log or bank, three-sided huts or shanties, roofed with skin or bark, and open towards the fire, which was made outside.  Then they began at once to fell timber and build log cabins, containing one room and a loft.  After or before the cabin was built, the trees for some distance around were girdled and left to die a slow death, as they interfered with the cultivation of the soil, and also concealed lurking Indians.  Then a few acres were grubbed for a corn and potato patch.

            Isolated from other settlements by miles of unbroken forests, the only road a trail marked by blazed trees or a narrow bridle path, with treacherous Indians and wild beasts prowling through the tangled undergrowth on either side, the inhabitants of frontier places like Dayton were dependent on each other for society and for assistance in sickness and work.  They shared everything.  The latchstring was always out.  Hildreth says of Marietta that the various households in the little community were like the nearly related branches of one family, and probably this was true of the log-cabin hamlet of Dayton.

            As soon as possible after the arrival of the pioneers, the whole of Monument Avenue was cleared of brush and trees.  But with this exception, a few farms, and the wagon-road cut in the middle of Main Street and running south to Franklin, Fort Hamilton, and Cincinnati, the country on both sides of the Miami was for many miles unbroken forest or a thicket of hazel bushes and wild fruit-trees.  Pioneers could, in the summer, step out of their back doors in a boundless wild park or garden.  Delicious perfumes, sweet as attar of roses, - delicate, pungent, aromatic,- and countless flowers, pink, white, purple, scarlet, blue, and blending with every shade of yellow and green, delighted the senses.  To be sure, mud, snakes, stinging insects, thorns, burrs, and poisonous vines detracted from the pleasure of their strolls.  Innumerable garter-snakes were to be seen, and rattlesnakes were often found.

            A hazelnut thicket covered a good deal of the town plat, and is often mentioned in the reminiscences of first settlers.  Dr. Drake, a noted Cincinnatian, writing of Dr. Elliot, an ex-army surgeon and ancestor of some of our prominent Daytonians, says, “In the summer of 1804 I saw him in Dayton, a highly accomplished gentleman in a purple silk coat, which contrasted strangely with the surrounding thickets of brush and high bushes.”  Such elegant raiment, though common in cities, was not often seen in frontier villages.  Benjamin Van Cleve, in his interesting manuscript autobiography, describes himself on June 26, 1794, as dressed in a hunting-frock, breechcloth, and leggings, with a knife eighteen inches long hanging at his side, a gun in one hand, and a tomahawk in the other.  And this costume, in a modified form, was usual.  A coonskin cap was added in winter. 

            John W. Van Cleve, who had seen his native place change from a wilderness to a thriving town, gives this description of Dayton in 1800-1805:  “While the inhabitants all lived on 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 few of the 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 arrived in the suburbs.”  A little later they would have found a log cabin occupied by John Welsh, a substantial farmer, at what is now the southeast corner of Main and Fifth streets, and inquiring of him the distance to Dayton, would have been directed to Newcom’s Tavern, about a quarter of a mile down the road.  Persons still living, and not aged, remember, when driving the cows home from the prairies east of St. Clair and south of First Street- were both pasturage and water from several ponds were abundant,- lingering in the public square (now Cooper Park) to fill their pockets with hazelnuts.  The ponds were filled so long ago that many never heard of them.  This is also true of “the ravine that ran from the head of Mill Street down the present course of the canal to the river below the foot of Ludlow Street, and of another wide ravine that extended form the levee at the head of Jefferson Street across to Cooper Park, connecting with the ravine running south.”  A gully five or six feet deep, beginning at the corner of Wilkinson and First streets, crossing Main at Third Street, and ending at the corner of Fifth and Brown streets, was not wholly filled up till Mr. J. D. Platt built his house on the northwest corner of First and Wilkinson streets.

            In 1798 the home missionary, Rev. John Kobler, visited Dayton, which he describes as a little village of that name, on the bank of the Big Miami, containing a few log houses and eight or ten families.  When threatened with illness, he hastened southward, for “to lie sick at any of the houses in these parts would be choosing death, as it is next to impossible for a well man to get food or sustenance.”  Yet, as is usual in regions where very rich soil is newly cultivated, the pioneers all had ague.  Fortunately, what was chill day to one-half the population was generally well day to the other half.  One Sunday morning, when a little knot of worshipers were assembled, as a pioneer lady used to relate, a tall, bent, gaunt, sallow-faced man, who was enjoying his “well day,” slowly and feebly crept p the aisle.  A little child, after one glance at this walking skeleton, exclaimed in terror, “O mother, is that death?” and buried his head in her lap.  He had taken literally the saying that an invalid “looked like death.”  January 1, 1799, Mr. Kobler preached at Dayton to a mixed company of traders from Detroit, and some Indians, French, and English, from the appropriate text, “In every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.”  He spoke so forcibly that “many of them looked wild and stood aghast, as if they would take to their heels.”

            When in the fall of 1795 pioneers, or their representatives, visited the “mouth of Mad River” to select homes, they drew both town and outlots, and the latter farms some of them cultivated.  They also had, after a time, gardens round their cabins.  “West of Wilkinson Street,” as Curwen, the delightful first historian of Dayton, says, “was a huge corn-field within one common enclosure, where, as in that golden age of the world when men lodged under trees and fed upon acorns, every man was at liberty to till as much of the soil as he chose.”  Further, small prairies between the large enclosure and the cabins served as a common vegetable garden.

            It is a disputed point whether Mary Van Cleve, the sister of Benjamin, or her mother was the first to leap from the boat which conveyed the party of travelers in search of a new home in a new country- the Dayton of a hundred years ago.  Transplanted at the age of nine, she grew up with the village, and spent a long life here.  She was well known by her two marriages as Mrs. Swaynie and Mrs. McClean.  Some of her early experiences were very thrilling.  She had reason to regard Indians with horror.  Her father, John Van Cleve, while cultivating his farm near Cincinnati, was killed in 1791 by a “naked Indian, who sprang upon him, plunged a knife into his heart, took a small scalp off, and ran.”  A party of friends of Mr. Van Cleve pursued him and his band, and Mr. Thompson, afterward Mary Van Cleve’s stepfather, overtook one of the Indians and cut off his hand.  As a consequence, Mr. Thompson incurred the revengeful spite of all the savages, but hoped after his removal to Dayton to be rid of them.  There came a time, however, when this roving band also found their way to the frontier village.  Late one dark summer evening, having filled themselves with fire-water, they surrounded the Thompson and Van Cleve cabin on Monument Avenue, midway between St. Clair and Jefferson streets, and with fierce yells demanded admission.  The family were alone, and realizing their great peril, they took Mary, a brave little girl of twelve, from her bed, hastily dressed her, lifted a part of the puncheon floor, and directed her to watch her opportunity to creep through the small aperture to the ground, above which the cabin was raised a little, and run to Newcom’s Tavern for help.  Every anecdote of this period is in some way connected with our only historical relic.  Her description of her terrified run through the pathless brush and hazel patches, streaming down her cheeks, the noise of the dreadful warwhoops of the Indians in her ears, her flesh and clothes torn with briars, her bare feet splashing through the water, and slipping and stumbling over the mossy stones at the bottom of the gully which then ran from Second Street, by the park, back of the Monument Avenue cabins to Jefferson Street near the river bank, was very graphic.  No wonder that in telling the story she often said, “I ran a mile before I reached Newcom’s Tavern.”  Yet the distance was not quite two of our present squares.  A number of men were at the tavern, wondering what the howling and shrieks they heard from the eastward could mean.  They all returned with her, one of the men carrying her home in his arms.  By their assistance the Indians were routed, and nothing serious resulted from the attack.

            Mary Van Cleve was married in 1804 to John McClean, by whom she had seven children.  Two daughters live in Dayton- Mrs. Sarah J. McC. Swaynie and Mrs. E. S. Dow.  She married, second, in 1826 Robert Swaynie.  They had no children.  Mrs. Swaynie died several years ago. 

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