This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on July 4, 1976
Reports of beautiful valley fueled ‘Ohio fever’ back East
BY CARL V. ROBERTS
“The land is very rich, level and well-timbered.
“There are some of the finest meadows that can be. The grass here grows to a great height in the clear field, of which there are a great number. And the bottoms are full of white clover, wild rye and blue grass.
“The land abounds with turkeys, deer, elk and most sorts of game, particularly buffaloes—30 or 40 of which are frequently seen feeding in one meadow.”
Recognize the place? That’s our own Miami Valley, as it was described in 1751 by Christopher Gist, a land prospector who traveled up beyond what is now Piqua.
“BUT WHAT I call the beauty of the country is the many prairies which lie in the neighborhood of the Mad River. These are at once, without labor, proper for plowing or mowing.
“Mad River itself is a natural curiosity, about six poles wide on an average, and very deep, gliding along with utmost rapidity. Its waters are beautifully clear and deep, but confined for the most part within its banks. What can give its current such velocity in the midst of so level a country is a matter of astonishment to all who behold it.”
And that is Dayton, as John Cleves Symmes of New Jersey described it in a letter written in May 1789.
Gist carried the first germ of what came to be known as “Ohio fever,” whose symptoms were a desire to leave the crowded East for the lush Ohio country.
Between the time of Gist’s description and that of Symmes, others came through the two Miami valleys on the business of those days and remembered the land at the mouth of the Mad River.
MUCH OF THAT early traffic was created by Kentuckians on retaliatory expeditions against Indians who had raided into “the dark and bloody ground.” Col. Robert Patterson, who had helped found Lexington, Ky., came through the area on such missions at least three times between 1779 and 1786. On the last trip, says history, “the party remained here a few days, examining the land.”
Almost anyone with military background, whether active at the time or not, joined these punitive expeditions if needed. One of these was Benjamin Stites, also of New Jersey, a former Army major and a surveyor who was on a trading venture to Cincinnati when he joined a party headed this way in the spring of 1787.
His business finished here and in Cincinnati, Stites went back to New Jersey. Whether Stites had read Gist’s description is not recorded, but it is apparent he took his own glowing report back to Symmes, a fighting colonel in the Revolution who, in the summer of 1787, was New Jersey’s representative to Congress.
Congress, anxious to get the West settled, had offered land for sale at 66 2/3 cents an acre, up to 2 million acres to a single buyer.
SYMMES DIDN’T waste time after Stites returned. On Aug. 29 he asked to buy the full 2 million acres, sight unseen, specifying that his tract be that between the two Miami rivers, up from the Ohio river.
Although it was to be a year before he saw the land along the Ohio River and almost two years before he looked over any of that up from the river, he immediately started advertising in the East. The price to settlers was 83 cents an acre. Actually, historians say, he sold some at his buying price, but they add that by buying up certificates of his own indebtedness at a discount, Symmes’ real cost for some of the land could have been as low as 16 cents an acre.
So much for the wheeling and dealing. There were other financial aspects, primary ones. Symmes was to put up $200,000 immediately upon approval of his request and another $200,000 30 days after he filed an external or boundary survey of the tract.
Various circumstances intervened in varying degrees, although considering the times and transportation, other things moved fairly swiftly. Symmes was selling some land along the Ohio.
ONE OF THE strange things about that letter, which was written to Jonathan Dayton over a period of three days—May 18, 19 and 20, 1789, is Symmes’ description of the Mad river. There is no indication other than that in any of his voluminous correspondence that he ever came that far up. Most historians think he never came farther into the country than a point about where the Montgomery –Warren county line is.
As a matter of fact, in that same letter, which ran to about 1,200 words, Symmes told Dayton that he had traveled “about 40 miles up the Big Miami” the previous November. So, his description may have been composed of a combination of what he had seen on that trip and what Stites and others had told him.
In any event, on the return to Symmes’ camp on the Ohio river that November, another member of his party is said to have declared that the land they had seen “is worth a silver dollar an acre.”
It is unlikely that Stites was asked to pay that much, although he was strongly enamored of “the land at the mouth of the Mad River.” On June 13, 1789, before Symmes headed back to New Jersey, Stites entered into a contract with him to buy “the entire seventh range of townships”—probably on the order of 30,000 acres—specifically including the site of Dayton which he proposed to call “Venice.”
WE HAVE TO backtrack almost a year at this point, to the time before Symmes left New Jersey for his trip to Ohio.
By June 1788, almost a year after he had “purchased” his 2 million acres, Symmes had deposited with the Treasury board considerably less than the required $200,000 down payment--$83,333.33 1/3, to be exact. That was in cash, soldier’s land warrants (given them on discharge) and all forms of security.
The board was pushing him for payment, so he asked that his contract be changed to 1 million acres—up from the Ohio river between the two Miamis. The board came back, referring to Symmes “relinquishing his pretensions to a contract,” but offered to deal with him for 1 million acres in a strip 20 miles wide measured east from the Great Miami river.
SYMMES, AN ARMYofficer and congressman, and later a New Jersey Supreme Court justice, was 46 years old at this time. He appears to have been as optimistic and willful as he was courageous and energetic. There is no question that he started selling land before he paid the full amount required by the government and before he had completed a survey to show what land was to be his. But some historians say that Symmes considered that the lack of a survey was the Indians’ fault, not his, and that he genuinely felt that despite the down payment shortage, he had sufficiently discharged his obligation as to the progress of the contract in other, unspecified respects.
At any rate, with the whole deal still up in the air, he left New Jersey in July 1788, traveling with a large party by horse and wagon, to inspect his Ohio country. He left it up to “Capt. Dayton and other New Jersey delegates” among his estimated 23 partners to ward off government interference.
Jonathan Dayton was a good man to leave in charge. He was only 28 years old at that time, but his war record had won him a promotion to general, he was then helping write the Constitution and he was a man of action. When the incensed Treasury board threatened to use the military to keep Symmes from occupying “his land,” Dayton sent a courier to intercept Symmes and get a power of attorney.
DAYTON AND HIS allies were successful in holding off the board, but they did have to sign the 20-mile-wide strip contract.
Israel Ludlow, who had succeeded Stites as surveyor, probably about the time the latter went into real estate, encountered the same problems his predecessor had—bad weather and inhospitable Indians. By 1792 he still hadn’t got the job done and early that year, after another discouraging trip, he asked Gen. James Wilkinson, then at Fort Washington (Cincinnati) for a military escort. He was turned down.
Finally, starting out that November, he was able to complete the external survey on July 10, 1793. It was filed with the Treasury board on Jan. 10, 1794—more than six years after Symmes made his first purchase contract. And it showed that there were only 543,950 acres in the tract as originally specified.
DAYTON WHO had become a congressman in 1791, continued to plead Symmes’ case and on Sept. 30, 1794 it was settled. Symmes got land equal to the amount he had deposited with the Treasury board. This came to 311,682 acres, extending from the Ohio to two miles north of Lebanon, but with his original boundaries, between the two Miamis, thanks to Dayton’s efforts with congress.
That left out Symmes’ beautifully clear Mad river and the town of Venice he had sold to Stites, or contracted to sell to Stites. Or did it?
The finalization of Symmes’ property lines did not prohibit him from buying more land and selling it, and custom up to that time hadn’t stopped the selling of land before it was bought.
There appears to be no indication that Stites ever paid for his 30,000 acres at the confluence of the Great Miami and Mad rivers and, on Aug. 20, 1795, Symmes, now one the three judges of the Northwest Territory, sold the land again, along with an adjoining 30,000 acres.
CONTRACTING TO buy the two full ranges were Gen. Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory: Dayton, now speaker of the House, Wilkinson and Ludlow.
History is not clear, and it is probable that none of the 23 partners were, for that matter, as to why Dayton, as one of the 23, had to buy part of the Symmes’ land as a member of a new partnership. But there is no mystery about the reasons for wanting the land.
It had been touted for almost a quarter of a century as some of the finest in the West.
THE NEW KEY, however, was that on Aug. 3, 1795—just 17 days before the sale contract—the Indians and the white men had signed the Treaty of Greene Ville.
With peace in Ohio would come a stream of dissatisfied easterners over those mountains and a land boom.
Ludlow, the only one of the combine in the territory and the only one well acquainted with the land here, assumed the responsibility for laying out the town—now to be called Dayton—and hired 22-year-old Daniel C. Cooper to survey the plat.
Cooper lost no time. He came here in September, got the job done and laid out a crude road to Cincinnati on the way back.
The financial situation continued confusing. There is no evidence that Symmes ever made any substantial payment on the land here on that second round and with government auctions pushing prices up to $2 an acre, the Dayton-St. Clair-Wilkinson-Ludlow partnership eventually defaulted on their contract.
BEFORE THAT,however, Dayton had been settled—in the spring of 1796—and eventually young Cooper, who had come here as agent of the proprietors that fall, took over as proprietor of the town. He subsequently replatted it according to his own tastes.
Historians say, and Judge Symmes’ own letters seem to indicate, that while making a fortune from the land may have been in Symmes’ mind at the outset, perhaps even the principal motivation, his interest wasn’t confined to that after he had seen the country. He came to love it and believe in it as a major element in the nation’s future.
It is certain, in any event, that he didn’t make a fortune. He died in poverty on Feb. 26, 1814. Lawsuits, many of them over land he had sold while he believed the tract contained 1 million acres, left him penniless.
Many of those who had paid Symmes and others for land they didn’t have to sell were rescued by acts of Congress, saving them from having to pay twice or lose it.