|This Week in American History
April 4 10, 1788
Revolutionary War Vets Establish the First Settlement in the Northwest Territory
A flotilla of small boats, led by a barge called the "Adventure Galley," floated through the fog on the Ohio River early on the morning of April 7, 1788, and stopped when the stockade of Fort Harmar came into view. The frontier fort guarded the confluence of the Muskingum River with the Ohio, and this spot also marked the beginning of the land which the Ohio Company had agreed to purchase from the U.S. government. The settlers who stepped ashore that morning, at the future town of Marietta, were veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families, who were following a plan for the settlement of the Ohio Valley which had been laid out by George Washington.
Serious planning for the settlement of Ohio had begun at the Continental Army's New Windsor Cantonment even before the end of the Revolutionary War. The Continental Congress had promised, on Sept. 20, 1776, that those who enlisted in the Continental Army would receive a bounty of government land on which they could establish a home and farm. Officers and men were also supposed to receive a monetary bonus at the end of the war. But, by 1783, the pay for both officers and men was seriously in arrears, and the Continental Congress had no power to compel the separate states to contribute money to pay the army.
The lack not just of money, but of food, clothing, and supplies was so desperate that some began to talk of mutiny, desertion, or marching on Congress to obtain redress. Many officers and men had been unable to support their families, and had been forced to sell off their land or personal possessions to raise funds. In this situation, General Washington and the cooler heads among his officers proposed that the army take its bonus in the form of land in the Ohio River Valley, and build a major settlement there. Washington had been familiar with the Ohio Country since 1753, when he carried a message to the French forts near Lake Erie, and he had scouted and surveyed it many times since.
Exactly five years before the settlers landed at Marietta, on April 7, 1783, one of Washington's officers at New Windsor, Col. Timothy Pickering, wrote a letter to a friend describing the discussions that were going on in the army: "But a new plan is in contemplation, no less than forming a new state westward of the Ohio. Some of the principal officers of the army are heartily engaged in it. About a week since the matter was set on foot and a plan is digesting for the purpose. Inclosed [sic] is a rough draft of some propositions respecting it, which are generally approved of. They are in the hands of General Huntington and General Putnam for consideration, amendment, and addition.
"It would be too tedious to explain to you in writing all the motives to attempt this measure, and all the advantages which will probably result from it. As soon as the plan is well digested, it is intended to lay it before an assembly of the officers, and to learn the inclination of the soldiers. If it takes, an application will be made to Congress for the grant, and all things depending on them. I shall have much to say to you on this subject."
In the following month, on June 16, a petition signed by 288 officers of the Continental Army was sent to Congress, asking for Ohio Valley land for any officer or soldier who had served for three years. That same day, Gen. Rufus Putnam, who was to lead the settlers to Marietta, wrote to Washington asking him to write to Congress himself to back up the soldiers' petition.
Putnam also proposed that a chain of forts be built on the Scioto River from the Ohio to Lake Erie to guard the prospective settlers against attacks by the British-allied Indians. The Ohio Valley and Great Lakes Indians had been repeatedly encouragedthe British called it "blooding the Indians"to attack America's Western settlements during the Revolution. The continued British military presence at Detroit, Niagara, and Oswego, despite the provisions of the Treaty of Paris which ordered them to withdraw to Canada, was a grim reminder of what might face any settlers in Ohio.
In that same letter to Washington, Putnam also laid out how the army was thinking about the actual settling of the land in Ohio. The soldiers had not fought and defeated the British Empire in order to allow the same oligarchical European land practices to get a foothold in America. "That the petitioners, at least some of them, are much opposed to the monopoly of lands, and wish to guard against large patents being granted to individuals, as in their opinion such a mode is very injurious to a country, and greatly retards its settlement, and whenever such patents are tenanted, it throws too much power into the hands of a few." As time passed, the American pattern of land ownership seemed normal, but to visiting Europeans it was a remarkable change from the hierarchical and still largely feudal system of Europe.
George Washington wrote the next day to the President of the Congress, urging him to support Congressional legislation for the settlement. In closing, Washington wrote: "I will venture to say it is the most rational and practicable scheme which can be adopted by a great proportion of the officers and soldiers of our army, and promises them more happiness than they can expect in any other way. The settlers being in the prime of life, inured to hardship, and taught by experience to accommodate themselves in every situation, going in a considerable body, and under the patronage of government, would enjoy in the first instance advantages in procuring subsistence, and all the necessaries for a comfortable beginning, superior to any common class of emigrants, and quite unknown to those who have heretofore extended themselves beyond the Appalachian Mountains. They may expect, after a little perseverance, competence and independence for themselves, a pleasant retreat in old age, and the fairest prospects for their children."
But Congress delayed acting on the army's petition, partly due to the fact that the new nation still had a Confederation government that was very weak. In April of 1784, Putnam wrote to Washington about the delay, saying that, "From these circumstances and many others which might be mentioned, we are growing quite impatient; and the general inquiry now is, when are we going to the Ohio?" Two years later, there was still no decision on the Ohio Valley lands, but on March 3, 1786, a group of former Continental Army officers met in Boston and founded the Ohio Company of Associates to begin to settle the Northwest Territory. Rufus Putnam was named chairman of the company, and Rev. Manasseh Cutler was named as negotiator with the Continental Congress.
Cutler helped to draft the document which would become the Northwest Ordinance on July 13, 1787. He and the members of the Ohio Company insisted that a clause be inserted which would prohibit slavery in the new territory. By this time, many soldiers had been forced to sell their bonus certificates for less than their value or make financial arrangements that tied them to their present location. As a result, the number of settlers heading for Ohio was much smaller than originally planned, but the soldiers' families still carried out the method of orderly settlement in groups, rather than the older method of single families building a cabin in the wilderness far from their neighbors.
Rufus Putnam, who led the Ohio Company settlement, had first served in the French and Indian War, and had practiced surveying. When the settlers arrived at the site of Marietta (named for the French Queen Marie Antoinette, whose nation had aided the American Revolution) the design for the town, which had been drawn in Massachusetts, was seen to be impractical.
For one thing, the site of Marietta had been, centuries before, a settlement of the Hopewell Indian civilization. There were many tall mounds, some conical, some in the form of snakes, and others like broad temple steps. Putnam redrew the town plan, designing it around the mounds in order to preserve them, and located the town's cemetery around the tall "Comus" mound, the burial site of a Hopewell chief. There, the veterans of the Revolution lie today buried side by side with the Hopewell Indians.
Because the British were still occupying American territory, the settlers built a large wooden fortress, which had apartments for all the families. Mrs. Putnam brought their children, their furniture, and her cello from Massachusetts. After a brief period of calm, the British began to "blood" the Indians and send them against the settlers. The Ohio Company blockhouse 30 miles north of Marietta was wiped out, with all inhabitants killed or captured. But the threat of picking off settlers one by one was the more usual daily occurrence. The Indians would steal a cow and take off its cowbell. Then, when settlers went out to find the cow, the Indians would ring the bell in dense brush and lure the searchers to their deaths.
When the Indian war broke out, the settlers at Marietta sent a memorial to Congress asking for assistance. There had been resistance by some Congressmen to the settling of Ohio, fearing that their states would lose population, and the settlers referred to that opposition as well as to their direct connection to Washington's plan. They wrote that, "It is with pain that we have heard the cruel insinuations of those who were disaffected to the settlement of this country. It is not possible that those men who have pursued into these woods that path to an honorable competence which was pointed out to us by the Commander-in-Chief of American armies, should be doomed to be the victims of a jealous policy, and to see the mangled bodies of their friends exposeda spectacle to prevent immigration."
Finally, in 1796, Gen. Anthony Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers forced the British to withdraw to Canada. President Washington appointed Rufus Putnam as a judge of the Northwest Territory, and on Oct. 1, 1796, he appointed Putnam Surveyor-General of the United States. Putnam served as a delegate to the Ohio Constitutional Convention in 1802, and, by his influence, succeeded in fending off an attempt, supported by President Thomas Jefferson, to make slavery legal in Ohio.
"No colony in America," wrote President Washington in 1790, "was ever settled under such favourable auspices as that which was first commenced at the Muskingum. I know many of the settlers personally, and there never were men better calculated to promote the welfare of such a community."