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History Matters: How Moses Warren and the Connecticut Reserve helped pioneer the west

Bridgeport, Cheshire, Clinton, Greenwich, Hartford, Madison, Norwich and New London are villages in the mid-western state of Ohio, as are New Lebanon, New Madison, New Middletown and New Waterford. Cities in that same state also boast names like Milford, Norwalk, Salem, Avon and Franklin.

And how about the Ohio townships of Lyme, Groton, Montville, Salem and Saybrook? Wow! Those names sure do ring a bell, don’t they? Just coincidence? Maybe not. As always, we turn to history for clarity.

We might also examine a bronze statue located in the Ohio city of Cleveland. It depicts a Canterbury, Connecticut, native, Moses Cleaveland, who founded that city in 1796. (*Note the name of the city is spelled differently than its founder. That is because a later newspaper typesetter left out an “a” by accident and that mistake was never corrected, probably because it made the name shorter and less difficult to spell.)

Cleaveland is dressed as a surveyor, holding the tools of his trade in his hands.

Moses Cleaveland had been a general in the American Revolutionary War, a war that ended surprisingly with a victory for the American colonies. With the British gone, those colonies were free to expand their borders westward. As a result, Connecticut’s “western reserve” was born.

Most of Connecticut’s westward claims would eventually be relinquished to the federal government, but an area of more than 3 million acres in northern Ohio would remain in state hands.

This Western Reserve was further subdivided into two sections. A half-million acres were specifically earmarked for those Connecticut residents who had lived along its coast and had suffered war damages at the hands of the British. They would be compensated with new lands and a chance to start over.

That section was anointed the “Fire Lands,” or “Sufferers’ Lands.”

The remaining acreage of the Western Reserve was to be surveyed and divided up into townships to make money for the State of Connecticut. It was sold in 1795 to the “Connecticut Land Company” for $1.2 million, and Moses Cleaveland was appointed their general agent, charged with personally surveying the land and making it available for resale. That would be no small task.

It took 68 days of difficult travel in the spring of 1796 for Gen. Cleaveland and his surveying party of 50 hardy souls to arrive at a spot just south of Lake Erie. That would be the very place where his namesake city would someday rise from the primal forest floor.

Here this group would begin their exhaustive assignment of defining borders and dividing the heavily forested area into five-mile square townships. In his 1949 book, “The Western Reserve,” author Harlan Hatcher recreates the following scene.

“Behind them and on both sides lies the heavy forest, in front of them stretches the wide blue expanse of Lake Erie. (“The group”) fixes their eyes on their chief, the stocky, heavy-set and swarthy Moses Cleaveland who impressed people by looking both like an Indian and a New England divine.

“He is obviously moved by the occasion. The men arrange themselves on the beach, rifles in hand. On command of the general, they raise their guns and break the stillness of the evening with a federal salute of fifteen rounds.”

On the general’s insistence, a 16th shot was added, this one to honor the “New State of Connecticut.”

With the ceremonial volley having been discharged, the group began liberally toasting the occasion with rum the general had provided. Axmen, chainmen, rodmen, boatmen, an astronomer, a physician, a chaplain and, perhaps most important, a band of six experienced surveyors, all raised their cups to the enterprise. Augustus Porter, Seth Pease, Amos Spafford, John Milton Holly, Richard Stoddard and Moses Warren Jr. were all well respected and experienced New England surveyors. Two of them would write of this historic undertaking.

One of them was from the East Society of Lyme (East Lyme before 1839.)

It has been said that of all the characters East Lyme has to be proud of there is no one who surpasses Moses Warren Jr. He was from a prominent family, his father a clothier and distinguished Revolutionary War army officer before him. Moses learned his father’s trade but would acquire many additional skills and accomplish much during his lifetime. He, too, served in the Revolutionary War (but as a teenager) and later went on to be appointed captain of a state militia company. He served his community as first selectman, state senator, state representative, district judge, judge of probate, justice of the peace, tax assessor, and trustee for the Nehantic Indians.

He was greatly respected for his honesty and his work ethic. But it was his meticulous skill as a surveyor and mapmaker that in 1796 landed him deep in the Ohio wilderness.

A copy of “The Dailey Journal of the Honorable Moses Warren Jr.” was given to me by Waterford Town Historian Robert Nye, and reveals much about this famous man but unfortunately stops a few years short of his Ohio experience. What historians do have available are a dozen letters that Warren wrote to his wife, Mehitable, from the Western Reserve in 1796 and 1797. Those, however, fall well short of relevant information as they fail to include the many difficulties and privations the surveying party faced.

It becomes obvious when reading them that important details are being omitted, most likely to avoid worries on the home front. We must, therefore, turn to the journal of a fellow surveyor, young John Milton Holly, for a more accurate accounting.

Holly does not fail to mention a sudden violent storm on Lake Erie that overturned one of the boats with men and supplies lost. He details dealing with Indians who had reputations for earlier brutality and hoping that scalping and other mutilations would not befall his group.

Using Holly’s journal, author Harlan Hatcher summarizes the following.

“The party encountered all the hardships known to men on the frontier except for the blizzards of winter. They fought off clouds of mosquitoes so thick that they looked like the forewarning of an August thunderstorm and so deadly that they actually killed some of the cattle. They tramped, worked, and slept in the rain with no shelter except the branches of a beech tree.

“They waded through creeks and swamps until their shoes burst from their soles and they lost their socks. The hot sun, beating upon them in the open spaces, raised wisps of steam from their backs. They ran out of food and went supperless to sleep on a bed of leaves among the whintleberries after chopping a line ten miles in a single day through the oak timber and hemlock.

“They were tormented by nightmares (they could hear the frightening growls of panthers as they slept on the ground) and racked by cramps from staying their hunger with berries and quenching their thirst with rum where there was no water to be had. They ate broiled rattlesnake when other provisions failed. As the season wore on, they fell ill with dysentery and intermittent fever…but still the (surveying) lines pushed on behind the axemen, the rodmen, the chainmen and the compass man through the uninhabited Reserve… and, for the most part, the morale of the men remained (surprisingly) high.”

Most of the first surveying party returned to Connecticut that first winter but 10 stayed on, barely surviving, an experience that would foreshadow that of many future settlers. General Cleaveland would never return to the Western Reserve. Moses Warren, however, would come back in the spring with a new party of 65 to finish the job.

Getting sightings from the stars and the sun at noon time, clearing land and marking locations…using their Jacob Staffs (predecessor of the tripod) and compasses, laying out their 66-foot Gunter chains and recording everything in field notebooks, the new party dutifully finalized their assignment as the second surveying season wound down.

Many, like Moses Warren Jr. had brought their own equipment with them. It is interesting to note that some of his equipment still survives.

At the East Lyme town hall inside a glass encasement are the saddle bags of this famous surveyor. Also displayed are Warren’s surveying compass, his sighting graphometer that was once attached to the top of a Jacob’s Staff, his Gunter chain and an 1833 book of surveying techniques that had been presented to Moses Warren by its publishers. Notes from Warren’s own hand can be found sprinkled inside the book.

Moses Warren played a prominent role in the heroic effort to map out the Ohio wilderness for future settlement. Many Connecticut pioneers would take advantage of this opportunity to begin life anew on the promising, yet extremely dangerous, western frontier.

Postscript

Certainly, the Ohio that exists today has its own distinct character, but New England architecture, city planning, town greens and squares, its many libraries and colleges that emphasize higher education and many other Yankee characteristics are still plainly on display.

Although Marietta is often considered the most “New Englandy” of all places in the state and a definite destination for any curious Connecticut native seeking a connection, a traveler should not hesitate to drive a couple of hours north and stop by the city of Warren.

Upon arrival, perhaps a tip of the cap to its namesake, Moses Warren Jr., would be in order. Also, a stop at a local tavern might be appropriate as well, with maybe a request for a good well-boiled rattlesnake dinner if such things are still to be found on the modern menu.

Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher in East Lyme who has written two local history books and two historical novels. His columns can also be found in the Post Road Review.

 

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