by John Grabowski, PhD | WRHS Krieger Mueller Historian
On July 4th 1796, on the bank of what is now Conneaut Creek, a group of surveyors led by Moses Cleaveland celebrated Independence Day. Naming the site Port Independence, they fired off a salute, ate a meal of pork and beans, and drank to six patriotic toasts. Eighteen days later they arrived at the mouth of Cuyahoga River, climbing up a hill on the east bank (near what is now St. Clair Avenue) to the heights over the river valley.
The river marked the boundary of that part of the Western Reserve to which Native Americans had ceded their claims in the Greenville Treaty of 1795, and it seemed a likely area to begin the exploration and mapping out of the lands now “available” to settlement. Yet it took several weeks for Moses Cleaveland to decide if the site would serve as the center for the survey party’s work, and what some might call the capital of the Western Reserve. He made that decision in August. It was the best possible choice and considered naming the settlement Cuyahoga, but his colleagues convinced him that it should take his name.
This is a quick and far too easy summary of the founding of Cleveland for it misses the broader impact of the event. When Cleaveland’s surveying crew began to lay out the lines that would define the townships of the Western Reserve, they were imposing a change on the landscape that exceeded anything that had come before.
(Map of English Colonies Bordering on Ohio River 1754)
Moses Cleaveland did not come to an unsettled or unknown land. The area had seen nearly ten thousand years of human habitation, some nomadic and some permanent. The Native Americans who were the first settlers made only minor marks on a landscape that had been shaped by geology and time. They created trails, riverside settlements, and burial mounds. The mounds were already ancient by the time Cleaveland arrived, yet they signified a deeper history than that which some people commonly assume.
Nor was Cleaveland’s survey party the first “European” group to visit the general area. Indeed existing maps and narratives helped lead Cleaveland to the site that would bear his name. French and English trappers had been active in the area – meeting European demands for fur by working with the native population. And, this activity would have an impact on the ecology of the region reducing species beyond their normal, usual “take.” The French and British would also begin to map the area, placing their own lines on the landscape in order to claim ownership, and they would go to battle over the trans-Appalachian west and in doing so involve the natives as allies and combatants. These alliances and new ones would echo in the backcountry beyond the colonies during the American Revolution.
That process was a lead up to what Cleaveland’s surveyors would do. They would set in motion a more detailed survey and division that would forever transform the land – according to some, for the better, and for others, perhaps, for the worse.
Certainly the New England style town commons, now Public Square, that they laid out in their first maps, indicates their desire to recreate a community like those they knew in New England. Yet, it is important to remember that Cleaveland was a member of and working for the Connecticut Land Company, what we would today call a “real estate” investment company. Its interest was in dividing and assessing the land for settlement and profiting by its subsequent sale. Neither Cleaveland nor most of the other investors had any interest in settling in the area. In many ways this process still resonates today when open land or existing structures are developed or re-developed by companies whose primary interest is in profit.
(Early Drawing of Downtown Cleveland by surveyor Seth Pease)
It would take time, but in the short space of two centuries, indeed, in a mere single century, the lines Cleaveland’s survey team drew on the map of Northeastern Ohio (the Connecticut Western Reserve) to make the land logically marketable would provide the basis for the transformation of a landscape that had seemed eternal to its first inhabitants – a landscape that was heavily wooded, with a number of open streams and creeks, and with abundant wildlife. It is a landscape that we simply cannot fathom today, except in some parks and rare corners of northeastern Ohio.
It is a story of a transformation that is well chronicled in the archival collections of the Western Reserve Historical Society in documents that provide valuable insights into the settlement of northeastern Ohio and, in some instances, which also record the thoughts of those who saw the eternal slip away.
Perhaps one of most powerful of these documents is in a very small notebook, in which John M. Holley, a member of the Cleaveland survey team, wrote down the words spoken by Red Jacket, an orator of the Six Nations and a sachem of the Senecas at a council between Cleaveland’s party and Native Americans which took place at Buffalo, New York on June 23, 1796. The meeting was in order to resolve the issue of remaining Native American claims to the Western Reserve.
“You white people make a great parade about religion, you say you have a book of laws and rules which was given you by the Great Spirit, but is this true? Was it written by his own hand and given to you? No, says he, it was written by your own people. They do it to deceive you. Their whole wishes center here (pointing to his pocket), all they want is the money. . . He says white people tell them, they wish to come and live among them as brothers, and learn them agriculture. So they bring on implements of husbandry and presents, tell them good stories, and all appears honest. But when they are gone all appears as a dream. Our land is taken from us, and still we don’t know how to farm it.”
Red Jacket, who had received a peace medal from President Washington in 1792 would gain great fame as an orator. His lifetime (1750-1830) witnessed enormous change: wars, a revolution, and the division and loss of the lands he and his ancestors had known for ages. His words and his story prompt us to think not only about our past, as we celebrate the founding of Cleveland in July, but also about our future and the role we continue to play in altering the natural landscape.