Contributed by John J. Grabowski, Ph.D., Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications.
It’s relatively easy to find a good definition of the Western Reserve on various websites (including that of the Western Reserve Historical Society) that detail its origins. Suffice it to say that the Western Reserve is that area of Northeast Ohio comprised of those trans-Appalachian colonial claims that the State of Connecticut “reserved” for itself upon the creation of the United States. Other former colonies ceded land claims in the west at that time, but Connecticut retained about 3.3 million acres stretching 120 miles westward from the Pennsylvania border. If you need a quick detailed overview, read this. But, there is much more to the story of the Reserve other than the legalities of creating “new Connecticut.”
The Western Reserve was, and arguably, still is a “place apart” in Ohio. Given its Connecticut origins, many of its original settlers were from that state or from other states including New York, New Hampshire and Vermont. When they came, they built upon a landscape that had been inhabited for nearly 10,000 years by Native Americans. That original landscape was defined by rivers and trails and not by the logic of the surveyors’ lines that Moses Cleaveland and his party impressed upon the land. Those trails still exist – for example, travel the first segment of the new Opportunity Corridor out of University Circle and you, in part, are following a Native American path that early settlers used to travel from what became Doan’s Corners to the township of Newburgh.
Those early settlers, however, brought a mindset and culture to the area that stood apart from, for example, southern Ohio. It is physically evident in the numerous town squares in the Reserve, including Public Square in Cleveland. In essence the settlers replicated the New England town square where one would find the church (usually Congregationalist or Presbyterian), the meeting hall or courthouse, and numerous small businesses (for a view of a town square that echoes that distant past, drive east on Route 87 and explore Mesopotamia). Their religious beliefs also echoed those of the early settlements in New England and which for a number of early settlers set them firmly against slavery. That is why Cleveland and Oberlin became major stations on the Underground Railroad. But, it is important to remember that opposing slavery did not mean that all or many of that mindset envisioned full equality between Black and white. But compared to southern Ohio, the Reserve was a place apart and one that voted wholeheartedly for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and 1864. Much of this story is now told in the Underground Railroad Center in the Cozad-Bates House in University Circle.
It can also be argued that the Protestant tradition of stewardship of a community also set the area apart and, perhaps, provided the foundation for a deep, rich, and ever evolving philanthropic tradition of Cleveland and northeast Ohio. Indeed, it is a tradition that expanded and diversified as Cleveland evolved from what was a small, farm-centered mercantile community, into a multi-ethnic industrial city in the years after the Civil War. The descendants of the early settlers, in large part, embraced and prospered because of this change – but the change itself challenged them. For example, there were questions whether railroad travel was proper on the Sabbath, and there were issues when confronted by new ways of celebrating Christian holidays. When the congregants of a German Evangelical Lutheran Church displayed a Christmas Tree in their sanctuary, some Protestants characterized it as a “heathenish custom, this groveling before the shrubs.” Attitudes toward gambling also remained strong – that is until the state took over the lottery business and, of course today, there’s a casino on the Public Square of Cleveland.
Certainly, northeast Ohio is not “new Connecticut” anymore. It is a combination of many groups – some people estimate that nearly 130 “identities” can be found in northeast Ohio, and the region hosts a global set of religious beliefs. But here one could argue that this transformation occurred because the region has held promise for many people over many years – from the first people, to the early settlers, to those who came to work in a burgeoning industrial economy, and today for those seeking refuge, education, or positions in an evolving “med-ed” metropolis.
One could, of course, argue that the past has been totally eclipsed, but that is wrong for history is a cumulative process. Each change depends upon that which preceded it – Native American trails become roads; stewardship becomes philanthropy; and social justice links to a deep history of reform. However, more Interestingly that cumulative process has, in an economic sense, created a new Western Reserve – that being region we today call Northeastern Ohio