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History in the Hills: Local American heroes

I owe a lot to my parents. The love of the past and history they instilled in me has been far reaching, not only in my interests, but in my career.

In pursuing that career, I met my lovely wife, Abigail, in the public history program at Duquesne University and now we have been blessed with four beautiful children.

Our yearly trips to Williamsburg in Virginia were a blessing to me at a young age and impacted me tremendously.

Even with my children today, we still make an effort to spend a little vacation there most years. Upon returning from our family trips I would be inspired. How I wished that that history was closer to me. Places where the titans of American history lived and worked were fascinating. To my young mind, growing up in a steel town, seemingly detached from all that early American history, fell flat for me.

As I read and researched about our local area, though, I realized that while those great American heroes did not live or work here, we had our own local heroes who played important roles in the history of our area.

Our area in the 18th century was very much wilderness. Settlements grew up in this area toward the end of that century. Travelers going down the river increased with the passing decades. The West Virginia side, then Virginia, of the Ohio River had obviously earlier settlements, and on the Ohio side, at least officially, land was not opened to settlement. That would all soon change after the American Revolution and eventually the passage of the Land Ordinance of 1785.

Long story short, the land ordinance set up rules of the survey and sale of government land in the Northwest Territory — land encompassing Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota. The United States at that time was still under the rule of the Articles of Confederation and did not have the power to tax. Thus, a revenue resulting in the sale of land was a solution to the problem.

To get the ball rolling, surveyors were sent out in 1785 to begin the task at hand. Fearful of possible attack from Native Americans, this group soon returned to Fort Pitt.

A second group was sent in 1786 under the protection of the First American Regiment. Included in the group of surveyors was Winthrop Sargent. Sargent was a Massachusetts native and Revolutionary War veteran, having served at the siege of Boston, and the battles of Long Island, Trenton and Monmouth.

In 1786, Sargent was in the Ohio Country surveying the Northwest Territory. Being a surveyor, perhaps Sargent was more adept to describing land and the like, because in addition to his work surveying the Seven Ranges, he kept a diary of his experiences on the job. Sometimes he included descriptions of the land here in 1786. Describing land just 9 miles north of Wheeling on the Ohio side in July 1786, he wrote, “The lands were level and rich and the herbage most extravagantly luxurious. I met with the Balm of Gilead growing to 5 feet. Ginger with other spicy herbs that gave the whole country an aromatic perfume. The magnitude of the forest trees is superior to anything in America — oaks of 5 feet in diameter, walnut 4, wild cherry 3, hickory very large, and the white wood and sugar tree of the same description. The sycamore grows to more than 10 feet in diameter.”

But the largest tree he discovered was up Wheeling creek.

“I measured a sycamore tree of 33 feet in circumference — it was 80 feet high, hollow with a large opening on one side capable of admitting 2 horsemen abreast.”

The virgin landscape of the Ohio Valley must have been awe inspiring.

After the survey was completed and land was being sold on the federal side, or Ohio side, of the river about 10 years later, James Ross, a senator from Pittsburgh, and Bezaleel Wells purchased land along the river. Some plots were opposite Wellsburg and the other was the area that would encompass downtown Steubenville.

In a letter written by James Ross to Winthrop Sargent, then acting secretary of the Northwest Territory, a position second in command to Gov. Arthur St. Clair in April 1797, he describes the location of the new town: “We have also purchased the bottom which includes Fort Steuben and laid out a town upon the site of the old fort. We are building mills and opening roads into the country at a heavy expense and no money will be spared to perfect a communication if the ground and the course will warrant a belief that this is the proper direction. People are flocking into this new settlement and in the course of this summer the numbers will become very considerable, almost all the lands in the neighborhood of Fort Steuben are sold to people who are preparing to settle.”

It seemed also that St. Clair proposed to James Ross in 1797 that this settlement be the seat of government in this area.

Ross continues, “Govr. St. Clair when I saw him last was anxious to follow this new establishment with the law and a regular administrator of justice. We conversed a great deal on the subject. He desired me to take measures for having a courthouse and jail built in the course of the summer at Fort Steuben and I have accordingly engaged workmen to proceed in the business.”

From the outset, Steubenville and the Ohio Valley were important places in our national story. Although personalities like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson didn’t walk our streets, folks like James Ross, Winthrop Sargent and Arthur St. Clair had a hand in our early history. While they may not be American heroes in the national sense, they are our heroes here at home, and we can be proud of that.

(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)

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