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Emigrating to the Ohio Country

1798-1800

G. T. Ridlon, Sr.

From The New England Magazine, New Series, Vol. 21, Issue 6,
published by the New England Magazine Co., Feb. 1900, Boston.

     (P. 695) Elder Maurice Witham, said to have been a native or
transient resident of Standish, Cumberland county, Maine, and
sometime chaplain to Congress, was the promoter of a great
uprising in the Saco valley in the years 1798 and 1800, and
became the Moses of the Hard-shell Baptists of that period, who
led the once contented and prosperous inhabitants from their
peaceful homes through the wilderness to the Promised Land
known at the time as the "Virginia Reserve" or Northwestern
Territory, and now in the state of Ohio.
     This man made a journey on horseback to the West in 1797-
98, and purchased or somehow became possessed of a large tract
of land in Little Miami county, now within the corporate limits of
Cincinnati; but for reasons that do not appear, he abandoned this
and secured title to one thousand acres in the present Clermont
county, some ten miles east of Columbus, then in the "Virginia
Reserve", so called. This tract, one of the first to be settled in the
great Northwest, was surveyed in November, 1787; and in 1798
the first settlement was made, headed by Elder Maurice Witham.
     In the autumn of 1798 he returned to the Saco valley as he
went, on horseback, accompanied by a half-breed Indian named
John Whales, (The mother of this John Whales was a
full-blooded squaw, belonging to one of the western tribes, and
John's early years were spent among the Indians. In a moment
of anger he had killed one of the savages, and fled to escape
the vengeance of the tribe. Being hunted by dogs, he eluded
them by taking to the water. While he was secreted on the bank
of the Ohio River, he discovered several of his dusky pursuers
approaching in a canoe and headed directly toward his hiding
place; and as soon as they were within range he sent bullets
through three of them.  Aware that there would never be any
safety for him in the West, and having found the new settlement
and formed the acquaintance of Elder Witham, he procured a
horse and accompanied him to the East. He built a cabin on the
bank of what has since been called "Whales Pond" where he lived
as a "squatter" burning lampblack and stealing his neighbors' sheep,
until he was detected and driven away. He removed to Cornish and
continued his lawless course. He was once discovered in a store in
the night, having removed a shutter, and the owner tried to secure
him, but, seeing the gleam of the long knife with which he was armed,
allowed him to escape. He married a woman of respectability, and
many of his descendants are now living in western Maine, who show
some characteristics of their Indian ancestors.) and brought back
such a glowing account of the rich bottom lands and prairies, of the
salubrious climate and pure water, the beautiful forests and valuable
timber, plantiful game and mineral resources, that he induced two or
three families to dispose of their farms and stock and, the following
spring, to follow his "star of destiny" westward.
     According to a description given the writer by one who
remembered the event, Elder Witham might have been (p. 696)
seen dressed in a well worn suit of black, under a broad-brimmed
hat, on an old "heaving" yellow mare, riding from neighborhood
to neighborhood up and down the Saco valley in Newbury-
Narragansett (now Buxton) and Little Falls Plantation (now
Hollis), halting here and there, surrounded by groups of sturdy
yeomen, while he enlarged, in vivid description, upon what he
had seen in the great West. He told of corn, growing from soil as
black as gunpowder and of unknown depth, higher than the tallest
of men; of natural grasses for pasturage growing on broad
blossoming prairies, upon which cattle became for for the
shambles in a few weeks; of inexhaustible fountains of purest
water, which he predicted would prove to be an elixir of life; of
tall chestnuts from which rails could be split as true as a line by
an axe stroke; of cedars from which shingles and clapboards
could be made that would never decay: of unfailing streams that
could be utilized for water powers and prove a source of wealth
to such as had a predisposition to engage in the lumber trade.
Mohawk potatoes would grow, he affirmed, as large as Caleb
Kimball's foot which had long been the unit of measurement for
large solid bodies in the Saco valley; and by this allusion to a
familiar object he enabled his hearers to form a ready estimate of
the size of the tubers. Was he not a minister of the gospel, this
Elder Maurice Witham, and, consequently, a man of truth?
     The fact was, he was a man of superior intelligence, eloquence
of language, and speculative temperament, who could preach the
doctrine of predestination with power, and successfully embark in
business ventures, as a "side line", at the same time. He believed
that the saints should inherit the earth, had no doubt about his
being one of the elect, and wished to secure his share of the best
land before the available territory was absorbed. He was a Hard-
shell Baptist of the ultra stamp, a rigid close communionist, who
wished to establish a colony where he could live without any
interference from the other sects. As we survey the movement in
retrospect, aided by the testimony of excellent characters, both in
the East and West, who were personally acquainted with Maurice
Witham, some of whom followed him from New England to
Ohio, it appears that he had cherished the hope that, when settled
down upon his claim in the West, surrounded by a cluster of
families isolated from other communities and free from any
denominational intrusion, he could build up a little theological
kingdom of his own, all of one stripe.
     The inception and execution of his plans, so far as they were
executed, was no haphazard thing, but a well arranged scheme,
which bid fair to materialize in organized form. Evidence of this
was found in the manner of surveying, allotment and disposition
of his lands among those who followed him to the West. Here he
exhibited his ingenuity and forethought.  All lots assigned to
settlers radiated from a common centre, and extended backward
for half a mile, like the openings between wheel spokes. A
suitable plot was reserved at the hub for a church, school. burial
ground, blacksmith's shop and stores. Each owner was required
to erect his homestead upon the narrow end of his land; and thus
they formed a compact hamlet in neighborly association.
     In the autumn of 1799 Elder Witham returned to New England
the second and last time, for the purpose of moving his own
family, and of inducing other families to follow him to the West.
Having waited for those who had first emigrated to gather a
harvest from the new lands, like the faithful spies from the land
that "flowed with milk and honey", he brought of the fruits of the
new country  "the grapes of Eschol" in his saddlebags to prove
the truthfulness of his statements when on his first (p. 697)
homeward journey.  There were potatoes surely of enormous size,
but not as large as Caleb Kimball's foot; there were ears of corn
of tremendous length, but not as long as common flail swingles;
and there was a braid of grass wound about the neck of his mare,
of luxuriant growth, but not as tall as giants.  With these
specimens he rode through the Saco valley settlements and
exhibited them to the wondering inhabitants.  As further proof of
the fertility of the soil, he brought letters from the families who
had first removed to his lands for their kindred in the East. These
epistles, one of which I have seen, were as high colored in
descriptive phrase as the meagre education of the writers would
admit. In one, it was stated that the potatoes grew so large that
while the writer was using his pen, his brother was sitting on one
end of the Mohawk, or Shenango, eating potato and butter, at the
same time that the other end was roasting in the embers at the
fireplace. Another wrote that the corn grew to such enormous size
that the kernels had to be cracked with a sledge-hammer before
they could be ground between millstones. This was hyperbole
with a vengeance. - of which there was very much in those old
days when New England began to go into the West. They also
wrote of mild winters, long, temperate summers, a climate
salubrious and delightful.
     Such letters, written by the pioneers on the "Virginia
Reservation", contained the bacteria of an early western fever that
spread through the Saco valley until many families became
hopelessly infected. The excitement became so contagious that
the industrious farmers, whose domestic necessities required their
attention at home, neglected their daily work and assembled in
groups of dozens to mature plans for selling out and removing to
the West. As a result of this early craze, those who owned good
lands and comfortable buildings, whose expanding fields and
pastures were ornamented with abundant crops and decked with
goodly herds and flocks, who, having passed through the
preliminary struggles of cutting away the forest and subduing the
soil, were just entering upon an era of agricultural prosperity,
were so swept away from a coll estimate of the sacrifice they
were making, that they sold their farms and stock in haste at
ruinous prices, pulled up stakes, turned their backs upon their
native region and kindred and anticipated the advice of Horace
Greeley to go West.
     Many of these farmers expended nearly every dollar they had
received for their land and stock for large horses, wagons and
harnesses, and in other preparations for their journey.  All the
cordwainers in the Saco valley were called into commission to
cut up all the sides of leather in the tan pits of Ben Burnham and
Dan Hopkinson, and make harnesses for the big horses, while
wheelwrights and joiners were hewing, sawing and slashing to
build the great lumbering wagons of capacity sufficient to
accommodate the families and household gear to be transported
toward the setting sun.
     It was indeed a sad hour when the time of parting came; and as
we look backward and try to appreciate the whole transaction and
all that this westward movement involved, we can hardly
understand the strength of the motive that was sufficient to impel
a family connection living together in a peaceful neighborhood to
turn away to untried scenes and circumstances; and we naturally
ask whether they were possessed of the finer sensibilities of
kindred attachment and filial affection, thus voluntarily to isolate
themselves from so many associations that should have bound
them to the homes of their childhood.  The settlements where
they had lived on the Saco were nearly all made up of their own
relations, and they had become masters of the means of securing a
livelihood. On their estates there was an abundance of valuable
timber that could be turned into ready money and (p. 698) family
supplies; and there was no necessity behind to stimulate their
removal. The war of the Revolution was over; they had secured
valid titles to their land, had built commodious farm buildings,
were provided with schools, with mills for sawing lumber and
grinding corn, and their harvests were ample to supply them with
wholesome food. I was satisfied when visiting the West and
conversing with old men who, having been among those who
removed in 1800, were able to give me accurate information, that
much was sacrificed and nothing gained by this precipitate
exodus. It is true that the new lands were all that could be desired
for a new colony; and so were those they abandoned in the East.
Many who followed Elder Witham were united in amity with
those left behind and carried away with them much that had made
life enjoyable in their old neighborhood; and they left behind
them the remnants of broken families and the bleeding hearts of
those who loved them; and they knew the separation would be
final, so far as this world was concerned.
     From the lips of two venerable men, one in the Saco valley
and his cousin in southern Illinois, at whose prairie home I was
visiting twenty years ago, I wrote down some reminiscences of
the parting scenes and the journey, as the two remembered them.
It was, they said, a balmy morning in "flax-bloom time", when
those composing the emigrating party took leave of their friends
and kindred and turned their faces away from their childhood
homes. On the evening previous, fathers and mothers had
gathered their children around them and knelt for the last time at
their hearthstones to pray. Mothers went from room to room to
take a last look at the homely walls and ceilings hallowed by toil
and domestic peace. Fathers strolled once more over the acres
they had cleared and brought to fertility. With quivering lips these
heard the familiar click of the door latch for the last time. Then
they turned away and went to pass the night with their aged
parents down the river. Before daybreak all was bustle with the
final preparations for the journey. Old, white-haired men sat at
their chimney-sides with bowed he adds brushing away the tears
that trickled down the furrows of their cheeks. Venerable
mothers, who had spent their stregnth in childbirth and the
bringing up of their children, were now, with many a sigh,
assisting them to depart. Brothers and sisters had journeyed from
the back towns to say farewell to those who had been nursed on
the same maternal bosom and rocked to sleep in the same cradle.
More distant relatives, indeed every family in the community, had
assembled to see the west-bound train depart.
     When the great wagons had been loaded, and the horses
brought from the barns and hitched up, Elder Ebenezer Lewis,
widely known as "Uncle Eben" in the Saco settlements, called the
families together and delivered a brief and practical address, in
which he admonished all to remember the counsel of their early
years and the God of their fathers; then he knelt upon the green
turf-the very spot has been pointed out to me-and in a most
solemn and pathetic prayer commended the whole company to an
all-merciful and covenant-keeping Providence. Afterwards, amid
falling tears, the fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters,
neighbors and friends, fondly embraced each other. One by one
the children were handed up to the great covered wagons.
"Farewell, Abram" said a patriarchal father with faltering voice,
as he stood with uncovered head, his snowy locks tossing in the
breeze. "Good by, Patience", sobbed a poor old wrinkled mother,
as she held the hand and looked into the face of her first born for
the last time. "Good by, grandpa and grandma", cried a quartet of
little voices from the wagon. Then crack went the great leathern
whips, (p. 699) and one by one the slow, heavy-laden teams
moved away down the bank of the Saco.
     Long and sadly did those gathered about the dooryard stand
and watch the departing teams. Not a word was spoken, for every
heart was full.  When the last white covering of the wagons
disappeared below the hill, these neighbors silently separated and
pensively went their way. Back to their hearthstones, where they
had reared their children, went the aged parents, and sat down
forlorn. A cloud, dark and heavy, had gathered over the old home,
and they sighed: "O Abram, O Patience, how can we give thee
up!" "O Maurice Witham, ye have bereaved us of our children.
Would we had died for them!"
     This is no fancy picture, but the cold attempt to delineate what
actually took place, as related substantially by those who were
eyewitnesses of the sad even t when their young minds were
impressionable and their memories retentive. Nor does the
account apply simply to one family, to the separation of one
kindred band: it applies to many.
     There were twenty families in the train when all had come
together, and those who moved down the Saco River from the
plantations of Little Ossipee and Little Falls were witnesses of
what transpired at other homes as the caravan was augmented on
the road. At Salmon Falls, the rallying point for all, the saintly
Parson Coffin, of precious memory, had come down to bid adieu
to those families baptized and united in marriage by him. While
the long train of white-covered wagons was drawn up in the
highway, he called together those who lived in that vicinity, many
of them members of the church founded by him in the wilderness,
and reverently prayed with them. That was a memorable day in
the Saco River settlements, of which much was afterwards told
around the firesides in the years that succeeded. Many heart
woulnds were made that never healed: many an old mother's
tears fell upon her knitting work; and many a father brushed from
his cheek, fissured by the plough of Time, the dews distilled by
an aching heart, as they remembered those who were torn from
their arms on that sad morning.
     Cooking utensils, such as were used at the time, were carried
in each wagon; and when night came on, the train was formed
into a circle, the horses were tethered to hubs driven into the
ground, and watched in turns by their owners, while the women
were preparing food for the supper. Seeing their fires, the people
living in the neighborhood of the emigrant camp came out to see
them and often brought refreshments for them. Jovial seasons
were enjoyed around those evening camp fires. One of the young
men, with musical inclinations, had taken his fiddle along to
beguile the hours of their loneliness; and in spite of Elder
Witham's remonstrances, the young men and maidens whiled
away an evening with dancing and merrymaking. These social
pastimes were often participated in by the youth who came to the
emigrant encampment from the homes along their route.
     I was also informed that a pleasant incident of a romantic
character occurred on the journey. The horses wore wooden
hames without collars or padding, and when the train reached
Pennsylvania the poor creatures were so badly chafed that it was
necessary to halt for two weeks while the sore shoulders healed.
Being in a Dutch settlement, the men of the emigrating company
engaged in threshing grain with flails, and their wives in spinning
flax, for the kind families whose hospitality they shared, to pay
their keeping.  It was while they thus tarried that a young
Dutchman became passionately enamored of a beautiful daughter
of one of the Saco valley families, and as she reciprocated his
affections they were loath to part. After a delay of sixteen days,
some of the horses were still too (p. 700) sore to be harnessed,
and these were exchanged for sound ones, with the Dutch
farmers. "My father", said my old informant, "traded one of hit
big horses for a tight-bitted mare, and found afterwards that she
would bite like a sarpint, and kick like a mu-el." As the emigrants
resumed their journey, there was a touching scene when the
young Hans took leave of the damsel who had so struck his fancy.
The sequel proved that some rather sacred promises were made
by the two before they separated; for so powerful was the
feminine magnet, that on the second day after leaving the Dutch
settlement the young man joined the emigrants and journeyed
with them to their destination. This accounts for the wedding in
the colony of New England families between Hans Frelinghusen
and Pattie Woodman, the first there united in wedlock by the
founder of the settlement, Elder Witham; and a record of his
contract should be preserved in Clermont county, Ohio, until this
day.
     The women, from the day the families had decided to
emigrate, had employed every spare moment in spinning woollen
yarn, and were busy with their knitting work while on their
journey, in the wagons and arjound the fires when encamped; and
many a little foot was kept warm during the following winter with
stockings their mothers had knitted while on the way to 'Hio.
     I asked my old friend one evening, while sitting on his porch
at Webb's Prairie, whether Elder Witham himself took any of the
"Oh, be joyful" while on the trip. He answered "Sartinly!
Sartinly! Why, everybody took the ardent when they could get it
in them days. I remember him well. He would swallow a little
and then snap his eyes and smack his lips smartly, as if he took
kindly to it."
     There were some lively encounters on the road. When they
reached a broad highway, they raced horses "ontil the waggins
rumbled like an airthquaker, and the dust rose like a heavy
cloud."  "My soul! How the pots and kittles rattled!" said Uncle
Sam as he threw his head back and laughed. "Speaking of
dancing," he said, "I could tell you that my mother was an all-
killin' powerful dancer, and could tucker down any man who
dared to take the floor agin her."
     Elder Witham constantly rode in advance, on his yellow mare,
and guided the long winding caravan slowly westward. He had
covered the trail as many as four times, and was familiar with
every inch of the track.  When he said, "Advance," the train
moved forward; when he rode back and said, "Halt," they went
into camp. There were no hosts led on behind by Pharaoh, no
rumblings of chariot wheels to fear, and they took their time.
     When they reached the Alleghany Mountains, the ascent was
so steep that the emigrants found it necessary to double up their
teams and draw the heavy wagons up by stages, one at a time; and
men walked behind with billets of wood to trig the wheels when
they allowed the horses to stop and rest. In descending, long
withes were twisted into the hoops of their wagon covers, and
these, held by men who walked on the upper side of the uneven
road, prevented the wagons from capsizing. When going down a
very steep hillside, a young horse on which one of the lads was
riding stepped upon a loose stone, stumbled and fell, throwing the
rider upon a ledge and breaking his arm. The teams could not be
stopped, and the lad was put into one of the wagons, where he
suffered excruciating pain until the foothills were reached; then
they laid him upon a quilt at the roadside and his fractured limb
was bound up between two rough "splints" cut from a cedar
sapling for the purpose; then he mounted the colt again, but
suffered terribly from the jolting motion over the flinty road.
     At Redstone Creek a halt was called, and the whole company
waited until great timber flatboats were constructed (p. 701) upon
which to transport the families, horses, wagons and gear down to
the place of landing. Here a stranger fell in with them, who said
he was on his way to the Northwestern Territory to prospect for
land. As he appeared to be honest, and his objective point was the
same, he was permitted to take a pair of the horses down the river
by land. This would reduce the cargo and help the traveler on his
way.
     The passage down the river was uneventful. Frightful stories
had been heard about hostile Indians skulking along the shores to
waylay emigrants; and as a precaution the flatboats were
anchored every night some distance from the banks, where they
remained, guarded by armed sentinels. The arrival of the settlers
had been anticipated, and at the landing place the party was
greeted with acclamations of joy by their kindred, who had
followed Elder Witham to the settlement a year before.
     The stranger did not appear with the horses as promised, and
after waiting for several days, the owner went back in search of
them. One was found where it had been turned out to care for
itself; but, being too poor and weak to drive, it was exchanged for
a two-year-old heifer and a note of hand, which was never paid.
The other horse, a valuable one, was never found, nor was the
adventurer to whom it had been intrusted ever afterwards heard
of.
     "How long were you on the journey?" I asked my old friend.
     "We left Saco valley at flax-bloom time, and reached our
destination and roast-ear time," was his prompt reply. They were
on the road, including the two weeks in the Dutch settlement,
about three months.
     Some of the families were permitted to spend their first winter
in the cabins of their kindred who had preceded them; others
made haste to cut down trees for log houses, and in a few days
were sheltered from the storms under a bark roof and living upon
a ground floor. The family of which "Uncle Sam" was a member
passed their second winter in a rude hut of puncheons roofed with
great squares of chestnut bark. There was but one small room,
one door, and no window. A store of meal and potatoes was laid
in; but all the meat the family had was brought to them by two
Dutch hunters, named Van Eaton, who came occasionally to tarry
for a night. These provided some fore quarters of venison and
wild turkeys to pay for lodgings, which were very acceptable. In
this cabin a family consisting of the parents and four children
were sheltered; and a fifth child was born there during the winter.
Meanwhile the father and his eldest sons were splitting rails for
Elder Witham, to pay for their land. There was none ill, they were
contented, and "came out as fat as woodchucks in the spring."
    "Nothing to do but build a log meeting-house as soon as we got
fairly landed," said my old friend. It was a sanctuary in the
wilderness, a small, rude building, twenty by thirty feet, laid up
with rough logs and warmed in cold weather by a stone-cobbled
fireplace. When their first winter in the West had passed, the men
united in building houses for those who had lived in the cabins of
their kindred; and then the settlement, named "Witham's
Settlement", began to assume some resemblance to a village.
Strong arms, nerved by resolute wills, hewed down the forest, and
domestic peace prevailed.
     On Sabbath mornings the families assembled within their
"parish church" and sat on timber seats to hear Elder Witham
preach; and the year after their arrival a powerful revival was
experienced and many were baptized and gathered into a church.
     And here for seven or eight years this Moses, who had led his
people through the wilderness between New England and the
great Northwestern Territory, held sway as ecclesiastical head.
Thus far his plans had materialized, (p. 702) and he could "sit
under his own vine and fig tree with none to molest or make him
afraid." But ambition often hurls headlong those who become her
votaries. Elder Witham was not satisfied with his achievement,
and expanded his plans. His ideals of a colony on church-
extension lines were broad and high. He must have more land.
Mounting his mare, he left his brethren and sisters and his family
to go East and purchase more territory. Whether Washington or
Chillicothe was his objective point we do not know; but he died
in a tavern in the latter town, and before his son could reach the
place had been buried. As in the case of the earlier Moses, the
place of his grave is not known unto this day.
     Thus ended the earthly carreer of the speculative preacher,
colonizer and founder of the village which today bears the name
of Withamsville. His horse was found and brought back to his
home; but the money supposed to have been on his person was
not recovered. Few particulars concerning his last hours could be
obtained, and many believed he had been foully dealt with.
     Had he survived and secured another concession of land
adjoining his original purchase, there is no reason for doubting
that he would have made another journey to New England with
strings of stories about the land that flowed with deer and wild
turkeys, drumming up recruits to enlarge his colony and church
membership.-an undertaking that would have caused the
abandonment of twenty more hearthstones and deep wells, like
those I know in the Saco valley, that mark the desolation which
followed the emigration to Ohio, one hundred years ago.
      Around the old log meeting-house in Withamsville a burying
ground was laid out, and some of the early dead were interred
there, as proved by bones that have been unearthed. This spot was
used for this purpose but a short time, and no stones were set to
mark the graves. Another lot was laid out, which is now enclosed
in the public cemetery, where many of the fathers of the hamlet
sleep, and where may be seen to-day the old sunken slate
headstones that bear the familiar names of our old Saco valley
families. Here stands the chaste monument erected at the grave of
Hannah Bragdon Witham, widow of Elder Maurice Witham,
bearing the dated 1750-1818. Many of these old graves are not
marked by an inscribed monuments: but there stand two on which
the names of Gibbens Bradbury and Abigail Bradbury are still
distinct. In this ground the members of well known Saco valley
families named Bennett, Bragdon, Bradbury, Elden, Edgecomb,
Haines, Holms. Lane, Ridlan, Rounds, Palmer, Townsend and
others rest in unmarked graves. Some of the descendants still
linger in the vicinity; the Withams are numerous and the lanes not
a few. But the most have removed farther west and are scattered
over the prairie farms and through the cities and towns of many
new states. Grandsons of Abraham Townsend, who followed
Elder Witham to the West in 1798, were living not many miles
from Cincinnati, on "Townsend's Hill". Twenty years ago.  Elder
Witham divided a large tract of land among his eleven children,
giving to each of his four sons a hundred and fifty acres, and to
his seven daughters each a hundred acres.


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