Sufferers’ Land – Post 8 – Making a New Town on the Frontier

Sufferers’ Land

Making a New Town on the Frontier

by Dave Barton

Platt Benedict moved to the frontier to establish a town. But in order to have a town, he needed people, and convincing people to settle on his land proved not to be easy. His best chance for success would be if Norwalk became the County Seat. The traffic created by the business of government would entice people to settle and start businesses in the town. This was the reason he and Elisha Whittlesey had bought land on the sand ridge. However, for their plans to bear fruit, they had to convince the state legislature to move the County Seat from its location at Avery.

A committee appointed to examine the matter considered several locations: Eldridge, Milan, Gibbs and Lockwood’s Corners, Norwalk, Monroe, a location on the west bank of the Huron River, and Sandusky. After several backroom machinations and a good deal of political intrigue, the committee decided in late spring of 1818 that the County Seat would be in Norwalk. With this problem solved, settlers could be persuaded to buy into the new town, and Platt could get down to business. [1]

That summer, Platt had a frame barn built near his cabin, and contracted to have bricks made for a house he planned to build the next year. Amos Abbott bought a lot in Norwalk and started building a house for a tavern. Unfortunately, he died soon afterwards while on his way back to Norwalk from visiting Connecticut.

As preparations started for the convening of the court in Norwalk, a steady stream of people visited the sand ridge. In August, to meet the needs of these visitors and prepare for the arrival of the settlers he knew were coming, Platt obtained a license to operate a tavern, doing business in his home. [2]

The future looked promising for the Benedict family, and, as is the case with most parents, Platt and Sally began to consider the education of their children.

 

Footnotes:
[1] Description of the difficulties in getting people to settle in Norwalk are described in “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk,” by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, pp. 19-20.
[2] A listing of licenses and permits for taverns and stores, of marriages, of justices sworn and churches incorporated are from “Official Records of the Firelands,” The Firelands Pioneer, March 1860, pp. 21-26.

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Sufferers’ Land – Post 7 – The First Winter

Sufferers’ Land

The First Winter

by Dave Barton

For a few days, provisions were low. Then Platt bought a deer from an Indian for a dollar. Until then, the family subsisted on green corn and turnips from the garden Lewis Keeler had planted for Platt during the summer and milk from two cows they had purchased in Canfield.

Winter SceneWinter would arrive soon, and they needed to obtain enough food to last until spring. However, that took money, which after the expenses of land and travel was in short supply. To make up the shortfall, Platt took a job with a crew cutting a road between Norwalk and Milan. He earned sixty dollars which he used to buy enough pork for the family to make it through the winter. [1]

So far, no one else had settled in what was to become the village of Norwalk. In early November, a man passed the sand ridge on his way to his new home in Peru Township and wrote that the Benedict cabin was the only building there. [2]

Over the previous year, almost all the townships in Huron County had at least a few New Englanders settle in them, and many of the new settlers were acquaintances of Platt and Sally. On Christmas Day, the Benedicts and other Connecticut settlers gathered at John and Ruth Boalt’s house for a “Yankee” Christmas dinner. Although the feast was spare, the settlers had to be thankful. They had survived a long arduous trip, and had established themselves in their new homes. Over the next few years, they would build on this beginning to establish a life similar to what they had in New England.

After Christmas, five to six inches of snow fell and the weather stayed cold for the next six weeks, making for good sleighing. Platt and Sally took advantage of these conditions to visit friends who had also moved from Connecticut to the Firelands. One day they visited nine different families.

During the winter, Platt took many logs to Major David Underhill’s sawmill in Ridgefield Township, dragging them one at a time behind a team of oxen. Occasionally, Sally accompanied him, riding on a log, in order to visit Mary Underhill. [3]

The first winter in their little cabin was hard, but also had its good times. Years later, Sally wrote, many pleasant evenings we spent beside that fireplace, cracking nuts, and eating — not apples — but turnips. You need not laugh, these raw turnips tasted good, when there was nothing else to eat, and as the flames grew brighter, our merry party would forget they were not in their eastern homes, but far away in the wilds of Ohio. [4]

Even with these good times, winter must have seemed long and depressing to Sally. Finally, spring arrived, bringing the promise of better times. Flowers carpeted the ground beneath the bare branches of the surrounding forest. [5]

So far, the results of their move had not been encouraging. No one else had settled on the sand ridge. Without a town, the venture Sally and Platt dreamed of would come to nothing. But with spring, news came that changed their prospects for the better, giving them hope that the future would be as bright as those spring flowers on the floor of the deep woods.

 

 

Footnotes:
[1] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk” by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 18.
[2] Mr. Pearley Sanders account of passing through what is now Norwalk in November 1817 is in The Firelands Pioneer, June, 1858, p. 42.
[3] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk,” The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 18.
[4] Sarah Benedict’s description of early life in Norwalk is from Family, by Ian Frazier, pp.57-58
[5] “Historical Sketches – Townsend,” by Benjamin Benson, The Firelands Pioneer, March, 1860, p. 4.

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Sufferers’ Land – Post 6 – A Home in the Wilderness

Sufferers’ Land

A Home in the Wilderness

by Dave Barton

 

A day or so from their destination, Platt and Sally received bad news. Their cabin had burned down.

Mr. Stewart, whom Platt had hired to clear and fence four acres of land on the flats south of the sand ridge, had gone out of the cabin one morning, leaving a fire to dry his clothes. When he returned at noon for dinner, he found the cabin ablaze. He immediately left the area, not forgetting to take the provisions Platt had bought for him. [1]

The news devastated Platt and Sally. Footsore and weary, soaked and depressed by constant rain, they knew that they would have to get their family under shelter quickly before winter set in. They decided to stop at the home of the Gibbs and Lockwood families, located a mile and a half northeast of their land on the sand ridge; at the corner of what are now East Main Street and Old State Road. At four o’clock, Tuesday afternoon, the ninth of September, they came upon a cleared area in the forest where they found the Gibbs and Lockwood’s cabin and ramshackle barn. [2]

Lockwood Gibbs Cabin

“David Gibbs,” Obituaries: The Firelands Pioneer, New Series, Volume IX, The Firelands Historical Society, 1896, pp. 544

The two families lived in two one-room structures with a common roof and separated by a breezeway, one family in each cabin. David and Elizabeth Gibbs and their family had arrived in Ohio the previous year, accompanied by Elizabeth’s brother Henry Lockwood and his wife Amelia.* The two families had a harder trip than the Benedicts and Keelers and each lost a child on the road. Looking at her own children, Sally must have been thankful that they had all made the trip safely.

John and Ruth Boalt and their eleven children had arrived several weeks previously. Ruth Boalt was the sister of Henry Lockwood and Elizabeth Gibbs. The Boalts were sick with malaria, or ague as the settlers called it. They lay in the Lockwood cabin, burning with fever, Fanny nursing them as best she could. [3]

The travelers crowded into the Gibbs cabin for supper. After eating, the unmarried men went to the barn to sleep and the families settled down in the cabin as best they could. As she lay in a makeshift bed on the floor of the crowded little cabin, Sally must have thought of her home in Connecticut and wished she were back there, safe and warm. During the night, a big storm blew through the clearing, rain and wind rattling the “shakes” that covered the roof of the cabin.

Dawn finally came, and the single men dragged into the cabin, exhausted. The barn had provided scant protection against the storm. Rain came through the roof as if it was a sieve, soaking their beds and making for a miserable and sleepless night.

After breakfast, the men shouldered axes and saws and trudged down the trail along the sand ridge to where the Benedict cabin had burned down. Sally helped Elizabeth take care of the children and prepare dinner for the men. Around noon, the women followed the men’s tracks along the sand ridge with their dinner. They found the work progressing well. Men had come in from the surrounding farms to help. Sally could see that by the end of the day they would finish erecting her new home.

Our Cabin - Historical Collections of Ohio I p 316

Henry Howe, History of Ohio, Vol I; Laning Publishing, Norwalk, OH, 1898; p 316

The log house was only twenty feet square, with no doors, windows or fireplace, but it was good enough to provide shelter. The next day, Platt moved in and Sally cooked breakfast for the men by a log next to the cabin. [4]

Over the next few days, the men continued to improve the cabin, building a fireplace and chimney with clay and sticks, chinking and mudding the cracks and cutting holes in the walls for two doors and two windows. They accomplished all this without a single nail or other ironwork. Platt had brought two sashes for the windows from Connecticut, but had no glass, so they used greased paper instead. They finished five days later, and Sally and the children moved in. Conditions were primitive. There was no furniture and no floor.

Mud spoiled the mattresses Sally had brought from Connecticut, so Platt made two bedsteads, one for him and Sally and the other for their daughters. They were primitive — frames attached to the walls of the cabin and webbed with basswood bark instead of cords. However, according to Platt, they were very comfortable, and after almost two months on the road, Sally probably agreed that they were a welcome relief from sleeping on the ground. [5]

With the Benedict cabin finished, the men moved on to the land John Boalt had purchased from Platt on Old State Highway, south-east of the Benedict’s cabin. They built a double cabin there and the Boalts moved down from the Gibbs and Lockwood homestead as soon as they recovered their health. [6]

Sally and Platt had established a new home on the frontier. Now they had to make it through their first winter.

 

 

Footnotes:
[1] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk,” by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, pp. 17-18.
[2] The description of the arrival at the Gibbs and Lockwood cabin is from “Personal Memoirs” by Seth Jennings, The Firelands Pioneer, March 1860, p. 16.
[3] “Incidents in the Life of Mrs. Elizabeth L. Gibbs,” The Firelands Pioneer, October 1874, pp. 83-84.
[4] The description of the first night at the Gibbs and Lockwood cabin and the raising of the Benedict cabin is from “Personal Memoirs” by Seth Jennings, The Firelands Pioneer, March 1860, p. 16.
[5] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk” by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 18.
[6] “Personal Memoirs” by Seth Jennings, The Firelands Pioneer, p. 17.

* CORRECTION: The original post of this blog in 2009 identified Henry Gibbs wife as Fanny. When checking sources for this post, I found that her name was instead Amelia. Source: “Henry Lockwood,” Obituaries, The Firelands Pioneer, Old Series, Vol VII, June 1866, page 812

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Sufferers’ Land – Post 5 – The Trek West

Sufferers’ Land

The Trek West

by Dave Barton

The Benedicts traveled first to Norwalk, Connecticut, where they were joined by Platt’s cousin Jemima Keeler, her husband Luke, and their nine children. In addition to the Keeler and Benedict families, three single men, Seth Jennings, Burwell Whitlock, and Henry Hurlbut, were in the party, making a total of twenty-two. [1]

They continued on to New York City. On Sunday, July 20, they crossed the Hudson River to Jersey City and started west. Until now, Sally had been in familiar surroundings, having lived in New York City previously. Now, she would venture into unknown territory.

Passing through New Jersey, they crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania at Easton and continued through Harrisburg, Carlisle and Chambersburg. [2]

Emigrating to New ConnecticutHeavy traffic choked the road in both directions. Immigrants crowded westward, many of them destitute from the disastrous summer of 1816. Some persons went in covered wagons — frequently a family consisting of father, mother and eight or nine small children, with perhaps one a babe at the breast — some on foot and some crowded together under the cover with kettles, gridirons, feather beds, crockery and the family Bible, Watts’ Psalms and Hymn Book and Webster’s spelling book. Others started in ox carts and trudged on foot at the rate of ten miles a day. Many of them were in a state of poverty and begged their way as they went. Some of them died before they reached their destination. Broken wagons and discarded belongings littered the sides of the road. [3]

Produce of Ohio came from the west, pork and whiskey bound for eastern markets. Pork traveled on the hoof, herds of hogs fattened on corn. Whiskey was another product of corn — the staple crop of the day in the Old Northwest. In that time before canals and railroads, settlers could not transport commodities such as corn economically. However, corn fed to hogs or distilled into whiskey could. [4]

Long before they reached Chambersburg, Sally and the others were worn out. All day they trudged on, usually making only ten miles. At night, they competed with throngs of other immigrants for space at the miserable sheds called taverns with scenes of mother frying, children crying, fathers swearing. [5]  Sally and Jemima would cook supper while the men took care of the animals. In the morning, they would rise, stiff from the previous day’s travel, and start again.

The trip took a toll on the animals, also, especially the oxen. They were so footsore it took the men a half-hour to get them on their feet in the morning. The hardest part of the journey laid ahead, the trip over the Allegheny Mountains, a road rude, steep and dangerous. They pushed on — ever-climbing — suffering mishaps common for travelers of that time, broken wheels and axles and balky animals.

After what must have seemed an eternity, they crested the Allegany’s and started down the western slope. Near the end of their descent, Seth Jennings, one of the single men, upset the wagon he drove. His personal chest broke open and he lost all his possessions, to include the last of his money. For the rest of the trip, he had to rely on the Benedicts for everything.

The day after this mishap, they finally reached Pittsburgh, where they took a flatboat a short distance downriver to Beaver, and then continued on to enter the Western Reserve at Poland, Ohio, the first settlement by Connecticut pioneers and a long-time entry point into the Western Reserve.

They did not stop in Poland, but continued on to Canfield, where Platt and Sally had relatives and friends, among them Platt’s partner in this venture, Elisha Whittlesey. They rested in Canfield for several days, and then traveled to Hudson, Ohio, where they stayed in the home of Deacon and Mrs. Hudson, who had founded the town in 1799. [6]

Hudson was one of the most prosperous towns in Ohio, and probably the wealthiest in the Western Reserve, with a number of flour and lumber mills. Platt and Sally dreamed of creating a town like this in the Firelands.

Cattle formed the basis of Hudson’s prosperity, supporting the industries of hide tanning, dairy farming and cheese production. [7]  Mrs. Hudson took Sally and the other travelers to her cheese room, where she had over sixty large rounds curing. The Hudson family sold their cheese in Pittsburgh to distributors who sent it on to markets further east. [8]

By this time, the oxen were so footsore they could not continue. Platt traded them for new teams and purchased two cows, so the family would have milk when they arrived at their new home. The party made necessary repairs and prepared for the final push to the Firelands. [9]

They traveled north to Cleveland, at that time a settlement consisting of only a few houses, and then turned west, following a road that paralleled the lakeshore. Now there were no houses, only unbroken wilderness. It began to rain and the party slogged on through the mud. Sally looked forward to the end of their journey and the relative comfort of the cabin Platt had built in the spring.

Bad news would soon dash her hopes. [10]

 

 

Footnotes:
[1] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk,” by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 18, & The Genealogy of the Benedicts in America, by Henry Marvin Benedict, pp. 380-382.
[2] Story of the trip west is from “Personal Memoirs” by Seth Jennings, The Firelands Pioneer, March 1860, p. 16.
[3] Description of the emigration from New England the summer of 1817 is from “Year without Summer”, by Dr. F.E. Weeks in The Firelands Pioneer, April 1925, pp. 416-419.
[4] From The Ohio Frontier, by R. Douglas Hunt, pp. 213-214.
[5] Description of the emigration from New England the summer of 1817 is from “Year without Summer”, by Dr. F.E. Weeks in The Firelands Pioneer, April 1925, pp. 416-419.
[6] The description of the trip west is from “Personal Memoirs” by Seth Jennings, The Firelands Pioneer, March 1860, p. 16.
[7] The story of Hudson, Ohio is from The Ohio Frontier, by R. Douglas Hunt, pp. 203-204.
[8] Description of the Hudson’s cheese room is from “Personal Memoirs” by Seth Jennings, The Firelands Pioneer, March 1860, p. 16.
[9] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk,” by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 18.
[10] The description of the trip west is from “Personal Memoirs” by Seth Jennings, The Firelands Pioneer, March 1860, p. 16.

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Sufferers’ Land – Post 4 – Sally DeForest Benedict

Sufferers’ Land

Return to the Firelands

by Dave Barton

During the five months of Platt’s absence, his wife Sally Benedict saw New England plunge into turmoil because of the previous summer’s cold weather. Many farmers could not even plant a crop that summer. They were desperate for a way out. Stories circulated throughout New England of the “rich soil and mild climate of Ohio.” By the time Platt returned home, many families were preparing to move to the wilderness. Some had already started. The Benedicts would have plenty of company on their journey. [1]

1023264171478om802_001Sally Benedict was thirty-nine years old; she would turn forty on the road to Ohio. Born in Wilton, Connecticut in 1777, Sally was the youngest child of David and Sarah De Forest. Her father was a soldier in the Revolution with the Ninth Regiment of the Connecticut Militia. He took part in the disastrous battles for New York in 1776, the year before Sally was born.

The De Forest family had been in America longer than the Benedicts. Isaac de Forest arrived in New Amsterdam, now New York City, from Holland in 1636, two years before Thomas Benedict arrived in New England. His son, Sally Benedict’s great-grandfather David De Forest, left New Amsterdam in 1694 and settled in Stratford, Connecticut, establishing the Connecticut branch of the family. [2]

Sally could not have remembered much about the Revolution, she was five when it ended. She must have been well educated, better than her husband judging from their writing. A photograph taken of her and Platt later in life shows a face with even, attractive features and a benign expression.

She and Platt were affectionate. In the photograph, Platt sits close, with his arm around her shoulder. They were partners. When describing the settlement of Norwalk, Platt often wrote that “my wife and I decided”, rather than just himself.

Sally and Platt had lived much of their married life in Danbury, but also moved to other towns. Their eldest child Clarissa was born in New Salem, New York in 1796, their third son Jonas was born in Harlem, New York in 1806. [3]

While Platt was in Ohio preparing their new home, Sally got ready for the journey and said goodbye to friends and family. Many people she knew had already departed for the Firelands, or were about to go. In Norwalk, Connecticut, fifty miles to the south of Danbury, Luke and Jemima Keeler were preparing to go to Ohio and join Luke’s brother Lewis Keeler. The Keeler’s planned to travel with the Benedicts.

In early May, Platt returned, weak from bouts with dysentery on the road. However, he and Sally could not afford the luxury of waiting for him to recover. Together they finalized their preparations, loading three wagons with household goods and everything else they would need in their new home.

Others left before them. In mid-June, John and Ruth Boalt departed, but the Benedicts were not ready until several weeks later. Finally they started. Sally and her two daughters, Clarissa, age twenty and Eliza Ann, age six, rode in the horse-drawn wagon Platt had brought back from Norwalk. Platt and a hired man named Miller drove ox-drawn wagons and the boys, David, seventeen, Daniel, fourteen and Jonas, age eleven walked alongside.

It must have been hard for Sally to leave her comfortable home and her family and friends. She felt she needed something to remind her of the life she was leaving forever. A short distance down the road, she stopped the wagon, ran back and cut slips of ivy growing on the wall of the house. She planted this ivy when they arrived at their new home. Today, descendants of that ivy grow on buildings in Norwalk, Ohio. [4]

 

 

Footnotes:
[1] The “Year without Summer” is described by Dr. F.E. Weeks in The Firelands Pioneer, April 1925, pp. 416-419.
[2] The DeForest family history is from Family History; Wickham, Benedict, Preston & Deaver, by Agnes and Harriott Wickham, edited by Dave Barton, 2006, pp. 25-26.
[3] Location of Jonas Benedicts birthplace is from The Genealogy of the Benedicts in America, by Henry Marvin, p. 382. Location of Clarissa Benedict’s birthplace is from her obituary in The Firelands Pioneer, July 1878, pp. 103-4.
[4] The story of Sarah taking the ivy from Danbury to Norwalk is from Family, by Ian Frazier, p. 57.

Sally DeForest Benedict is the namesake of the Sally De Forest Chapter of the Daughters’ of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) in Norwalk, Ohio. Her great-granddaughters were charter members.

Please see portraits of Platt and Sally Benedict in the book Family, by Ian Frazier, p. 40.

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Sufferers’ Land – Post 3 – Return to the Firelands

Sufferers’ Land

Return to the Firelands

by David Barton

 

In January of 1817, Platt again started for The Firelands, traveling in a one-horse wagon. He stopped in New York, where his sister lived with her husband Samuel Darling. Samuel accompanied his brother-in-law west, driving a second wagon.

The two men traveled through driving snow to the Great Bend of the Susquehanna River, where they found a sleigh that belonged to a man by the name of Holley, who had left it there on his move to Florence Township in the Firelands. Leaving one wagon, they loaded the other on the sleigh and set out in extremely cold weather, traveling north and then west, bound for Erie, Pennsylvania.

A foot of snow covered the ground, excellent conditions for sleighing. In Erie, they left the wagon and headed south in the sleigh to Meadville, Pennsylvania. Here their luck changed for the worse. It began to rain heavily, melting most of the snow. They continued on to Canfield, Ohio in the sleigh, but upon arriving there decided to exchange it for another wagon.

They reached Norwalk Township in early March and boarded with the Gibbs and Lockwood families, who had arrived in the township in April of the previous year after a horrific journey, during which each family lost a son. Other settlers had arrived in the neighborhood the past couple years, and Platt set about recruiting them to help erect a cabin on the sand ridge. [1]

log-cabin-imageHe had no trouble finding willing helpers; most settlers looked forward to assisting new neighbors. In later days, one of them would recall — When the pioneer had been swinging his axe for weeks, and maybe for months, together, it is often cheering to hear that there is to be a log raising in the neighborhood. He anticipates at once the pleasure that is to be derived from meeting his neighbors, and having with them a little social chat, or the exchange of a few sprightly jokes. [2]

On the appointed day, the settlers assembled on the ridge. Snow began to fall and Platt suggested postponing the work to another day. However, Levi Cole, who lived in nearby Ridgefield Township, said that the snow would not hurt them, and the men pitched into their work. [3]

The meadow along the ridge had few trees, so the men went to a nearby lowland area to cut logs for the cabin. They stood in ankle-deep water while they worked — a miserable experience that begged for the relief of a libation. Usually the owner of a cabin being raised treated his helpers with whiskey, but Platt gave Jamaican Rum instead, which his new neighbors greatly appreciated.

They worked until mid-day when they broke for dinner, pork and potatoes prepared by Major David Underhill’s wife Mary that morning and brought to the site from their homestead on the border of Norwalk and Ridgefield Townships. It is easy to imagine the men clustered around the unfinished cabin in the snow, steam rising from their plates. [4]

After dinner, the men continued to erect the cabin, following a familiar pattern. Logs were cut, rolled up, and their corners notched together in a square form to a suitable height. For a roof, the gable ends were carried up to a peak, with logs or poles, from one end to the other, at suitable distances apart. — Their staves were then made, and layed (sic) upon the poles, each layer being well secured with heavy poles upon them. [5]

They finished building the cabin that evening. Although it was a rude structure, it would provide shelter for Platt’s family when they arrived. Satisfied with his progress so far, he made final preparations prior to returning to Connecticut to fetch them.

He hired a Mr. Stewart to stay in the cabin during his absence and clear and fence four acres of land on the flats south of the ridge for ten dollars per acre. Because Mr. Stewart had no provisions, Platt purchased a barrel of pork and a barrel of flour for him.

Platt also arranged for Lewis Keeler to fence an acre of land around the cabin and plant potatoes, corn, and other vegetables so they would be ready to harvest when he returned with his family. [6] Lewis had traveled to the Firelands in 1816 as teamster for David Gibbs and Henry Lockwood in order to prepare a homestead in advance of the arrival of others of the Keeler clan. [7]

Before he departed for Connecticut, Platt met a friend named Captain John Boalt, who also wanted to settle in Norwalk Township, and sold to him one hundred acres of his land on Old State Road, about a mile southeast of the center of the proposed village of Norwalk.

Saturday, the fourth of April, Platt started for Connecticut in the same wagon he had brought to Norwalk. En-route he contracted dysentery, which made travel difficult. It took him a month to make the trip. As soon as he arrived in Danbury, he began preparations to move his family to their new home. [8]

 

 

Footnotes:
[1] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk”, by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 17.
[2] This description of how a cabin raising was a diversion to the early settlers is from “Memoirs of Townships – Clarksfield”, by Benjamin Benson, The Firelands Pioneer, November 1858, p. 21.
[3] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk”, by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 17.
[4] The story of the raising of Platt Benedict’s cabin is from “Scattered Sheaves – No. 4, By Ruth, Maj. Underhill”, The Firelands Pioneer, Sept. 1860, p. 42
[5] “Memoirs of Townships – Fitchville” by J.C. Curtis, Esq., The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, pp.31-32.
[6] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk,” by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, pp. 17-18
[7] “Obituary of Lewis Keeler,” The Firelands Pioneer, 1882, p. 158.
[8] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk,” by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 18

 

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Sufferers’ Land – Post 1 – Land of Opportunity

Sufferers’ Land

Land of Opportunity

by David Barton

In his fortieth year, Platt Benedict left his home in Danbury, Connecticut, and traveled to the Ohio wilderness in search of a new home for his family. It was September 1815. The war with the British had ended a few months earlier, re-opening the frontier for settlement. [1]

1023264188268om802_0021An energetic man, Platt had a stern and businesslike visage, and, to judge from his writing, he spoke in a businesslike manner as well. Born in March 1775, only a month before the battles of Lexington and Concord ignited the Revolutionary War, his early experiences were of that war — he was eight years old when it ended.

He came from a distinguished family, a descendant of Thomas Benedict, who had settled in New England in 1638 and established a clan of American Benedicts that number in the tens of thousands today. A respected member of the Danbury community, Platt’s father Jonas Benedict served as the town’s representative to the General Assembly of Connecticut in 1809. Platt was also active in the town. From 1812 to 1817, he was collector of the port of Danbury. [2] He was active in the Masons, becoming associated with that fraternity in 1811. [3]

Platt was not what we typically think of as a pioneer, nothing like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett. He did not own a rifle or any other weapon. Like many New Englanders of the time, he was a man of business and a farmer. His weapons against the wilds of the frontier were the axe and saw, the hoe and plow. With these, he and his fellow Yankees would clear the forests and till the fields, changing the landscape of northern Ohio from wilderness to productive farmland.

Although he had been a successful man in Danbury, Platt wanted more than what was available to him in New England. In the west lay the opportunity to begin a new life — and establish a new town. No doubt, he had considered the possibility for years, but the War of 1812 put a hiatus on westward emigration, stymieing his plans. At the war’s end, he took decisive action.

western-reserveHe was bound for the “Firelands” or “Sufferer’s Land,” a part of the Connecticut Western Reserve that had been set aside for nineteen-hundred residents of coastal Connecticut towns that lost their homes and property because of British raids during the Revolution. The settlers would use the names of those Connecticut towns — Greenwich, Norwalk, Fairfield, Danbury, New Haven, East Haven, New London, Ridgefield and Groton — to name the townships and villages of the Firelands. [4]

The Firelands was not large, only five-hundred-thousand acres, roughly consisting of what are now Erie and Huron Counties. The frontier was ending in Ohio, and, except for the swamps of the northwest corner, the Firelands would be the last area settled in the state.

Platt did not go directly to the Firelands. He stopped first in Canfield, Ohio, a town founded by Connecticut Yankees years before. His cousin Eli Boughton introduced him to a leader of the Canfield community named Elisha Whittlesey, who had moved to Canfield from Danbury, Connecticut in 1806. [5]

elisha-whittlesey

Elisha Whittlesey

A leader in state politics, Elisha served as Prosecuting Attorney for the Court of Common Pleas in Warren. [6] He also saw opportunity in the Firelands, and had organized an expedition to investigate the possibilities. Recognizing Platt’s potential and desire, he invited him along.

The expedition traveled to Avery, Ohio, two miles north of where the town of Milan is today. The earliest settlers to the region had recently chosen Avery, one of the few settlements in the Firelands, as the county seat of newly founded Huron County, which included present day Erie County. [7] Platt and Elisha stayed at the home of David Abbott, who had first come to the Firelands before the War of 1812 from Chagrin, Ohio, where he had settled in 1802. He was of an older generation of settlers of the Firelands, a generation that had experienced war, famine and hardship. [8]

The first County Court convened in David Abbott’s home soon after Platt and Elisha arrived, with about forty men attending. David Abbott served County Clerk, and one of the Associate Judges of the court was another early settler named Almon Ruggles. Almon owned land along the lake, and had surveyed the Firelands several years earlier.

Many of the men attending voiced their dissatisfaction with Avery as County Seat. They favored a sand ridge south of town, but were concerned that water might be lacking. After the Court adjourned, Platt and Elisha went to the home of Abijah Comstock in Norwalk Township, and asked him to guide them to the sand ridge. [9]

Abijah was from New Canaan, Connecticut. His father had received a claim from some of the original “Sufferers” of Norwalk, Connecticut who had been burned out of their homes during the Revolution. Abijah’s brother settled in Norwalk Township in 1809, but returned to Connecticut because of bad health. He turned his homestead over to Abijah, who came to the township in the summer of 1810. [10]

He guided Platt and Elisha to the sand ridge. They were pleased to find sufficient water, and a large meadow where nearby residents grazed their cattle. An Indian trail and several wagon tracks crossed the ridge. [11] It was covered with a few oaks, being what was then termed an oak opening — a sand ridge, with an undergrowth of whortleberry bushes. [12]

Elisha knew that the owners of the land — a man named Colonel Taylor and a woman named Polly Bull, both living in Connecticut — were willing to sell. The men agreed that Platt should start immediately for Connecticut to make them an offer. Time was short. The opportunity was now, and the men were determined not to lose it.

Platt traveled by horse, spending many hours each day in the saddle. He reached Danbury in eleven days, an amazing feat for that time, and went immediately to Colonel Taylor’s home in New Milford, sixteen miles away. Colonel Taylor owned five hundred and sixty acres on the sand ridge and he agreed to sell it to Platt for $2.25 an acre.

Platt next visited Polly Bull, a widow who owned eight hundred and sixty acres near the ridge. She and her late husband had settled in the Firelands in 1811, but they fled to Cleveland at the beginning of the War of 1812. After her husband’s death in October 1812, Polly had returned with her children to their home in New Milford, Connecticut. She did not intend to return to the Firelands, and agreed to sell her land to Platt for $2.00 per acre.

The following spring, Platt paid Colonel Taylor and Polly for their lands and sent the deeds to Elisha in Canfield. Elisha returned to the Firelands and contracted Judge Almon Ruggles to survey a town plat with forty-eight lots. They named the town Norwalk. [13]
Platt prepared to move to the Firelands, arranging for the sale of his house and belongings and divesting himself of his businesses. However, something was about to happen in New England that would delay his plans, and change the lives of many in the region.

 

 

Footnotes
[1] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk”, by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 16. & The Firelands Pioneer, October 1896, p. 108.
[2] Family History: Wickham, Benedict, Preston & Deaver, by Agnes & Harriott Wickham, edited by Dave Barton, 2006, pp. 4-6.
[3] The Genealogy of the Benedicts in America, by Henry Marvin Benedict, 1870, p. 381.
[4] From the speech of the Honorable John Sherman, printed in The Firelands Pioneer, November 1858, p. 11.
[5] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk”, by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, pp. 16-17
[6] Elisha Whittlesey’s story is from “Elisha Whittlesey,” by A. Newton, The Firelands Pioneer, June 1864, pp. 10-18.
[7] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk” by Samuel B. Lewis, The Firelands Pioneer, June 1858, p. 33
[8] Story of David Abbott is in “Scattered Sheaves – No. 1 – By Ruth, The Firelands Pioneer, November 1859, pp. 21-26.
[9] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk”, by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 17.
[10] The story of the settlement of Norwalk Township by the Comstock family is from “Early Settlers of Norwalk,” by Philo Comstock, The Firelands Pioneer, June 1868, pp. 105-108.
[11] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk”, by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 17.
[12] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk”, by Henry Lockwood, Esq., The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, pp. 27-28.
[13] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk”, by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 17

 

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