“Sufferers’ Land” Post #50 – Railroads and Cholera –

For years, Norwalk’s prosperity depended on its position as Huron County Seat. The town of Milan dominated the commerce of the region with its canal connecting it to Lake Erie via the Huron River. Every summer and fall, huge wagons filled with grain converged on Milan, making it the largest wheat port of its time.

In the early 1850s, however, a new technology threatened Milan’s economic hegemony — the railroad. The citizens of Milan could have used their money and political influence to bring the railroad to their town, but they were so sure of the advantages of water transport that they spurned it. As a result, the “iron horse” passed north and south of them. The Conestoga Wagons no longer had to travel all the way to Milan, and the town went into a dramatic and irreversible decline. By the end of the decade, the once bustling port town was a sleepy backwater.

Norwalk was one of the towns that profited from the railroads at Milan’s expense. The first train line in the village was the Toledo Norwalk and Cleveland Railroad, which started service in January 1853. [1]

The advent of the railroad was a great boon to the economy of the village, but it also brought danger to the unwary. In the early years, many people and livestock met an untimely end because of this new means of conveyance.

In November of 1853, less than a year after train service commenced, a number of boys found a handcar sitting unattended on a sidetrack and decided to take it for a joyride. They crowded aboard and were soon speeding down the track. One boy, Hezekiah Smith, accidentally caught his scarf in the crank of the car and was thrown to the ground with a broken neck. [2]

Accidental death was not the only tragedy brought to Norwalk by the railroad. Trains transporting passengers from place to place also caused the rapid spread of diseases like Cholera. In 1854, a year after the railroad came to Norwalk, the disease made its final and most deadly appearance in the village.

William Wickham later described a deserted town, the inhabitants either gone to the country or hiding in their homes. Once again, the only sound in the village was the rumble of wagons carrying the dead to cemeteries. William recalled thirty-one names of those who perished from the disease, among this number were seven from one family. [3]

Another witness to those terrible days later remembered the valiant women who cared for the sick at great risk to themselves.     Cholera broke out virulently in Norwalk in 1854. The town was nearly deserted. But some there were who stayed; and some of these women made it their business to nurse the stricken ones. Some have been named to me: “Grandma Mason, mother of Sarah Mason the teacher; Mrs. John Green, mother of Miss Rilla Green; Lizzie Higgins and Mary Higgins Farr. They literally took their lives in their hands. Lizzie Higgins was very ill with it; Mrs. C.L. Boalt had her brought to her home and nursed her back to health. Mary Higgins Farr worked until worn out. The doctor said she must quit and go away. She replied that she was needed. I think she was dead the night of the next day. She was, even before the cholera, much beloved for her womanliness and her works. She was a daughter of Judge Higgins and the wife of Joseph M. Farr; Lizzie Higgins was afterwards his wife. [4]

With the coming of cold weather that autumn, the disease abated and disappeared. Never again would this contagion visit the Firelands. However, an even more terrible tragedy loomed on the horizon. The nation was less than ten years from a Civil War that would bring hardship and sorrow to the village of Norwalk.


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[1] “When the ‘Iron Colt’ First Dashed into Norwalk,” The Firelands Pioneer, December, 1918, p. 2065.

[2] From “Norwalk, Its Men, Women and Girls,” by William Wickham, The Firelands Pioneer, December 1918, p. 2077.

[3] William Wickham’s recollection of the 1854 Cholera outbreak in Norwalk is from “Norwalk, Its Men, Women and Girls,” The Firelands Pioneer, December 1918, pp. 2099-2100.

[4] “Ancient Dames of Norwalk,” by Charlotte Wooster Boalt, The Firelands Pioneer, December, 1918, p. 1998.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved


“Sufferers’ Land” Post #21 – Trial and Punishment

The Huron County Court of Common Pleas convened on Tuesday, May 18 at the Court House in Norwalk. A Grand Jury met the same day. Two days later, they indicted the three Indians for first-degree murder.

The trial began the day after the indictment. A crowd assembled, so many that a large number had to stand outside in the yard. Being a prominent member of the community, Platt secured a seat inside, and later gave Sally a first hand account.

He witnessed a fair trial. After hearing only a portion of the evidence, the prosecutor dropped the charge against the boy Negossum and released him, to the applause of the audience.

The evidence against the other two Indians was compelling, however, and after a short deliberation, the jury found them guilty. The judge asked if they had anything to say before he passed sentence, but they refused to speak. He sentenced them to be hanged on Friday, July first, and had them led back to jail to await execution.

Sally and the other settlers were curious how the Indians were taking their impending deaths. They learned that the two men were particularly concerned about hanging, which they considered an ignominious death. To discover what it felt like, they practiced choking each other until they almost passed out. The results disturbed them and they became so depressed that the sheriff, in sympathy, gave them whisky to dull their anguish.

The day of execution dawned warm and sultry. Early that morning, settlers from all over the county assembled around the gallows, erected on a knoll behind where St. Paul’s Episcopal Church now stands. Seven or eight Indians from the condemned men’s tribe arrived to witness the execution, including several who had assisted in recapturing the prisoners after their escape.

At the appointed time, the condemned men approached the knoll, escorted by a rifle company commanded by Captain Burt. They were dressed in shrouds and were intoxicated, having begged for whisky earlier that morning. After mounting the gallows and having nooses placed around their necks, the men were asked if they wished to say anything. Negosheek mumbled a few words. The men dropped to their deaths and several women turned away and began to cry.

After they were dead, the authorities took down their bodies, placed them in coffins, and buried them on the knoll. The Rifle Company and civil officials marched to Captain Boalt’s house. He treated them to a big dinner, and they listened to a funeral discourse, a rather macabre scene to us, but probably considered appropriate at the time.

For months afterwards, the settlers of the Firelands worried that friends of the executed Indians would exact revenge. Platt, not having a gun, kept a sharpened hoe hanging near his front door against such an eventuality. However, perhaps because the court had found the boy Negossum innocent, the Indians felt that justice had been done. They never attacked.

As time went on, settlers cleared the forests and farms replaced the Native American’s traditional hunting grounds. In 1843, the remaining tribes departed Ohio for reservations further west. Their time had passed. [1]

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[1] The account of the murders of John Wood and George Bishop and the capture, trial and execution of their killers is from an article by W.C. Allen in The Firelands Pioneer, June 1865, pp. 43-52. Platt Benedict’s reaction to this incident is described by him in “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk,” The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 21.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

“Sufferers’ Land” Post #20 – Re-capture

A day or two after the return of Negonaba, Sally and the other townspeople were relieved when Captain Burt, accompanied by Constable Charles Tupper of Danbury Township and several other men, walked into town, leading Negosheek by a rope tied around him.

Before putting him back into custody, the men searched the Indian and found a small knife secreted in his clothes. Captain Burt told them he had searched the Indian at the time of his capture, but that Negosheek’s squaw must have slipped him the knife before they departed the Indian’s village.

After returning Negosheek to the makeshift jail with the wounded Negonaba, Captain Burt told his story to the assembled populace of the village. Arriving on the Miami River, the three men went to the Indian camp where Negosheek and Negossum lived. John Flemmond introduced Captain Burt, who had dressed in an impressive military uniform, as Governor of Ohio, and demanded that the chief turn over Negosheek and Negossum to him.

This ruse worked, and the chief brought Negosheek to them. The chief promised that he would have the boy Negossum brought to Norwalk in a few days, but also told them that Negossum was not guilty. Through the interpreter, the two captains assured the chief that the boy would receive a fair trial, and if the court found him innocent, they would release him.

Leaving Captain Boalt and John Flemmond behind to wait for the boy Negossum, Captain Burt led Negosheek north toward Lake Erie accompanied by a party of Indians. The weather had turned rainy, and the men slogged through the wilderness, cold, wet and miserable. After a day’s travel, the party stopped for the night and Captain Burt tried unsuccessfully to start a fire. He used sign language to ask the Indians accompanying him to do it, promising them a quart of whisky if they did. An Indian poured gunpowder on the wood, and used flint and steel to try to start a fire. The powder ignited suddenly in the Indian’s face causing him to jump several feet into the air.

When they reached the shore of Lake Erie, the Indians accompanying him turned back, and Captain Burt continued alone through the forest with his captive. Once, Negosheek tried to break away, but Captain Burt, who was a large man, grabbed him and shook him harshly. After that, he had no more trouble with him.

After going nine or ten miles along the lakeshore, Captain Burt arrived at Constable Charles Tupper’s cabin at the mouth of the Portage River. Charles was relieved to see him and his prisoner, and after hearing Captain Burt’s story, agreed to accompany him the rest of the way to Norwalk.

A day or two after Captain Burt returned to Norwalk with Negosheek, Captain John Boalt and John Flemmond arrived with Negossum, whom the chief of the tribe had turned over to them as promised. They put him into jail with his companions to await trial. [1]

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[1] The account of the murders of John Wood and George Bishop, and the capture of their killers is from an article by W.C. Allen in The Firelands Pioneer, June 1865, pp. 43-52.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

“Sufferers’ Land” Post #19 – A Comedy of Errors

One night, a week after the prisoners came to Norwalk, gunshots and cries of alarm awakened the village. Platt rushed from his home, leaving Sally and the children to huddle in the cabin, wondering what was going on. When he returned, he had frightening news — the Indians had escaped.

It had been a comedy of errors. After midnight, Negonaba asked Charles Soules, who was on guard at the time, to remove his shackles and allow him to go outside to relieve himself. Charles did so, not realizing that somehow Negosheek and Negossum had managed to slip out of their shackles earlier in the evening. When Soules and Negonaba left the cabin, the other two Indians made their escape. Soules saw them and raised the alarm. Negonaba ran away and Soules shot at him, which woke the town. Although he could not be sure, he told the townspeople that he thought he had hit his target.

Platt and the other men of the village searched for the escaped prisoners, but they were gone. For the next several days, the inhabitants of the county were terrified, wondering where the suspected murderers might turn up. Then, several days later, an old hunter named Pumphrey came into town leading Negonaba, who had wounds in his hip and shoulder. Charles Soules had hit his mark.

Pumphrey told the assembled villagers that a young man named John Hawk, who was hunting on the western boundary of the county, saw a wounded Indian drinking from a pool of water. He captured him and turned him over to Pumphrey who brought him to Norwalk.

The townspeople placed Negonaba back in shackles in Daniel Raitt’s cabin, and sent for a Doctor Tilden to treat his wounds. When the doctor finished treating Negonaba, Daniel Raitt took charge of nursing him back to health, a task he performed so well that his neighbors from then on referred to him as “Doctor Raitt.”

Sally and the rest of the town were relieved that one of the murderers was back in custody, but were concerned that the other two were still at large. Immediately after the escape, Captain John Boalt, who had arrived in Norwalk Township just before the Benedicts, started for the Miami River in company with Captain Henry Burt of Monroeville and the interpreter John Flemmond. However, so far, they had not returned.

Sally and Platt worried for their friend off on such a hazardous mission. Sally was also concerned about how Ruth Boalt was handling this. They were together often, and Sally and the other women of the village helped Ruth the best they could.

She and the rest of the villagers prayed that he would return safely. [1]

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[1] The account of the murders of John Wood and George Bishop and the capture of their killers is from an article by W.C. Allen in The Firelands Pioneer, June 1865, pp. 43-52.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

“Sufferers’ Land” Post #9 – Education on the Frontier

Most settlers from Connecticut were well educated and interested in their children’s schooling. In those days on the frontier, classes were only in session during warm weather. Norwalk did not have a school, of course, so Sally and Platt had to look for something nearby.

The first schoolhouse in the area had been built in the fall of 1816, a few rods from the township line between Ridgefield and Norwalk, on Lot No. 1. It stood upon the bank, on the left hand after crossing the bridge, upon the present road to Peru, about half a mile from the bridge.

It was made of logs, with a chimney of sticks plastered inside, the fire occupying nearly the whole side of the building. The seats were made of split logs, the flat side up, resting upon sticks, which were driven into them in a sloping direction. The desks were coarse, un-planed boards, running the whole length of the three unoccupied sides. The scholars sat with their faces to the wall.

The teacher of this school in the summer of 1818 was Ann Boalt, the daughter of Platt and Sally’s friends, John and Ruth Boalt. Jonas and Eliza Ann Benedict attended the school, along with other settlers’ children, to include Lyman and Manley Cole and David, Isaac, Aurelia and Louisa Underhill. [1]

Another student in the school was Mary Ann Morse. She knew the Benedicts well, recalling in later years going with my cousins to “The Oak Opening” or “Sand Ridge” as Norwalk was then called, to look for wild strawberries. We came in sight of Platt Benedict’s log house, then the only log house in Norwalk, and my cousins said the county seat is to be here. [2]

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[1] Description of the first school in Norwalk Township is from “Scattered Sheaves – No. 4, by Ruth – Maj. Underhill”, The Firelands Pioneer, September, 1860, pp. 43-44.
[2] Quote is from “Recollections of Northern Ohio,” by Mrs. John Kennan, The Firelands Pioneer, 1896, pp. 83-86.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

“Sufferers’ Land” Post #7 – The First Winter

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 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.

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[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.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

“Sufferers’ Land” Post #5 – The Trek West

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]

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[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.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

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