People have been living in and around Johnstown for quite some time – several thousand years, in fact.
The reminders of the earliest residents of Ohio are not as numerous as one might find elsewhere in Ohio, but it was still quite clear to early settlers of the newly formed United States in the early 1800s that people had been living in Ohio for many years.
The earliest residents of Ohio arrived shortly after the departure of the last glacier to cover central Ohio, about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Unlike the skeleton of a gigantic mastodon found near Johnstown in 1926, the earliest people left little behind to let later residents know they had been there. Few in number, the early prehistoric peoples were hunter-gatherers and almost always on the move in search of food.
For reasons that archeologists still like to debate, people began to settle down in Ohio about 3,000 years ago. Whether growing populations required new sources of food or whether people decided to create a sort of agriculture and settle down is one of those questions that is not easy to answer. But settle down they did.
Over hundreds of years, prehistoric people in Ohio created an elaborate series of earthen structures. Some were ceremonial centers, such as the elaborate system of geometric enclosures at nearby Newark. Others were defensive places designed to provide protection. Most numerously, these people built mounds of greater or lesser size as places to entomb their honored dead.
In the far southeast corner of Monroe Township in Licking County and just outside of Johnstown, a 1914 archeological atlas showed evidence still existed of a mound site and a village site. It should be noted these were all that plainly had survived into the 20th century.
There probably had been many more. Generally archeologists assume that in the early 1800s, there were probably thousands of mounds and other enclosures across Ohio. By 1900, the great majority of them had been removed with the clearing of the forests and the farming of much of the land. By the time the atlas was compiled in 1914, many if not most of them were gone. Today, even fewer of them survive.
It is not fully clear today why the people we call the Mound Builders decided to leave Ohio, but leave they did in the years before 1600. As early French and English explorers arrived in the Ohio River Valley, the tribes they encountered – the historic Indian tribes – were themselves relatively recent arrivals. By 1650, the Iroquois Confederacy had swept out of New York, occupied Ohio and claimed it as its own. The Haudenosaunee – or People of the Long House, as they called themselves – held Ohio for decades and only began to loosen their hold on Ohio in the early 1700s. Even then, Seneca and Mingo elements of the Confederacy could be found in central and northeast Ohio.
As the Iroquois left, others arrived. Traveling across Pennsylvania to avoid increasing European settlement, the Delaware people settled in eastern Ohio. Claiming to have once lived in Ohio, the Shawnee arrived from the south and populated the Scioto River Valley. From the north and west came the people the French had named Huron. Calling themselves “Wendot,” they came to be known as “Wyandot” by the English settlers of Ohio. Their villages stretched from Lake Erie to places deep in central Ohio.
One of those places was along Raccoon Creek, just to the north of the modern city of Johnstown. A lengthy series of savage and bloody wars between Ohio’s American Indians and settlers from the new nation that emerged from the American Revolution generally came to an end with the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. According to the treaty, all of the land in the northern third of Ohio was forever reserved to Native America. All of the land below the line was forever reserved to the United States.
But as is often the case, life is never quite as simple as lines on a map. Either because nobody bothered to tell them or because there was no one around, the village along Raccoon Creek remained in place when the earliest settlers arrived in 1806 and 1807. By 1815, about 25 families had arrived. This was enough for the Wyandots, most of whom left for the major Wyandot Reservation at Upper Sandusky.
A few families of Wyandot people remained in a series of cabins along Brushy Fork near the boundary of Kean and Granville townships. Even they began to leave after the War of 1812.
It was during the War of 1812 that Dr. Oliver Bigelow arrived and decided a town might attract more people to the area. In 1813, he laid one out and called it Johnstown.
Johnstown will celebrate its bicentennial in 2013. For more information, visit the website of the Johnstown Historical Society, downtownjohnstown.org.
My thanks to Terry Priest of the society for his help with this column.
Local historian Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek.