As it were

Martin legacy: Early Columbus history


Over the years in looking at the history of Ohio's capital city, I have encountered a number of interesting people who are no longer with us. Were it possible, I would enjoy talking with several of them. An evening with Lucas Sullivant, the founder of Franklinton, would undoubtedly be interesting as would a meeting with Alfred Kelley, financier and canal master. And then there are the Neils -- William Neil, "the Old Stagecoach King" and his wife Hannah, the namesake of the "Hannah Neil Mission and Home for the Friendless."

But the man who I would most like to meet was William T. Martin. He was the man with many stories and a predilection to tell them. How do we know this? We know this because he took the trouble to write them down and publish them as the first history of Columbus and Franklin County. Had he only done this, he would have been well worth remembering. But he did much more.

William T. Martin was born in Bedford, Pa., in 1788. He was part of that restless generation of people who grew up in the years immediately after the American Revolution. With the advantage of a better education than many of his neighbors, Martin joined the people who went west to seek their fortune. At the time, Ohio and the other states being carved out of the Northwest Territory was on the edge of the frontier.

Martin arrived in Columbus in 1815 just as the War of 1812 was ending. Ohio's newly created capital city had been around for three years and had a total population of about 700 people. Frontier Franklinton, across the Scioto River to the west, had grown rapidly during the war and at the time was larger than Columbus.

It must have taken a bit of creative imagination for William Martin to see how a crude settlement in the forests of central Ohio might one day become a great city. But Martin saw the promise of what Columbus could be and he decided to stay.

Over the course of the next several decades, William T. Martin seemed to be wherever he was needed in Columbus. He served on the School Board and taught school for a time in a log building near Statehouse Square. He later went on to hold a variety of elected and appointed positions. He was the fifth mayor of Columbus , serving from 1824 to 1826, and later served as a judge and became known around town as Judge Martin. He served on the boards of a number of charitable organizations and was the Franklin County Recorder for many years.

In all of those jobs and across all of those years, William Martin met a number of people and heard their stories. Unlike many of his friends, Martin did not forget what he had heard. He wrote it down.

In 1838, he published a pamphlet about the early history of the area and called it the Franklin County Register. With the addition of further material he gathered over the next 20 years, the Register would form the basis of a book published in 1858. It was called History of Franklin County: A Collection of Reminiscences of the Early Settlement of the County; with Biographical Sketches, and a Complete History of the County to the Present Time.

Books sometimes had longer titles in those days. Martin explained his purpose in a preface to his book. "It has been the writer's object in this compilation, to give a correct statement of all events worthy of remembrance, with their proper dates, so as form a book of ready reference, such as will be convenient and interesting to all residents of the county." Even though Martin may have missed a few events and people worth remembering, he tells us a lot about Columbus and its past.

William T. Martin's book is still closely examined. It is frequently used because Martin paid careful attention to accuracy in his details. He also knew how to how to tell a good story. And quite often those stories were not about famous or notable people. They were stories about common people and the lives they lived.

For example:

"In 1811, it (Clinton Township) was organized as a township. ... Farther up the creek (the Olentangy River), are George Whip's mills, also doing a good business; and there are three distilleries in the township doing a pretty extensive business manufacturing liquor, and fattening hogs, etc."

"About the year 1846 or '47, Alanson Bull, Esq., sold a few building lots on the road side, which were bought and improved by mechanics. He did not have any plat of his lots recorded, nor did he design it for a regular town, bust merely to afford residence for a few mechanics, for the benefit of the neighborhood. It however soon grew into a village and assumed the name of 'Clintonville.' "

William T. Martin died on Feb. 19, 1866. He is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery. His book is still in print.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.