As it were

Sullivant's wife lived well in wild Ohio


She is at once one of the most elusive and interesting people in the early history of central Ohio.

Sarah Starling had been born into a society of influence and affluence that characterized the families of property and standing of Kentucky in the years following the American Revolution. The clash of cultures between the Americans Indians of the Ohio Valley and the colonial newcomers from the East had been long, vicious and violent. But by the 1790s, after the Revolutionary War, the battle for Kentucky was near its end as well.

Growing up in those years, Sarah Starling personally experienced little of the struggle to make Kentucky a peaceful place from the "dark and bloody ground" that had preceded it. Thus, it probably came as something of a surprise to her friends and acquaintances when she chose to marry a man who would take her to the very edge of America's moving frontier: the heart of the Ohio Country.

By 1800, Lucas Sullivant was one of the better-known frontiersmen in the Ohio Valley. Born in 1765, he had left his home in the rural East and sought his fortune in the Ohio Country. He made his living as a surveyor and was rather good at it. In time, he was hired to survey the northern reaches of the Virginia Military District. "The District" was a vast piece of real estate between the Miami and Scioto rivers set aside to provide land to veterans of the Revolution from Virginia -- and anyone else who wanted to buy good land at low prices.

Experiencing many hardships, Lucas Sullivant successfully accomplished his many missions. Taking his pay in land, as was the custom, Sullivant by 1800 was among the owners of the most land in the Midwest. And by 1800, Sullivant decided it was time to marry and settle down. He had founded the town of Franklinton on the west bank of the Scioto River, just south of its junction with the Olentangy River, in 1797. It was there he built the first brick house in the area, squarely in the middle of the new town.

It was to that house that Sarah Starling Sullivant arrived in 1801 as the 20-year-old bride of the 35-year-old pioneer surveyor. The house was everything a lady of "proper upbringing" might have wanted.

The 20 rooms of the house were large with polished walnut floors. The windows were large by western standards and divided by lattice wood to hold small square panes of clear glass from the East. There were large fireplaces in each of the main rooms. The most notable feature of the house was the elaborate spiral staircase that rose to the second floor. It was an impressive house.

Lucas Sullivant did everything he could to make his wife's life as comfortable as possible. On the occasion of the birth of his first child, he brought a doctor 55 miles from Chillicothe to be in attendance. Responding to his wife's request for a place to worship, Sullivant built the first church in his town. Founded in 1806, the First Presbyterian Church is still around today.

But life on the frontier remained a lonely and sometimes dangerous place to be. In these years, it was customary for American Indians to come to town, especially in the early autumn, to trade furs, baskets and other goods for the "hard money" to be found in the settlements.

On one occasion, Bill Zane, a young man later described as "tall, athletic and handsome," left his trade bundle of goods purchased from local settlers with Sarah Sullivant. Returning later, he believed the amount of calico in his bundle was too small and that he had been cheated. Sarah called for a servant to measure the calico with a yardstick. Casting the stick aside, Zane measured the calico by the length of his outstretched arms -- a distance considerably longer than three feet.

He marked the spot with a notch on a nearby chair rail with his knife. He then angrily grabbed Sarah by the hair and raised his knife. Sarah's servant jumped in and grabbed Zane by the arm. Hearing calls for help, Lucas Sullivant entered the room, grabbed Zane and took him outside. Then Sullivant beat Zane severely and exacted Zane's promise to never bother Sarah again.

The notch on the chair rail was pointed out to visitors for many years thereafter.

Frontier Franklinton became an armed camp during the War of 1812 and hundreds of American soldiers were encamped near the town. As some became ill, Sarah and others were nurses to the sick. In 1814, a "malignant and contagious typhus, or cold plague" struck the camps, and Sarah Sullivant again was nursing the sick. She died of that illness April 28, 1814. Sarah Sullivant was 33 years old and left behind four children.

There is no known portrait of Sarah Starling Sullivant. I have always wished there were.

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