As it were

A frontier town comes of age


As I have noted from time to time, Columbus is a created city. There was no town here until one was brought into being by the Ohio General Assembly in 1812 to be the new state capital. To be sure, there was a village across the Scioto River to the west called Franklinton. It had been around since 1797 and played a crucial role as a mobilization center during the War of 1812. And it is fair to say that a number of people from frontier Franklinton had a role to play in the founding and early settlement of Columbus.

But having said all of that, Columbus -- even with a little help from Franklinton -- was a rather small town for much of its early history. In 1816, when the Ohio General Assembly first met in its new capital, the newly organized Borough of Columbus was a booming metropolis of about 700 people.

While some of the newcomers to Columbus included a German baker named Christian Heyl and an Irish surveyor named John Kerr -- who was also one of the four "Proprietors" of Columbus -- most of the population consisted of trappers, traders, long range hunters and their spouses and children. Some were men who had fought in the American Revolution and were taking their belated pay in land. Others were simply people looking for a new life in a new land.

It was a rather rough town. What is now downtown Columbus was a hardwood forest with occasional ponds in the rather wet and marshy ground in much of the area. Creeks and streams dashed down to the river through deep ravines. And along the trails and crude dirt roads, one could find the cabins and homes of the early residents. The only thriving businesses were inns and taverns to serve the needs of the legislature and others traveling through Columbus. One inn keeper kept a live bear in the backyard to keep his customers entertained.

The town stayed this way for quite some time. Over the years, the forest trees were generally removed and most of the streets were widened even if they were not paved. Log houses and crude frame cabins began to be replaced with nicer homes made of brick, stone and wood. The early frontier settlers began to be complemented by even more families of "property and standing."

By 1832, Columbus was a town of about 2,000 people who were about to see the arrival of the Ohio Canal and the National Road. Within two years the population of Columbus would be more than 5,000 and the Borough would become a City.

Columbus was coming of age.

In 1833, as all of this was happening an "eastern visitor" wrote to a friend with his thoughts about the capital city. "The society of married ladies is decidedly superior to that of any other part of the state I have visited. It is not my intention to panegyrize nor even describe; but they in general possess grace, beauty and no small fund of information. The younger class of females in these respects resemble their mothers, but with some exceptions. ... Of the men I shall only say they are agreeable and well-informed. The young gentlemen are attentive to strangers, polite to the ladies and have quite a literary taste."

This favorable view was not shared by everyone. Isaac Appleton Jewett -- described by one source as a "man of fine education and rare intelligence" wrote from Columbus to a relative on Feb. 22, 1834. "The wine parties have been very numerous during the winter. It is here particularly that the "members" show off. If the ladies chance to be present, as is not unusually the case, they are too often left to the solitude of their own reflections. The gentlemen are in an adjacent building listening to the popular songs of "Jim Crow" and "Clar de Kitchen" or rending their sides with shouting at the facetious stories of a celebrated German doctor who, although a very obscure individual in the House, is unquestionably a hero at these festal associations."

Mr. Jewett also had a rather negative opinion of the legislators he met during his stay. "As to their morals, they do not invariably furnish the purest models of propriety. Nay, it is a fact that they grossly violate in the evening and livelong night the very laws which they were enacting during the day. You may perhaps be surprised when I inform you that in this village of the West, the capital of our state, are supported two billiard tables open continually to the public, two roulette tables expressly for gambling, and at the first hotel a room is occupied by a stranger who is risking his thousands, or rather hundreds, every night at the game of faro. ... The citizens are pleased to have the salaries of members untransferred from the city. "

It seems Columbus was coming of age.

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