As it were

Armstrong followed interesting path to town


Many people arriving in what is now Franklin County in the early 1800s found central Ohio to be a rather forbidding place. After leaving the shoulder-high grass of the great Pickaway and Darby Plains, one encountered a seemingly endless forest of gigantic trees interspersed with fast-moving streams rushing down ravines to the rivers below. It was a wondrously beautiful place. But it was a place of predators as well.

Jeremiah Armstrong arrived in Ohio's new capital city of Columbus shortly after it was founded in 1812. The frontiersman was almost 30, married with a young daughter and certainly did not consider central Ohio to be all that mysterious. He had been here before -- quite some time before in fact. And his visit was not all that brief.

Jeremiah Armstrong was what people of his era called a "redeemed captive." The story of his capture and redemption is both harrowing and heroic. It became the stuff of legend. What is often not told is how he spent the rest of his life in Columbus. It is a story that has its moments as well.

First the legend.

He was born in Washington County, Maryland, in 1785. The American Revolution was over and most of the land east of the Mississippi River belonged to the newly formed United States. That land was now being surveyed. The United States had a lot of land and very little money. So it soon began to give land west of the Appalachians to people it owed money. The new country began to sell that land as well.

The Armstrongs were interested. As part of a restless generation looking to find its fortune in the west, Armstrong's father, mother and their four sons and a daughter moved to what was then western Virginia just across the river from the Ohio Country. Native Americans were not pleased with the arrival of the newcomers. It was a land at war.

One night in April 1794, the two oldest sons went to look after a floating mill on the Ohio River. Late at night the dog began to bark. Jeremiah's father, John, left the house and saw shadows moving through the trees. Shouting "Indians," he ran for the house. Pursuing him was a war party of 20 Wyandot warriors.

John Armstrong fired once, took a bullet pouch and climbed into the loft of the cabin. There he found that he had taken the wrong pouch. He leaped from a window and escaped to the woods. Downstairs, the Wyandots had broken in, killed Jeremiah's mother and her baby and captured the boy and his brother and sister. Taking the children, the war party fled into the forest.

Separated from his siblings, Jeremiah Armstrong, age 8, was adopted into the Wyandot nation. In time his adopted family moved south and settled near the forks of the Olentangy and Scioto rivers. He later remembered that they "camped near where the Penitentiary (Arena District) now stands. There we raised corn in what is now Sullivant's Prairie (near COSI). ... After parting from my brother and sister, I heard so little of my own language that I forgot it entirely and became attached to them and their ways. In fact, I became a very good Indian.

"The only war dance I witnessed was near where the penitentiary now stands. ... Billy Wyandot was preparing to leave for Greeneville to form a treaty. By that treaty, a great part of the present State of Ohio was ceded to the whites, and the Indians were to give up all of the prisoners in their possession."

Jeremiah's older brothers had heard that Jeremiah and his younger brother were still alive. With 12 soldiers from Fort Detroit, they came to the Wyandot camp. "We were strutting back and forth on the porch. I had a large bunch of feathers tied in my hair at the crown of my head and rings in my ears and nose. I was feeling very large and defiant." Jeremiah and his brother were dragged screaming to a waiting boat. A few days later, their older brother told the boys the story of the murder of their mother. Jeremiah later wrote "I never more had a wish to return to the red men."

Instead he started a family and came in time to the new capital city of Columbus. It was a small village of less than 700 people hacked out of the forest with dirt streets and few buildings. Jeremiah Armstrong bought a lot on the west side of High Street between Rich and Town streets and opened a business that he thought might succeed. His Red Lion Tavern was not the first tavern in town. But it soon was one of the more successful. Eventually becoming the Columbus Hotel at "one dollar a day for man and horse," the hotel attracted Ohio governors and people like Henry Clay. The hotel was operated until 1850.

Jeremiah Armstrong died in 1862 and was remembered as one of the last living links to frontier Ohio. He is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.

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