As it were

In 1812, a capital city was for sale

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On June 18, 1812, a remarkable event occurred in the heart of the relatively new state of Ohio. An entire capital city of the Buckeye State was offered for sale. It was not the kind of event that happened all that often – in Ohio or anywhere else.

How all of this came to pass and why many people did not take too much note of it at the time is a story worth retelling.
 

Many people did not want Ohio to become a state at all. Among them was Gen. Arthur St. Clair, the first – and only – governor of the “Territory North and West of the Ohio River.” Ceded to the new United States at the end of the American Revolution, the new country provided a way for a virtually penniless government to reward its veterans. It paid them in land in the Northwest Territory.

 

From his base at Fort Washington in what is now Cincinnati, St. Clair sent Gen. Josiah Harmar and what little remained of an American army against the Native Americans who called Ohio home. General Harmar lost a number of men, declared victory and came home.

 

General St. Clair was not amused. He led his own army into battle a couple of years later and suffered the worst defeat ever inflicted on an army of the United States by Native Americans.

 

A couple of years after that, an army led by Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne defeated the Native Americans at a place called Fallen Timbers. Soon thereafter most of Ohio was opened to settlement.

 

St. Clair hoped to carve what is now Ohio into two states – each of which would be firmly Federalist in political orientation. Opposing St. Clair was Thomas Worthington and his friends – all firm allies of Thomas Jefferson. In the end, Worthington won in 1803 and St. Clair lost. Chillicothe, the home of Thomas Worthington, became the capital of the state.

 

Almost immediately, people began to argue about the location of the capital city. Most of these people wanted the capital in their town or at least near the middle of the state.

 

In 1808, the Ohio General Assembly – by then well-adapted to Chillicothe – voted to move the capital to Zanesville. Then in 1810, it voted to bring the capital back home to Chillicothe.

 

By 1810 it was clear that something in the politics of Ohio needed some changing. Clearly many people in Ohio no longer desired a capital in Chillicothe. In this difficult time, the Ohio General Assembly did what it often did in cases like this.

 

It appointed a committee.

 

Soon the committee rode forth seeking a location – somewhere in central Ohio – for a new capital. The committee looked at any number of places. It examined Newark and Circleville as well as Delaware and Worthington. Eventually it reported back to the legislature that the place it liked best was the Sells Plantations near what is now Dublin, Ohio.

 

And then the Ohio General Assembly did what it was sometimes wont to do. It ignored the recommendation of its committee and picked an entirely new place. This time, the place that was picked was the “High Banks opposite Franklinton” at the “Forks of the Scioto” at a place called “Wolf’s Ridge.” It picked this place for a very simple and apparently sound reason – it seemed like a good idea at the time.

 

Four men who called themselves “Proprietors” had acquired a large portion of the land on the High Banks and offered the Ohio General Assembly a place in the area. The offering included 10 acres for a Statehouse – where the Statehouse still is – and 10 acres for a penitentiary – where the Cultural Arts Center is. The proprietors also offered $50,000 – then an immense sum of money – to build buildings on the state land.

 

The four men were an interesting group. Two of them – Alexander McLaughlin and James Johnston were primarily investors in western lands. One of them – John Kerr – was a self-made man. He was a surveyor, investor and founder of more than one frontier town. The fourth man was Lyne Starling. At well over 6 feet tall in a land of considerably shorter men, Starling was bold, adventuresome and the brother-in-law of Lucas Sullivant.

 

Lucas Sullivant had founded Franklinton in 1797 and wanted his town to be the capital. When his riverfront town was ignored by the legislature, he threw his rather significant support to his brother-in-law’s project across the river.

 

The Ohio General Assembly accepted the proposal made by the Proprietors on February 14, 1812 – St Valentine’s Day. A few days later, it rejected the name Ohio City and decided to call the new town Columbus. Shortly thereafter, it appointed surveyor Joel Wright to lay out the town. Over the months of March and April 1812, Wright, assisted by Franklin County surveyor Joseph Vance, laid out the streets of the new town.

 

On April 13, 1812, the four proprietors published an advertisement. It was printed in the few newspapers then located in Ohio and also posted as a broadside in nearby towns. It read:

 

“FOR SALE

 

“On the premises, commencing on Thursday, the eighteenth day of June next, and to continue for three days, in- and out-lots in the town of Columbus, established by an act of the legislature, as the permanent seat of government of the State of Ohio.”

 

“Terms of Sale: One fifth of the purchase money will be required in hand; the residue to be paid in four equal annual installments. Interest will be required on the deferred payments from the day of sale if they are not made punctually when due. Eight per cent will be discounted for prompt payment on the day of sale.”

 

The advertisement went on to describe the place as an “elevated and beautiful site” and a place that would one day be “rich and populous.”

 

Believing this, a number of people bought lots for prices ranging from $200 to $1,000 mostly along Broad Street and High Street. A later account noted that. “Visiting purchasers lodged in the tavern in Franklinton and reached the place appointed for the sales by crossing the river in canoes or at the ferry.”

 

The town grew quite slowly at first and only had a few settlers living there by the fall of that first year. This was not because of any lack of energy or interest. It was because the first sale of lots occurred on precisely the same day, June 18, that the United States went to war with Great Britain in what would come to be called the War of 1812.

 

Growth of a “rich and populous” place would have to wait awhile.

 

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