He was a man of restless disposition, as were many of the men who came to Ohio in its early years. But even by the standards, such as they were, of life in frontier Ohio, James B. Gardiner was one of a kind.

He was a man of restless disposition, as were many of the men who came to Ohio in its early years. But even by the standards, such as they were, of life in frontier Ohio, James B. Gardiner was one of a kind.

He arrived in frontier Franklinton in 1812, presumably because he was the sort of person who liked to be in the middle of things. If that was the case, he had certainly picked the right place.

Founded by pioneer surveyor Lucas Sullivant in 1797, the village was located at the forks of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers near the center of what was soon to become the state of Ohio. Since most people coming to Ohio arrived either by Lake Erie or the Ohio River, Franklinton did not amount to much in its early days.

By the spring of 1798 only 15 people lived in Sullivant's town, and he was not one of them. He had returned to Kentucky to get his family, and when he returned he found the entire village had been washed away in a flood. The nice thing about a town with only a few residents is that it is easy to move. So Sullivant did just that and moved the entire town a bit west to higher and hopefully drier ground.

Still, the little village in the middle of the frontier did not grow all that much. Perhaps its location only a couple of dozen miles from Indian territory in northwest Ohio had something to do with it. But most likely it was simply that Franklinton was well-removed from most places of any importance.

All of that changed in 1812. The Ohio General Assembly designated the "high banks opposite Franklinton" to be the home of the new state capital of Columbus. And on the very same day the first lots were sold in Columbus, the United States went to war with Great Britain.

Now Franklinton was important for another reason. It lay directly on one of the main trails from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. The town soon became a major mobilization and training center for the armies of Gen. William Henry Harrison and the jumping off place for his campaigns against the British and their Native American allies.

Arriving in Franklinton in the spring of 1812, Gardiner, age 24, of Marietta and points east took one look and decided this was the place for him and the strange contraption in his wagon. It was a printing press and Gardiner founded the first newspaper in what is now Columbus. It was not the first newspaper in Ohio and it certainly would not be the last.

But it was one of the most memorable.

Gardiner called his paper the Freeman's Chronicle and set forth his philosophy at the top of the first page in his first edition of July 4, 1812.

Here shall the press the people's rights maintain,

Unawed by influence, unbribed by gain.

Here patriot truth its glorious precepts draw,

Pledged to religion, liberty and law.

Keeping in mind that many of the residents of Franklinton could not read and had no wish to learn and that many of the people who could read had no money to buy a paper, Gardiner had set himself a difficult task.

But he persevered. The Chronicle did not look very much like the newspapers of today. Printed in five columns of small type on a large sheet of white paper, the paper had no pictures and precious little graphic embellishment of any sort. Its national news was usually several weeks old and its state news was "borrowed" from other papers received in exchange for a free copy of the Chronicle.

But since it was on the front line of a major conflict its local news was relatively current. When a conference was held in Franklinton in 1813 between Harrison and the major tribes of Native Americans in the state, Gardiner reported it as an eyewitness.

Over the course of the war, Gardiner's newspaper advertised local businesses, pursued debtors for the benefit of creditors and regularly preached a brand of politics that Thomas Jefferson would have found agreeable if a bit convoluted.

His paper lasted as long as the war lasted; when the war ended, so too did the paper. Unable to make ends meet and with a wife and family to support, Gardiner sold his press and, like many men of his time, reinvented himself.

Looking around for a business that would make him some money, he moved across the river to Columbus in 1816 and opened a tavern. Located just west of High Street a few blocks south of Statehouse Square, the establishment was rustic at best.

Then in 1818, an opportunity presented itself. David Broderick had built the Columbus Inn on the southeast corner of High and State streets in 1815. The two-story white frame building was anything but rustic and soon became the favorite meeting place of the Columbus Borough Council.

In 1818, Broderick wanted to move on and sold the inn to Gardiner. Possessed with more than bit of wit, Gardiner was now in his element. Continuing to use his newspaper pen name of "Cokeley," Gardiner kept his guests well entertained with good food, a lot of alcohol and an unending fund of humorous stories usually delivered as doggerel poetry.

Although it loses a bit in translation, a sample survives as Gardiner summed up the business community of Columbus:

I sell buckram and tape McCoy

I sell crocks and leather Cutler

I am the gentleman's ape Armstrong

I am all that together Brown

McCoy and Cutler ran general stores. Armstrong and Brown were competing tavern owners. The verse continues on with descriptions of other merchants in a similar lighthearted way.

But by 1828, Columbus seemed to be less a place to make one's fortune than to simply pass one's time.

Gardiner moved to Greene County and soon entered a profession easily as popular as printing and tavern keeping. He went into politics and represented Greene County in the legislature for a few years.

Eventually he returned to Columbus to stay in 1835 and soon got a contract as state printer for three years. In 1837, Gardiner died in Columbus. Like many of the men of his generation, he died young at the age of 48. He is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.

Gardiner was the wit and conscience of frontier Columbus. He was a man who was easy to like and just as easy to dislike. But all would agree he was impossible to ignore.

Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.

Ed

Lentz