Early Agriculture and Settlement in Northeast Ohio

Jen Gerger

by Mark Gilson

Agriculture arrived in Ohio long before European settlement. By the time of the Beaver Wars around 1650, the Iroquois Confederacy, comprised of five Native American nations at the time, pushed into Ohio Country between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, driving out the Erie Indians (sometimes referred to as ‘the Cat People’ because of their affection for raccoons in diet and ornamentation) and other tribes. The area was rich with deer, elk, raccoons, beaver, fish and woodlands… (troubled by bear, panthers, rattlesnakes, wolves and mosquitoes)… but very few Iroquois would live in Ohio, preferring to reserve the area, especially Northeast Ohio, for hunting, trapping and fishing among friendly tribes.

Journals from Pierre Joseph Celoron de Blainville in 1749 describe the typical route Europeans took to the Ohio ‘North West Territory’. Boats transported explorers, traders and soldiers from Montreal and Eastern Lake Erie, to near current-day Westfield, New York, and the mouth of Chautauqua Creek, where they followed a difficult portage, climbing 800 feet in elevation to Chautauqua Lake. From there, by boat, they traveled southward to current-day Warren, Pennsylvania and the Allegheny River, downstream to the Monongahela River, past current-day Pittsburgh, to the Muskingum River junction, future home of Marietta, then traveling further west to the Miami River near modern-day Cincinnati. The French group left lead plaques at various places in their journey, claiming the lands for their country (a futile gesture because the lands were already subject to British influence). From the Miami River they traveled north along the Maumee River to Sandusky Bay, and eventually to Detroit. The entire journey, beginning and ending in Montreal, took five months. The Iroquois continued to side with trappers and traders from the Netherlands and England. The French mission did not accomplish much other than to chase out a few Englishmen here and there. Their accounts describe only a few Iroquois residing along the rivers amidst the limitless forests.

The woodlands themselves provided ample food for Native Americans and early settlers. Indians utilized ‘fire regime’ to periodically clear the underbrush and dead trees. This practice enhanced access and rejuvenated the forests. Nut trees were planted by Native Americans in groves to provide easy access to chestnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts and other ‘mast’. The American chestnut dominated the forests in many areas and covered the ground in fall with an inexhaustible supply of nuts readily consumed by deer, bear and humans. (Once a staple in Eastern American forests, the native chestnut trees succumbed to a canker blight that entered this country in the late-1800s. Few remain, and yet a healthy stand was discovered in Trumbull County in 2007 and another tree remains in a marsh near Lake Erie, the location not published by Ohio Department of Natural Resources because it houses an eagle’s nest.)

Native American gardening was accomplished by companion planting of ‘The Three Sisters’: squash, corn and climbing beans, all of which evolved in Central and South America as far back as 8000 BC. The ‘Sisters’ were planted in ‘hills’, corn first, followed by squash and beans. The corn provided structure for the beans, the beans provided nitrogen for the soil, while the squash covered the soil, shading out weeds and retaining moisture. From the standpoint of human health, the ‘Sisters’ yielded a balanced diet, long before nutritional science. Western Indians would later add a ‘Fourth Sister’ in the form of cleome, popular in modern gardens, to draw pollinators for the squash and beans.

Early American Colonists were astonished at the jumbled ‘Three Sisters’ foliage, observing that the Indians lacked the wherewithal to construct a ‘proper garden’ with straight rows and bare soil in between. It was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that scientists would understand the benefits of complementary vegetables and rotational crops.

Northeastern Ohio remained largely untouched and unsettled during the French and Indian War, 1754 to 1763, and the Revolutionary War, 1775 to 1783. Yet the Iroquois League suffered during the Revolutionary War when their group (six nations by now) split allegiance between the British and their colonists. Even so, early surveyors and settlers remained wary of venturing into the ‘Indian Lands’ in Northeast Ohio.

A bubbling spot in Lake Erie, just off the shore at the end of current-day Antioch Road in North Perry Village, represented a spiritual affirmation of local bounties to the Iroquois. On October 20, 1776, returning by boat from the original survey of uninhabited areas near the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, General Moses Cleaveland’s 52-member team camped at this spot and described it as follows:

“A… spring in the Lake, two or three yards from shore, which is very perceptible, as you stand upon the beach, from its boiling motion… “

The General ventured out by boat and lit the turbulence with a torch in about four feet of water, and set the natural gas to flame. (I surveyed this same area from my own boat on a calm day in October, 2014, and found no evidence of the reported disturbance.) According to a journal by John Milton Holley, an 18-year-old on General Cleaveland’s team, one of the survey groups venturing southward along the Pennsylvania line lost their pack animals and subsisted for a night on raspberries, gooseberries, wintergreen berries and wintergreens. This mixture rendered them ill for a day but they ultimately survived. Other reports describe mosquito hordes that darkened the sky and killed several cattle.

In 1798 ‘Colonel Harper’ settled with his family nearby in Harpersfield, one of the first Caucasians to dwell in Lake County. He died later that year of malaria; his gravestone remains in Unionville Cemetery (Madison).

During this time the area came to be known as the Western Reserve associated with Revolutionary War veterans from Connecticut and the Connecticut Land Company. And yet, from 1775 to 1800, the area became an ‘anomalous autonomy, an isolated piece of a previous colony… without laws or government of any kind… no courts, no laws, no records, no magistrates or police… It was literally No man’s land… but it was a veritable Utopia. It was the acme and dream of ideal society.’ (E.O.Randall)

(Could this be why, so many generations later, following Puritan and New England descent, our area exerts such free-thinking and libertarian leadership in state-wide and national affairs?)

Following Cleaveland’s survey team, the Kingsbury family settled in Conneaut, site of a Massasaus Indian village. Charles Parker, a member of the Cleaveland survey team, followed by settling in 1798 near Mentor Marsh. James Thompson was the first settler in Madison in 1801, occupying a windowless cabin with a bark roof and dirt floors accompanied by ten acres of cleared land sowed with wheat. (Can you imagine him pitching this fine existence to his wife?) Other settlers followed, such as Joel Paine and his wife . By 1807 nine families inhabited Madison. Wheat brought $3 and corn $2 per bushel at this time.

The incidence of agricultural pests was no different then:

‘… the year 1806 was memorable for the event of the immense multitude of squirrels that infested the forests of the lake townships, devastating the cornfields as they passed on their way in a most savage manner, and contributing much to the scarcity of grains and pork in 1807.’


In 1806 a settler named Walruth built a cabin on the North Ridge above Grand River at the spot occupied fifty years later by Storrs & Harrison Nursery (Painesville). Walruth planted fruit trees on the site, establishing perhaps the first nursery in Northeastern Ohio. Ezra Beebee probably represented Perry’s first settler in 1808. By 1811 settlers drove Ohio cattle to Buffalo along the beach, utilizing the sand bar a hundred yards into Lake Erie in front of Ashtabula harbor. Local whiskeys were used as currency, one quart worth one deerskin, equal to one dollar. Sugar Maples were tapped to provide ‘maple sugar, one of the few sweets in the diet of early settlers.

1816 was known as the ‘Year Without A Summer’, owing most likely to the volcano on Mount Tamboro in Indonesia a year earlier, a historic event which dumped tremendous amounts of ash and smoke into the atmosphere. New England suffered their coldest summer in memory with severe frosts in June, July and August. Corn crops were destroyed, oats and potatoes half-ruined. The season prompted renewed migration from New England to Ohio country. Some Midwest settlers chose to move further west.

Early settlers at this time spent 50-60 days traveling from Connecticut, by ox and horse, enduring every kind of hardship, following woodland trails with no bridges over brooks and rivers, enduring storms along the lakeshore as they traveled the beach, or a multitude of dangers as they traversed the winter ice on Lake Erie. And yet the Ohio Country, the Northwest Territory, with its fertile soils and endless bounty, rewarded hard work, enterprise and the pioneering spirit. Once cleared of beech maple forests, hemlocks and thuja, the pinelands near the lakeshore, the southlands beyond Grand River, these areas yielded an abundance not found in the Eastern Colonies.

Mark Gilson
January, 2015

Originally published in The Madison Historical Society newsletter.