Big Holiday Adventure: The 1787-88 Westward Trek into Ohio

Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry writes about 48 brave pioneers who made the westward trek into Ohio in 1787-88 – and of the 1937 reenactors who commemorated their expedition 150 years later, enduring a rather harsh Christmas. Melissa is a genealogist who has a blog, AnceStory Archives, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.

On 3 December 1937, a group of 36 young bucks sporting the trappings of colonial garb, equipped with an oxen-drawn covered wagon, gathered together in Ipswich, Massachusetts, to embark on an adventure that would interrupt their normal Christmas festivities. They sacrificed the warm comforts of home and holiday to reenact the westward journey made by 48 brave pioneers 150 years before, on 3 December 1787.

Photo: Ohio expedition reenactors gathering in Ipswich, Massachusetts, on 3 December 1937. Courtesy of Hamilton Historical Society Collection, Hamilton, Massachusetts.
Photo: Ohio expedition reenactors gathering in Ipswich, Massachusetts, on 3 December 1937. Courtesy of Hamilton Historical Society Collection, Hamilton, Massachusetts.

That 1787 expedition was sponsored by the Ohio Company of Associates, and they made tracks from Ipswich to what is now Marietta, Ohio, arriving in early April to settle the “Northwest Territory.” The newspapers of the day covered their exploration, and many articles about them can be found in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives – as well as articles about the commemorative 1937 reenactment.

Illustration: portrait of Dr. Manasseh Cutler, from the book by Archer Butler Hulbert: The Records of the Original Proceedings of the Ohio Company, Volume II, published in 1917
Illustration: portrait of Dr. Manasseh Cutler, from the book by Archer Butler Hulbert: The Records of the Original Proceedings of the Ohio Company, Volume II, published in 1917. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the movers and shakers of the westward movement to settle the Northwest Territory was Rev. Dr. Manasseh Cutler,* who worked with Revolutionary War General Rufus Putnam and others to form the Ohio Company of Associates in 1787. Cutler was the first high-powered lobbyist in the United States who successfully petitioned to procure a contract from the Continental Congress (on 6 July 1787) for land in the West for Americans (especially soldiers) who had been impoverished by the Revolutionary War.

Illustration: “He [Rev. Dr. Manasseh Cutler] prepared a large, well built wagon for their use, covered with black canvas on which he, himself, had painted in large white letters, 'FOR THE OHIO.” Image and quote from the book by Thomas Summers: History of Marietta, The Leader Publishing Co., Marietta, Ohio (1903).
Illustration: “He [Rev. Dr. Manasseh Cutler] prepared a large, well built wagon for their use, covered with black canvas on which he, himself, had painted in large white letters, ‘FOR THE OHIO.” Image and quote from the book by Thomas Summers: History of Marietta, The Leader Publishing Co., Marietta, Ohio (1903). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This contract became known as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which stipulated laws for that land – which included religious liberty, trial by jury, right to contract payment, and the prohibition of slavery.

To publicize the 1937 reenactment, the Morgan County Democrat ran a series of comic strips illustrating the story of the Ohio Company of Associates in 1787-1788.

Illustrations about the 1787 Ohio expedition, Morgan County Democrat newspaper article 23 December 1937
Morgan County Democrat (McConnelsville, Ohio), 23 December 1937, page 5

Those hardy 48 pioneers successfully made the long trek into the wilderness, and founded the first permanent settlement of civil government in the Territory by establishing Marietta, Ohio, on 7 April 1788. General George Washington said of the 48 men: “I know many of the settlers personally, and there never were men better calculated to promote the welfare of such a community.”

Before turning to coverage of the 1937 reenactment, let’s dwell a moment on Rev. Dr. Manasseh Cutler, who was so instrumental to the entire enterprise. I want to give a glimpse of a Christmas past, the one in 1765, as recorded by Cutler. The following contents are from Life, Journals and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, LL. D, Vol. I, which is a must read for genealogy research as there are many important facts and vitals recorded by Cutler. In these passages, he notes courting his future bride, Polly, and attending church at King’s Chapel:

“Dec. 24, Tuesday. Set out for Boston in the carriage with Miss Polly Balch; very cold. Spent the evening at Captain Hart’s. Lodged at Mr. Williams’. It being Christmas eve the bells in Christ Church were rung, chimed, played tunes, etc. Christ Church is a large brick building, situated at the north end, and is the first church founded in the town.

“Dec. 25, Wed. Christmas. Went to church at King’s Chapel, where was a very gay and brilliant assembly. Several intervals [during the] reading service [were] made for singing anthems, which were performed extremely well. Service was read by Parson Caner, and a sermon preached, or rather a harangue pronounced by Parson Trouback. Dined at Mr. Williams’. A very handsome dinner. In the afternoon service was read, and anthems sung, but no sermon. This church is built of stone, is very beautifully adorned with carved pillars, several images, etc. This is the most grand church in town. This evening we came to Roxbury and spent it very agreeably at Mr. Increase Sumner’s, and lodged at Mr. Samuel Sumner’s.”

Although Cutler orchestrated the 1787 expedition, it was his son Jarvis (Jervis) Cutler who made the caravan list of the 48 founders of Ohio, carefully vetting each participant to ensure high moral character, skills, and courage.

The federal government got involved in the 1937 reenactment. According to the Plain Dealer, the government sponsored the reenactors at $1 a day each and hoped their expedition would promote an interest in American history. The lads proved worthy of the mission and just as brave as the original pioneers. They endured and made it, despite harsh temperatures and injuries.

An article about the Ohio expedition reenactors, Plain Dealer newspaper article 4 April 1938
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 April 1938, page 1

According to this article, the reenactors didn’t have a very merry Christmas in 1937:

“On Christmas Eve day, Dec. 24, 1937, the men covered 28 miles despite sleet and rain. From December 22-31, Johnny Ward fell from his horse and was hospitalized. He suffered memory loss but recovered and rejoined the caravan. Richard Courage of MA [had] his saddle slip during a gallop and was ‘dragged along the pavement for fifty or sixty yards. At each step the left hoof of a thoroughly frightened horse was missing the young man’s head by only a few inches.’ Pierce York of New York was hospitalized in Allentown, PA, with pneumonia, and got back his mojo and rejoined the caravan.”

There is much more on this story if you try the search engine at GenealogyBank!

*Manasseh Cutler (1742-1823), son of Hezekiah and Susanna (Clarke) Cutler, married Mary “Polly” Balch, daughter of Rev. Thomas and Mary (Sumner) Balch.

Note on the header image: Photo of the Ohio expedition reenactors departing Ipswich, Massachusetts, on 3 December 1937. Courtesy of Hamilton Historical Society Collection, Hamilton, Massachusetts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.