- The Families behind southwest Ohio’s national Park service sitesWhat Brought Them to the Buckeye State?
“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, Pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”—Wilbur Wright to the Ohio Society of New York, January 10, 1910, in Marvin McFarland, ed., The Papers of Wilbur & Orville Wright, vol. 2
Almost every place is historic in some manner, and southwestern Ohio thus contains the stories of many exceptional individuals. Charles Kettering’s and Thomas Midgley’s development of leaded gasoline in Dayton changed the course of automotive and environmental history. Arthur Morgan’s work with the Miami Conservancy District in the 1910s presaged his work developing the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Great Depression. In the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the best-selling antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), lived in Cincinnati for nearly two decades before moving to Maine in 1850; her experiences in the city directly influenced her writing. Stowe and many abolitionists were well aware of the Underground Railroad work of Rev. John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister who lived on a hill in Ripley across the Ohio River from Kentucky. Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, Stowe’s father, and a prominent abolitionist himself, believed that Rankin was one of the men most responsible for the [End Page 48] abolition of slavery in the United States.1 Museums now commemorate the influences of these individuals on their worlds.
Among the many such institutions across southwestern Ohio are three managed by the National Park Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior: William Howard Taft National Historic Site for President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft (1857–1930), in Cincinnati; Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park for aviators Wilbur (1867–1912) and Orville (1871–1948) Wright and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906); and Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument for U.S. Army Col. Charles Young (1864–1922), near Wilberforce.2 As adults, these men all spent significant time outside the state for various reasons; in particular, Taft lived in Washington, D.C., and in New Haven, Connecticut, for most of his adult life. Still, they are all considered sons of Ohio. But their roots in Ohio were shallow. None of their parents were born in the state; they all moved to it as adults. And while none of their parents ever clearly documented their reasons for coming to the state, their journeys to Ohio are emblematic of several different types of migration in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century: New Englanders leaving the rocky Northeast for new opportunities in the West, rural residents moving to the city for employment, and African Americans fleeing slavery and post‒Civil War violence in Kentucky for a new life in the North. Their stories demonstrate the importance of mobility for socioeconomic achievement for native-born [End Page 49] whites and African Americans during the middle of the nineteenth century, a century in which population movement in general was quite high.3
The first member of one of these four families to arrive in the state was Alphonso Taft (1810–91). He arrived in Cincinnati in 1839, in an era of economic depression that followed the destruction of the Second Bank of the United States, the collapse of the U.S. cotton trade with Great Britain, and the Panic of 1837.4 Originally from Townshend, Vermont, Taft graduated from Yale College in 1833 and spent much of the 1830s teaching high school in Ellington, Connecticut, and tutoring at Yale while studying law.5 In 1838, he was admitted to the bar in Connecticut, but he had no plans to remain a lawyer in rural New England. To his father, he wrote in 1837 that “we may say of [Vermont] as Jeremiah Mason said of New Hampshire, ‘It is a noble state to emigrate from.’”6 Taft first hoped to practice law in New York but quickly changed his mind after a short time there. He found he was disgusted with the city. He thought that...