- Pioneers and Land on the Ohio Frontier
Writing in his journal in early 1751, Christopher Gist recorded very positive observations about the Great Miami River Valley in western Ohio. A land locator for the Ohio Company, Gist described the valley as being composed of "fine, rich, level Land, well timbered with large Walnut, Ash, Sugar Trees [sugar maples], Cherry Trees &c." Moreover, the land was "well watered with a great Number of little Streams or Rivulets," and was "full of beautiful natural Meadows, covered with wild Rye, blue Grass and Clover."1 Gist's words suggest the lust for land harbored by many, perhaps most, Euro-American settlers in Ohio. Pioneers had an almost carnal desire to possess land. As the bicentennial of the Land Act of 1820 approaches, it is worth remembering the tremendous importance of land hunger in the settlement of Ohio and the United States.
The 1820 congressional legislation made it easier than before for Americans to purchase land from the public domain. The earlier Land Act of 1804 had required the purchase of at least 160 acres at $2 per acre. The 1820 law lowered [End Page 7] the minimum allowable purchase to 80 acres and reduced the price to $1.25 per acre.2 The nation's land laws had somewhat contradictory objectives: to bring in sorely needed revenue for the national treasury in the days well before the income tax, but also to quickly transfer land into the hands of frontier settlers. By late 1821, the federal government had sold about 7.3 million acres of the public domain to individuals in Ohio, roughly two-thirds of that surveyed and available for sale; four years later another 1.4 million acres had been sold.3 (There were about 29 million acres in Ohio, but large parcels had been sold to land companies. Moreover, not all of Ohio's public domain had yet been surveyed and put up for sale.)
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This article examines the significance of land hunger for the settlement of what would become the state of Ohio by looking at the region's land and resources through the eyes of early land locators, travelers, and settlers.4 All of these newcomers had a desire for land, but a nuanced one, as not all lands were regarded as the same. More than an intellectual history, this article also examines the consequences of differing points of view by looking at how and why people moved to new lands and worked them, mainly by farming. It concludes by examining the environmental results of those migrations and farming.5 [End Page 9]
explorers and travelers view the ohio country
How did Euro-Americans view land in the Ohio Country? A look at the ideas and actions of three newcomers to Ohio begins to provide answers: Christopher Gist, who traversed much of Ohio in the early 1750s; Nicholas Cresswell, a young man seeking farmland in the mid-1770s; and John Francis Baily, a British resident who descended the Ohio River as part of a tour of North America during the mid-1790s.6
The son of one of the commissioners who laid out the town of Baltimore, Christopher Gist was a resident of North Carolina when employed by the Ohio Company. He was married and the father of three sons. Christopher fought in 1755 with Gen. Thomas Braddock as a scout against the French and their Indian allies at the outset of the French and Indian War. After Braddock's defeat, Gist continued to serve in the British military and as an Indian agent before dying of smallpox during the summer of 1759 in South Carolina or Georgia.7
Gist's journals of his travels in Ohio in 1751–52 contain numerous references to fertile land that could be put to the plow. As we have seen, he had nothing but good...