CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Cleveland Irish: Fire Lands

Cleveland Irish: Fire Lands


By Francis McGarry

I listened to Marshall Sahlins at the 2001 American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in our nation’s capital. He was a professor at Chicago, and I audited one of his courses. In DC, he gave a talk on the relationship of individual and society. It focused on Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” The home run that gave the New York Giants the National League pennant in 1951, defeating the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In the end, Sahlins argued that the individual can never be removed from the complex systems of social organization. The study of the Irish in Cleveland begins with a discussion of the social, cultural and economic structures in which they would participate.

The Last Glacier
Give or take a decade or two, 20,000 years ago, the area we know as Ohio was covered in ice, or at least two-thirds of it was. Those were the last glaciers in the United States. They left fertile soil and the geology that would be the literal groundwork for the Erie Canal.

Benjamin Franklin remarked while reviewing early maps of the area that the site of the future Cleveland would prove to be an important location. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel defines it as “geographic luck.” Take that, you Mistake on the Lake misanthropes.

As early as 200 B.C., Native Americans utilized the Cuyahoga River, formed by the retreat of that mass of ice, for food and transportation. The river was known for its current and clear water, at the time.

Those Pre-Columbian, and pre-Franklin, people were members of the Hopewell culture, and they built mounds throughout the region including at East 9th and Euclid, East 53rd and Woodland, in Newburgh and throughout the Cuyahoga River Valley. Dr. Brian Redmond is the Curator of Archaeology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and author of Encountering Hopewell in the Twenty-first Century, Ohio and Beyond.

The Erie Indians
The Hopewell were followed by Wyandot, Huron, Ottawa, Iroquois and Erie peoples. It was the Erie people that lived along the southern edge of the lake that takes their name. As my uncle would say, “The lake is named after a group of eastsiders.”

Their relatives, the Iroquois, formed the Five Nations and in the middle 17th Century decimated the Erie people. It was then that the Cuyahoga River separated the Iroquois to the east and the Huron to the west.

The period between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 was not peaceful in the Great Lakes region, including Ohio. In 1871, Little Turtle led his Miami warriors and defeated General Arthur St. Clair and his troops from Cincinnati on the banks of the Wabash River. It was the worst defeat in the continental US that the American army has ever suffered.

It was General Anthony Wayne, St. Clair’s replacement, who won the Battle of Fallen Timbers and signed the Treaty of Greenville, which would eventually open lands west of the Cuyahoga.  John Whistler was under the command of General Wayne. Major John Whistler was commander of the garrison at Fort Wayne. His son George was born there in 1800. George was “Whistler’s Father.” The oil and canvas of Anna McNeill Whistler, “Whistler’s Mother,” was painted by her son, James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

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Western Reserve
In 1786, Connecticut waved its claim of possession of all lands granted by . It kept possession of the Western Reserve, south of the lake to the 41st parallel north and 120 miles west of the Pennsylvania line.
The Ordinance of 1787 established the process of admitting new states to the Union. In 1792, the State of Connecticut designated lands in the Western Reserve for those who lost property during the Revolution, some by fire. The sale of “Fire Lands” were allocated to support Connecticut schools. All of which makes me confident that we just won the Men’s National Championship, somehow.

Moses Cleaveland
Moses Cleaveland met with representatives of the Mohawk and Seneca people in Buffalo in 1796. After discussion and payment, Cleaveland and his party were allowed to head to the Cuyahoga River.
Some of that discussion would have been with the assistance of Joseph Hodge. Hodge was a trapper and employed as a guide and interpreter in 1796, the only African American in the Cleaveland expedition.

Cleaveland paid 500 pounds of New York currency, two cattle and 100 gallons of whiskey in exchange for the rights to survey and settle lands east of the Cuyahoga River. The land to the west was still claimed by Huron and by Wayne County, of which Detroit was the county seat.

In the days following the expedition, Moses Cleaveland founded the township of Euclid in 1796. He intended to honor the Greek mathematician and considered Euclid the “patron saint” of surveyors. That would be St. Thomas the Apostle for us Catholic folk.

Cleaveland then returned to Connecticut to resume his practice of law. He died ten years later, never to visit Ohio after his historic expedition. Moses Cleaveland remained a board member of the Connecticut Land Company until his death.

It is reported he wanted to name the settlement after the river, but that decision was not his to make. Augustus Porter made a report to the directors of the Connecticut Land Company regarding the expenses of the first year and the management of the company.

It was found that the Western Reserve was 3,450,753 acres. 500,000 acres were designated as “Fire Lands” and the total excluded islands in Lake Erie and Sandusky Bay. The company purchased 50,000 acres for forty cents an acre; that land never existed. Management was deemed to be acceptable, perhaps unremarkable. Moses Cleaveland had done his job.

The second expedition, in early 1797, was organized by Rev. Seth Hart and Seth Pease, chief surveyor. The exploration of the Western Reserve was completed by the fall of 1797, with lots and streets planned. The year also witnessed the first settlers to the Western Reserve. That discussion, my friends, is for next month.

It is this history that provides the basis of those first settlers and the hardships they had to endure. Their narratives then lead to the foundations of early Cleveland society, based on their beliefs: of ownership, of righteousness and of providence. 

*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago. He is the Executive Director of Bluestone Hibernian Charities and proprietor of McGarry Consulting. He is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side and the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.   

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