Happy birthday, Dayton: How the city was founded in 1796 and grew in its early days

This story was part of a year-long series about Dayton’s history published in the Dayton Daily News throughout 1963.

The Dayton story begins with the arrival of settlers from Cincinnati in April of 1796.

Three parties, totaling 36 men, women and children, left the Queen City in March. Two followed a trail slashed through the forest by Daniel C. Cooper the previous fall.

The third party of 12, including the Samuel Thompsons, the McClures and Benjamin Van Cleve, traveled by boat up the Great Miami River.

The boat party, first to arrive, had been on the river 10 days. The overland parties, led by John Hamer and George Newcom, trudged in three or four days later, Hamer’s party of outdistanced Newcom’s party of 14.

THESE HARDY pioneers were not the first to dream of new dream homes in the Miami Valley, In 1789 the year marking adoption of the federal constitution, three men formed plans to settle at the mouth of the “Tiber,” their name for the Mad River.

They agreed to buy the site from John Cleves Symmes, sole proprietor of the Miami Purchase, vast tract between the Great Miami and Little Miami rivers.

Had their plans matured, Maj. Benjamin Stites, John Stites Gano and William Goforth would have named their community “Venice.” They abandoned their project because of rising Indian hostility and Symmes’ troubles with the federal Government expecting his contract covering the Miami Purchase.

The Treaty of Greenville in 1795, following Gen. Anthony Wayne’s victory over the Indians, opened the Miami Valley to peaceful settlement. To be sure, the treaty did not wipe out hostility on the part of individual Indians, some of whom occasionally harassed the Dayton settlement.

The story of two Indians captured when they tried to loot the Thompson cabin illustrates the attitude of the pioneer leaders. Hotheads demanded that the marauders be summarily shot. Newcom and Thompson demurred, Said Newcom, “We’re going to have law and order in Dayton.”

Fear of Indian attacks prompted construction of a block house, a kind of fortress, in which the settlers could take refuge in the event of an organized onslaught. Located at what was then head of Main Street on the Miami river. the block house also served as Dayton’s first school whose teacher was Benjamin Van Cleve.

Apart from wresting a living from the wilderness, the first settlers soon faced a property problem by reason of Symmes’ shaky title to the Miami Purchase and his carelessness in handling sales.

Symmes, born in Long Island, N.Y, in 1742, migrated to New Jersey at the age of 21. Active in the American Revolution, he recruited a regiment of which he was colonel in 1775.

He was one of five who drafted New Jersey’s first constitution, Symmes also was a judge of the New Jersey Supreme Court. He was, therefore, in a favorable position to purchase land in the Ohio country. Moreover, he was able to enlist the aid of Gen Jonathan Dayton, a member of the Congress from New Jersey. His Miami Purchase embraced more than a million acres for which he agreed to pay 66⅔ cents an acre.

Symmes’ hassle with the federal government is a long story. For our purpose it is enough to note that his failure to meet his financial obligation to the federal government brought a crisis here. The land titles were invalid.

UNABLE to meet the government’s new price-two dollars an acre-a number of those first Daytonians threatened to abandon the settlement.

At that juncture, Cooper, who had followed the original group to Dayton, intervened in the dispute, bought the Dayton site and established clear titles.

Generous and far - sighted Cooper laid out wide streets, donated lots for schools, churches, county buildings, a graveyard and a market house. Cooper park, in which the public library is located is another of his benefactions, served as justice of the peace, president of the town council and as a member of both houses of the state legislature.

Two other pioneers stand out in the annals of that first Dayton decade. Newcom built the first tavern in 1796 and apparently enlarged it in 1798.

A log structure in which the city still takes pride, it was the center of local group activities and the fountain head of hospitality to visitors.

The tavern also housed the first store, the first church service and the first court session here. Built at the southwest corner of Main and Water (now Monument) Streets, it was moved to Van Cleve part on East Monument Avenue in 1896.

NEWCOM was Montgomery county’s first sheriff and, for 23 years, a member of the General Assembly, He died in 1853 at the age of 82.

Benjamin Van Cleve first visited the confluence of the Miami, Mad and Stillwater rivers in 1795 as a member of a surveying party that included Cooper and Israel Ludlow, the leader.

It was Ludlow who named the settlement Dayton in honor of the New Jersey senator. Ludlow and Gen. Dayton had joined Gen. James Wilkinson and Gen. Arthur of the St. Clair, first governor of the Northwest Territory, in the purchase of a portion of the Symmes tract.

From the organization of Montgomery county in 1803 until his death in 1821, Van Cleve was clerk of the court. Named Dayton’s first postmaster, he served from 1804 to 1821. He was an in- corporator of the public library and, in 1809, was appointed a trustee of Miami university.

Van Cleve’s diary discloses his philosophy:

“All power is originally derived from the people and all free governments are founded on their authority ... No human authority can in any case whatever control or interfere with the rights of conscience ... All men have the right to worship the Supreme Being agreeable to the dictates of their own consciences, and no preferences ought ever to be given any religious establishment or mode of worship by law Liberty consists in the power to do that everything except that which is hurtful to others ... Every person is presumed innocent until legally convicted ... I am persuaded no honest man can vote for a toleratioon of slavery.”

About the Author