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Chicago F.A. Battey and Company Publishers 1882


By: R.H. Rerick

Clay Township- Swamps and Marshes-Journey to the Wilderness-Early Homes and Labors-
Appalling Mortality in 1838-Growth and Improvement-Churches and Schools

     Clay Township, though lying near the heart of the county, was one of the latest townships organized and still remains behind other townships in wealth and population. In the earliest days of the settlement, heavy forests and marshes covered the land, with only about five sections out of the thirty-six inviting to the settler. To the north lay the broad prairies and easier cultivated lands of the upper townships, from which Clay was cut off by a long chain of marshes and rivulets and small lakes. At the present time, a large fraction of the land is marsh, and, in 1830, the water was a much more general element than now. At that time the now insignificant Buck Creek would indulge in floods during rainy seasons. The configuration of the township is uninteresting, except at the north, where the country is rolling, often approaching the dignity of hills. The only body of water in the township lies near the northern line-Buck Lake- which is yet an attractive little sheet of water, though cultivation has destroyed much of the picturesque surroundings it had when it was a favorite "watering place" of the Pottawatomie braves and belles, when they were out on the Mongoquinong and Goshen trail. This spot is now rich in Indian relics, and a few small mounds or burial places are yet distinguishable. With its disadvantages in character of land, Clay did not rival the richer settlements in early years and did not get a start until LaGrange came to be the most important town in the county. The first certificate issued for Clay land was No. 4,536 to Nathan Jenks, on June 9, 1835. One of the most interesting of the later entries is that made by the distinguished expounder of the Constitution, Daniel Webster, who, it appears, bought of the Government the east half of the northeast quarter of Section 9, and received Land Order 12,656, dated July 20, 1836. The great statesman afterward conveyed it to Senator James A. Bayard, father of the present Democratic leader. In the course of later transfers, the land passed through
the hands of the old United States Bank, which was "nullified" by Andrew Jackson. There was but little speculation in Clay lands.

     A saw-mill on Buck Creek, at the site of the mills now owned by E. Fleck, was one of the first buildings in 
the township. Before there were any other white men settled in the township, material was prepared in 1835, by a few settlers from the surrounding country for this mill. Samuel Hood was the builder, but it was not completed 
until after 1837. Levi Knott then ran the mill. A little settlement grew up with this industry, which formed the 
nucleus of the township growth. In this neighborhood there settled the Spragues, Madison and Michael
Thomas and Anson Clark, the latter the only single man, and Gilbert, a son-in-law of Thomas Clark. Gilbert soon left the country on account of irregularities which the settlers could not tolerate, even in such a distant 
outpost of civilization. These pioneers were all from Ohio. Some of them had had bitter experiences coming up through the Black Swamp on the Dayton Road, in Ohio, and it took brave hearts to go through the hardships and trials of the journey for the sake of opening up the ague-tainted woods and marshes. In 1836, John Ryason
came in, having bought lands near the present site of LaGrange. After much hard work in improving the township, he moved to LaGrange, and afterward died. Two other early comers were Montgomery and Boyles, who were 
employed at the mill in 1839. The first birth in the township is claimed to be a daughter to John and Charlotte Ryason, born March 17, 1837. But about the same time, Mrs. Montgomery presented the world with triplets, an occurence which caused quite a sensation, and people came in numbers to see the little pioneers, not forgetting gifts for the parents, who were very poor. About 1837, Richard Salmon and his father and John Ramsey
came to the country from New Jersey. Obadiah Lawrence, an early settler in Van Buren, married in that town, and came to Clay in 1836. He was a member of the first election board in 1838, when there were hardly enough voters to act as officers. One of the Thorps served on this board. There were four of this family, well known at that time- Elisha Thorp, the father; and his sons, William, John and Jacob, lived near Lampmans 

     Shedrick Carney, one of the most widely known of the men who put muscle into the farms of Clay, came 
into line on land near LaGrange February 28, 1838. He had previously been in the county. He remembers with distinctness the bitter weather in which his journey was made, and the deep snow which covered the promised 
land upon his arrival. Mr. Carney was one of the contractors for furnishing lumber for the first court house, at $6.50 per thousand feet.

     Samuel Carnahan, from Ohio, among the earliest, settled in the northeast in 1843, and lived here until his death in 1867. His sons, Alexander, Hiram and Samuel, are still residents of the county.

     These pioneers had no easy task before them. The country they had chosen was difficult to open, and there 
was everything to dishearten all but the boldest. But they were men who could face such work and overcome it. Some of them could chop down a heavy oak before breakfast for an appetizer, and fell an ordinary monarch of 
the forest for pasttime. Many came into the country through mud and pelting snow. For food they must pay 18 cents a pound for pork, an article that would severely try a modern stomach. Salt was $9 a barrel and flour $14, and this had to be teamed often through the Black Swamp. But the settlers stood up bravely, and were happy in the prospect of farms of two or three acres, until the ague came. The sickly season of 1838 affected Clay so 
much as to practically put a stop to immigration for several years. Entire families would be shaking with fever and chills, unable to render assistance to each other. The ague had its favorite home in the bogs and fens of Clay. 
Other cheerful companions of those days were the rattlesnakes and wolves and Indians. Of the lot, the Indians were the most harmless. They hunted deer through the township a great deal, but never molested the white men. The last of the red men turned their faces to the setting sun and departed in 1843-44. Yet, with all their 
hardships, the settlers were not altogether unhappy. Mark Tapley could be cheerful in the "Eden" of swamp that Dickens tells of, and our pioneers were much better located than Mark was, and just as light-hearted. There were social gatherings once in a while, as the settlement increased- gatherings of the men sometimes- and thereby 
hangs many a tale of lively "shindies" and high old times in some lonely cabin. As time wore on, there were 
meetings now and then in the old log schoolhouse, which was put up in 1837, near the present residence of John Shirley, Sr. It was only eighteen feet square, but people would go from all parts of the township and the country around about, on foot or in ox carts, and pack it full and overflowing.

     Another log schoolhouse was erected on Henry Wallace's land in the south, a little later. In the spring of 1836, Eppah Robbins built the first blacksmith-shop on the banks of Buck Creek. All of these old buildings 
have been destroyed. Although this region was not much sought after for some time (the prairies being preferred), people continued to come in slowly. Among the new-comers of 1839-40 were M. P. Sprague, who came from
New York, and, in 1845, opened a brick-yard upon his land; William Wigton, father of James C. and R. F. Wigton, of LaGrange, occupied a farm in the same neighborhood. Mr. Wigton, in company with Edwin Owen, built a saw-mill on this land in 1853, and operated it for six years. In 1864, Mr. Owen removed to Van Buren Township. Another early family were the Woodwards (Mrs.Margaret Woodward and her sons, John
William and Thomas) who are yet prominent citizens of the township and vicinity.

     About 1843, there were bad seasons in Ohio, and, in consequence, a considerable immigration took place, of which Clay received its share. Prominent among those who settled in the northeast of the township were Sylvester Davis, who remained but a few years; his son, Franklin Davis (who in his early days managed the Showalter Mill, at LaGrange, married in 1850, and went upon the farm in Section 11, which he now occupies); Lewis Merrifield and James Packer, afterward of Bloomfield; Jesse Everett, David and Silas Latta (the latter of whom is deceased), Josiah Eaton and Oscar Spaulding. James Boyd,of Tuscarawas County, Ohio, 
generously increased the population by settling north of Sayler's Schoolhouse with a family of seventeen children. Mr. Boyd is still numbered among the living pioneers, but his wife is deceased. A little later than 1840, John Merriman bought land in the neighborhood of Fleck's Mills, and, in 1844, John Robbins, who had been living 
in the county since February, 1836, at Pretty Prairie and Van Buren, moved into Clay, on to a farm in Section 20. Mr. Robbins was born in Pennsylvania in 1808, moved with his father in 1816 to Ohio, and came to this county with his brothers and sister at the above date. He is still a citizen of the township. 

     One of the most famous characters of the north of the township during the early times was Richard Thompson, or Dick, as they called him, a whole-souled and pious old man, but withal as jovial as any other son of Erin. He invested his property in Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad stock, which, unfortunately, has since then seldom attained the value of 15 cents on the dollar.

     The settlement on the town-line road between Clearspring and Clay was begun in the years 1835 or 1836, when Erastus Clark, one of the earliest Justices of the township, settled on land now occupied by John Roy; Ernestus Schermerhorn came to the neighborhood about the same time as Clark did. John Roy was here in 1838, but did not at that time remain, being compelled by family misfortunes to return to his old home in Wayne 
County, N. Y. In 1846, he came again to Clay and has since been a resident. Mr. Roy has been honored by his township with the position of Trustee for fourteen years, during which time he has erected nearly all the schoolhouses now in use in the township. The other earliest comers were Elisha Taylor, who lived at the present residence of Milton Bingham; Hezekiah Beebee; Leiflick Sanburn, of New England; Widow Dorcas Bailey, of Ohio; and Jacob Mosher, of New York, who was in 1881 the oldest man in the township The 
people were mostly from the East, and formed an intelligent and kindly neighborhood. In 1842, Mrs.Caroline G. Bingham, with her son Milton and daughter Laura, came to the home of her father, Elisha Taylor, where the mother and son still reside. Their journey was from Allegany County, N. Y., overland- there were nine in the wagon, and it was an eighteen days' journey. Mrs. Bingham was one of the earliest schoolmistresses, and can also remember, as an incident of that time, when every one turned his hand to everything in the way of work, 
when she could see specimens of her tailoring on nearly all of the church goers at the log schoolhouse. Samuel Beatty, who now owns several hundred acres of land and is one of the leading solid men of the township, came 
in about 1844, and by skill in coopering paid for a yoke of oxen to begin the work of clearing off the nucleus of 
his present possessions. In 1851, Arad Lapman moved into Clay Township from Newbury, and settled where 
he now lives.

Volunteer transcription by Pati Blowers May. Material for transcription gathered by Barbara Henderson. 

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