William Maxwell




Dayton Daily News Magazine - November 19, 1922, Page 3

The Neglected Grave of A Forgotten Genius
By Howard Burba


[transcription of article]

Next time the monument-building germ creeps into the system of Buckeye state residents and an epidemic of shaft-rearing breaks out, it is hoped that some sort of marker will be placed over a certain neglected, weed-grown little mound down in Beaver creek tp., Greene county.

It has been there for more than one hundred years, that long-forgotten, windowless home of a real genius, though lost sight of through the passing years and but recently discovered by sheer accident or through a fate that seeks to keep alive the memory of a most remarkable man.

Over in Beaver creek tp., but a short distance from the little settlement of Alpha, and not far from the Dayton-Xenia pike is the grave of William Maxwell, the man who printed the first newspaper in the northwest territory and who published the first book printed west of the Alleghanies [sic]. A simple slab of stone, totally devoid of carving or lettered character and not to be dignified by the word "monument," marks his burial place. No mourners come to place upon it blossoms bespeaking their love and affection; off there alone and by the present generation almost wholly forgotten, he sleeps on through the ages, "unwept, unhonored and unsung."

Volumes have been written about the founding of the first newspaper in the middle west, the old "Centinel Of the Northwest Territory," but historians generally have devoted little time and space to its founder, William Maxwell. As a result it is doubtful if one person out of a thousand in this section knows that Maxwell, retiring from newspaper work at an advanced age, purchased a tract of land in Greene county--at that time part of Hamilton county--and spending his later years there, died and was buried on a little knoll overlooking his own fertile acres.

Numerous times since his death in 1809 the original tract has changed hands. For many years Maxwell's grave was not lost sight of. But as time went on, and residents of the community passed from earth, as landmarks gave way to modern improvements, as property lines were shifted and landed [sic] titles changed, the little mound settled to a natural level, and eventually was lost sight of altogether. Some few years ago, however, distant relatives made a search for it, and were rewarded. The crude stone placed at the head of the mound by those sturdy pioneers who officiated at the obsequies had weathered the elements for more than one hundred years, and stood as a silent sentinel over a spot that should be sacred to all those who appreciate the power of the printed word.

Having served faithfully as a soldier in the revolutionary war, Maxwell celebrated the recognition of our independence by packing a little old Ramage printing press and two or three cases of type into a bundle that could have been carried on a push cart. He had a smattering knowledge of printing, which he gained in New York. But where he secured the press and type, and what purpose the equipment had served before it came into his hands, no one appears to have learned. Turning his face to the west, he managed to get his press and type as far as Pittsburg. There it was an easy matter to procure passage down the Ohio.

Cincinnati at that time had a population of about 200. But pioneers were steadily coming in from the east, and Maxwell was quick to perceive that here eventually would be a prosperous trading point and an important spot on the map of the new west. Attempts to establish the exact date of his arrival at Cincinnati have been futile, but it is believed to have been around 1793, since the initial copy of his paper was published in November of that year.

"The Centinel of The Northwest Territory" was a three-column, four-page sheet, nine by twelve inches in size. Some weeks were spent by Maxwell in interesting the community in his venture and in securing a subscription list. And then the hand of fate descended upon him quite heavily--he lost the original subscription list and had to depend upon the "signers" to come to his office and renew their faith in the institution.

No better idea of Maxwell's hopes and ambitions can be gained than through a reading of his salutary, appearing in the first column, first page of "The Centinel." In this he said:

[blockquote]"The Printer of the Centinel of the Northwestern Territory, To the Public:

"Having arrived at Cincinnati, he has applied himself to that which has been the principal object of his removal to this country, the publication of a newspaper. This country is in its infancy, and the inhabitants are daily exposed to an enemy who no content with taking away the lives of men in the field, have swept away whole families, and burnt their habitations. We are well aware that the want of regular and certain trade down the Mississippi deprives this country in great measure of money at the present time. These are discouragements, nevertheless I am led to believe that the people of this country are disposed to promote science, and have the fullest assurance that the Press, from its known utility, will receive proper encouragement. An on my part am content with small gains, at the present, flattering myself that from attention to business, I shall preserve the good wishes of those who have already countenanced me in this undertaking, and secure the friendship of subsequent population. It is to be hoped that the Centinel will prove of great utility to the people of this country, not only to inform them of what is going on east of the Atlantic in arms, and in arts of peace--but what more particularly concerns us, the different transactions of the states in the Union, and especially of our own territory, at so great a distance from the seat of the general government. It is a particular grievance, that the people have not been acquainted with the proceedings of the legislature of the Union, in which they are as much interested as any part of the United States. It is expected that the Centinel will in a great measure remedy this misfortune.

The editor therefore rests his success on the merits of the publication. I hope therefore, all men of public spirit will consider the undertaking as a proper object of attention, and not consult merely their own personal interests, but the interest of the public and the coming time."

It was a man's-size job Maxwell cut out for himself down there in the wilderness along the Ohio river. As he ways, money wasn't very plentiful, but print paper and ink cost something then, just as it does today. Advertising was pretty much of an unknown quantity in the days when "The Centinel" flung its pennant to the breeze. Merchandising was on a very small scale, and such stores as were established drifted along without the firm, strong guiding hand of printers' ink. And yet the file of "The Centinel" during its first year shows that its publisher was quite often rewarded by someone progressive enough to place his trade message in cold type.

One of the very first issues in fact, contained a revenue-producer in the shape of a paid reader from Stuart Ricky, pioneer school teacher. He secured space enough to carry the following announcement:

"THE SUBSCRIBER intends to open school on Wednesday, the 16th inst. in the house lately in possession of John Paul, nearly opposite to Dr. McClure's in Sycamore st., where he proposes to educate youth in reading, writing, arithmetic, bookkeeping, geometry, trigonometry, mensuration of surfaces and solids, dialing, guaging [sic], surveying, navigation and algebra. No more than 30 scholars will be admitted, and the terms of admittance may be known by applying to the Public's very humble Servt. STUART RICKY.

N.B.--None need apply but such as allow of moderate correction to be used in said school when necessity requires it."

From the day the first copy of the Centinel appeared, on Nov. 9, 1793, to the same date a year later, not a week passed but it came regularly from the little old Ramage press. Historians have declared its publication was spasmodic, but in that they err. It was regularly published form ore than a year, and then more or less regularly until 1796, when Maxwell, who had in the meantime been appointed postmaster at Cincinnati, disposed of his subscription list and equipment to Edmund Freeman. The latter published the paper under the name of Freeman's Journal until about 1800 when it suspended publication, Freeman moving to Chillicothe, the newly-made seat of government of the northwest territory.

Maxwell had an able assistant in his wife, Nancy Robins Maxwell, a typical pioneer heroine. Born in Virginia, she went with her parents to Graves Creek, West Virginia, in 1760, and there grew to womanhood. Her father was killed and scalped by Indians and with her mother she made a miraculous escape to Fort Henry. Afterwards she went to Cincinnati to live with friends, and there met and married Maxwell. She aided him in his work, and it is said became quite proficient in the printing art. Maxwell, in addition to publishing the Centinel, found time to write a book, which he published under the name of "Maxwell's Code." The binding was done by his wife, in true pioneer style, the sewing on the volumes being done with waxed ends, tipped with bristles. This was the first book printed within the limits of the northwest territory.

In 1799 Maxwell and his wife removed to Dayton, a military post of considerable note at that time. Here she remained while he assisted some discharged soldiers in cutting a road through to Alpha, now located in Greene county. That pioneer road is now a part of the Dayton-Xenia pike, and Mrs. Maxwell was the first white woman to travel over it.

Though not actively engaged in newspaper work Maxell was always prominent in public affairs in the northwest territory. He was elected to the House of Representatives of the First General Assembly of Ohio, which convened in Chillicothe on March 1, 1803. The House Journal of that historic assemblage shows, too, that he was an active member of the body, that he served on a number of important committees, and that his voice was often raised in defense of movements he believed to be necessary to the peace and prosperity of this section.

A measure providing for the formation of Greene county received his hearty support, and he was elected one of its associate judges by the legislature on April 1, 1803. Ten days later he could have been found at the home of Owen Davis, on Beaver creek, organizing the first court held in the county. On Dec. 7 of the same year he resigned the judgeship and was selected as sheriff of the newly formed county. In this capacity he served until 1807.

Organization of a state militia was under way during these years, and here again he was active. He was rewarded for his work along this line by being made a major.

Every community meeting found William Maxwell present, and every movement for the public good numbered him among its leaders. He devoted his time to cattle raising, and along this line he was very successful. His farm was one of the richest in the Beaver creek section and nicely adapted for the culture of wheat and corn, while affording virgin pastures such as few other sections in the entire country could boast.

Prosperous, as prosperity went in those days; strong in the love of his own family and enjoying the respect and esteem of the hundreds of settlers in whose interests he labored long and faithfully, William Maxwell passed his declining years happily and pleasantly. In 1809 he sank to rest, and over in a quiet, shaded spot on the farm he loved, his body was given back to the dust from whence it came. His children grew to be influential residents of the northwest territory, and today his descendants many of whom still reside in this section of the state, are among our most substantial residents.

But time still works vast changes, and these changes have caused posterity to overlook the fact that it was William Maxwell who carried the printed word where bloodshed and barbarity ran rampant, where knowledge consisted chiefly in one's ability to save his own scalp. Time has leveled the little mound under which he rests, and no monument marks the spot. Yet the giant perfecting presses which daily send forth their mass of printed sheets, and which have made of the old northwest territory the garden spot of the world, are in a large way monuments to his life and deeds.

For they have sprung from the little old Ramage press William Maxwell carried across the Alleghanies [sic], and established at Cincinnati as the first and only one in a vast, yet wonderful wilderness.

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