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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Symmes's Purchase

Dallas Bogan on 13 September 2004
The following is taken from Dallas Bogan's book, "The Pioneer writings of Josiah Morrow."
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

A Tract of 311,682 Acres Between the Miami Rivers.

Bordering on The Ohio River 27 Miles and Comprising Portions of the Three Counties of Hamilton, Butler and Warren---Failure of A Grand Land Speculation.

March 26, 1908

John Cleves Symmes (pronounced Sims) was the projector of the grand speculation of buying from the Continental Congress all the lands between the Miamis. He was born on Long Island in 1742, was an officer in the Revolutionary war and having removed to New Jersey became chief justice of that State and also served in the Continental Congress. In Ohio he had his residence at North Bend where he died in 1814. He was the father-in-law of Gen. Wm. H. Harrison. His surname is preserved in Ohio history in "Symmes' Purchase" and his middle name in the village of Cleves in Hamilton county.
Soon after the Ohio company made its extensive purchase of lands on the Muskingum, Symmes, who was at this time chief justice of New Jersey, proposed in behalf of himself and his associates, most of whom had been officers in the Revolutionary war, to purchase all the lands between the Miamis supposed at that time to be two million acres. The price was to be sixty-six cents per acre, payable in United States military land warrants and in certificates of debt due from the United States to individuals. When the first contract was made the number of acres was reduced to one million, but a million is a large number and it was afterward found that there are only 600,000 acres between the Miami rivers and Symmes succeeded in paying for less than half of this amount.
It may be said here that the Ohio Company's purchase on the Muskingum proved to be the most hilly and sterile of any tract of similar extent in Ohio, while Symmes' purchase contained much of the most fertile lands and soon became the most thickly populated and valuable large tract in the state. While the nominal price paid for these valuable lands was two-thirds of a dollar, as the U.S. land warrants were of little value and the certificates of debt of the general government were worth only one-fourth of their face value, the specie price received by the government was not more than seventeen cents per acre.
Symmes' land speculation, however, proved unfortunate. His son-in-law, General Harrison, writing of him under the date of Oct. 15, 1801, said, "I have long given up the judge as a ruined man." One cause of the failure of his scheme doubtless was the long continued hostility of the Indians which made his settlements known as "the Miami slaughter house." St. Clair's defeat by the Indians in 1791 was the most disastrous an army of white men ever met with in the Indians wars and it long retarded the sale and settlement of the lands on the Miamis.

The Country Described.

On November 26, 1787, Judge Symmes published at Trenton, New Jersey, a pamphlet describing the terms of sale and settlement of the Miami lands. Of the character of the country he says: "The subscriber begs leave to add for the information of those who are unacquainted with the western country that from his own views of the land bordering on the river Ohio and the unanimous report of all those who have traveled over the tract in almost every direction, it is supposed to be equal to any part of the federal territory in point of quality off soil and excellence of climate, it lying in the latitude of about thirty-eight degrees north, where the winters are moderate and no extreme heat in summer. Its situation is such as to command the navigation of several fine rivers as may be seen by the maps of the country; boats are frequently passing by this land as they ply up and down the Ohio. There are no mountains in the tract and excepting a few hills, the country is generally level and free from stone on the surface of the earth, but there are plenty of stone quarries for building. It is said to be well watered with springs and rivulets and several fine mill streams falling from the dividing ridge into the two Miamis, which lie about every thirty miles apart and are both supposed to be navigable higher up in the country than the northern extent of this purchase, so that the interior farms will have navigation in the boating season within fifteen of eighteen miles at farthest."
The price to be paid by purchasers in government certificates of debt at first was to be two-thirds of a dollar per acre, after the first of May, 1788, one dollar and after the first of November, 1788, still higher, if the country should be settled as fast as was expected. Owners of United States certificates of debt which were of little value, could turn them in for land warrants in the purchase. The only specie payment required was one penny (a little more than one cent) for each acre which was to be paid at the time of receiving the land warrant for the purpose of defraying the cost of surveying the tract, and one farthing (about one-fourth of one cent) per acre to defray the expense of printing the land warrants.
In his pamphlet Judge Symmes says he had set apart for his own use and benefit the lands lying lowest on the Ohio and on the point formed by the Ohio and the Great Miami, estimated to contain forty thousand acres. These lands he was to pay for himself and the profit he should make by their sale was to be his only reward for his time and trouble in making the purchase. On this track he proposed to lay out a city with lots 60 feet wide and 120 deep and to give away one half of the lots to settlers who build upon them. The city laid out was called Symmes and extended across the peninsula from the Ohio to the Great Miami. But Cincinnati became the emporium of the Miami country and Symmes City was forgotten.

The Surveying.

By their contract with the government the purchasers were required to survey the tract into ranges, townships and sections at their own expense. Symmes secured in the eastern states a number of surveyors to do this work some of whom arrived at Columbia in November, 1788, and the work of surveying was soon commenced. In April, 1789, seven men were found living in a double shanty on the site of Cincinnati, five of whom had been engaged in surveying the past winter. The shanty which was the first building at Cincinnati had been put up for the accommodation of the surveyors.
While the surveying was done on the rectangular system already adopted by congress, the work was not done with such accuracy as that on the west side of the Great Miami a few years later by the government surveyors. As Judge Burnet says a plan of survey was adopted better calculated for economy than accuracy. I abridge from Burnet's "Notes" a description of the plan of survey adopted for the Symmes Purchase.
For the commencement of a baseline was run east and west from one Miami river to the other. This line was run far enough north of the Ohio to avoid all bends of that river. Stakes were planted a mile apart along this base line which were to serve as section corners for one row of sections. The assistant surveyors were then directed to run by the compass and not by the true meridian north and south lines from these stakes and to plant stakes at the end of each mile, each of which was to serve as a corner for four sections. The section lines were to be completed at the expense of the purchasers by running east and west lines from one stake to another.
It will thus be seen that Symmes surveyors only ran the section lines on the east and west sides of the sections and the plan of survey was a most defective one compared with that now followed in the survey of government lands. The section corners were determined only by the measurement with a chain along the meridian line of a mile from another section corner. It is not strange that in the measurement of a mile thru the woods an error of many rods would sometimes be made as a result the corner of a section on one meridian would not be on the same line of latitude as the corresponding corner on another meridian. The variation of the corners of the same section would sometimes be as much as twenty or even thirty rods. The northern boundary of Hamilton county consists of section lines and between the Miamis has a see-saw appearance. The irregularity in the section lines is not due to the variation of the magnetic needle but to the errors of the chainmen.
In the Atlas of Warren County the irregularity of the section lines is very apparent in the map of Clearcreek township, but here, as elsewhere, the irregularity is chiefly in the lines running east and west. The meridian lines were run with reasonable accuracy. In the third range in which Lebanon is situated the east and west lines do not present the zigzag appearance seen in other ranges. For some reason the section corners in this range were not marked by the first surveyors and Gen. Jonathan Dayton afterward employed Israel Ludlow to complete the survey of this range.
As a result of this imperfect method of survey hardly any section in the whole purchase contains the proper quantity of land. Some sections are too large, others too small. The section north of Lebanon on the Dayton pike on which is the Joshua Collette farm was purchased by Ichabod B. Halsey for 640 acres and it was found to overrun 200 acres and all the section was good land. The section west of Lebanon and just south of the Orphan Asylum contains 605 acres, falling short thirty- five acres.
But the work of the pioneer surveyors between the Miamis should not be closely criticized. They cut their way thru the thick undergrowth of the forests, enduring the privations of camp life while hostile Indians lurked around them. Their work was done with far greater accuracy and honestly than that of the surveyors on the east side of the Little Miami.

Symmes Patent.

Judge Symmes commenced issuing warrants for lands in his tract as early as 1787 but seven years elapsed before he himself received a deed for his purchase and it is not strange that many persons who had bought lands of him and improved their farms and laid out towns and villages became apprehensive about their titles. In 1794 the judge went to Philadelphia, the seat of government and on settlement with the treasury department, it was found that he paid for 248,540 acres and for this amount he received a deed signed by President Washington dated September 30, 1794. He returned to the Miami country and commenced issuing deeds to those who had purchased from him.
The lands deeded to Symmes are bounded on the east by the Little Miami and on the north by an east and west line running about one mile north of Lebanon. The whole tract included within these boundaries consists of 311,682 acres, or 63,142 more than Symmes had paid for. Congress had reserved five sections in each township which Symmes was not allowed to sell. These were section 16 for the use of schools, section 29 reserved for the use of religion and sections 8, 11, and 26 reserved for future sales by congress. There were also reserved out of the tract 15 acres for the accommodation of Ft. Washington at Cincinnati and one complete township of six miles square for the support of an academy of college. This college township was intended to be located near the center of Symmes' Purchase, but its location having been delayed until the greater portion of the tract had been sold, the township of Oxford in Butler County was in compliance with an act of congress selected for this purpose in 1803.

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This page created 13 September 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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