Thursday, October 15, 2009

John Johnston: From Wapakoneta to Fort Meigs

This article was recently published in a little magazine called "Bend of the River." It is published in Maumee, Ohio. This article was rather severely edited for space considerations, so I thought I'd post my original here.

John Johnston: From Wapakoneta to Fort Meigs by Alan Borer

I was leafing through some papers in an archival collection far from Toledo when I came across a letter signed by someone I knew (by reputation): John Johnston.

This is the text of the letter:

“Dear Sir:
Judge Marshall authorized me to make out and transmit reports of our proceedings on the Road to Fort Meigs to the Commi┼┐sioners of Wood and Shelby Counties and in Consequence of his indisposition to sign his name to the said Reports
I am informed your Board is to meet at Sidney on Monday. Enclosed is our report. you [sic] will please to call on Mr. Cox and procure the plat and have it filed with the enclosed Mr Cox a┼┐sured me it should be ready

With great respect
John Johnston
Upper Piqua Novr 30, 1821”

John Johnston (1775-1861) worked as the United States Indian Agent both at Upper Piqua for western Ohio and at Fort Wayne, Indiana. Johnston’s beautiful farm at Upper Piqua is today preserved as a museum, with a section of the Ohio and Erie Canal setting the tableau. But I did not know that Johnston had any Maumee Valley connections.

John Johnston was born in Ireland and emigrated to Pennsylvania as a child. He had a long career as a public servant. He was a quartermaster in Anthony Wayne’s army, and was probably at or near the Battle of Fallen Timbers. He clerked for the War Department, ran a Sunday School, helped found Kenyon College, was president of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, was active in the Whig Party, and made stump speeches for Henry Clay in 1844.

The chief labor of Johnston’s life was a long tenure as United States Indian Agent for Western Ohio for 30 years. In that position, he paid out federal treaty emoluments to the tribes, dispensed supplies such as food and tools promised by the Treaty of Greenville and other treaties, and negotiated new treaties as needed. Whether you see it as an act of charity, villainy, or mere happenstance, Johnston negotiated the treaty with the Wyandots that led to the removal of the last Indian tribe from Ohio.

Johnston entered the Indian service as the “factor” for the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Indian Agency, which was established in 1802. There he acted more or less as a quartermaster, issuing food rations and other supplies to the Indians. Appointed by President Thomas Jefferson, Johnston was paid $1,000 yearly for his work. He served Indians from the Delaware, Wyandot, Miami, Shawnee, Piankashaw, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi tribes. The factor was separated from the agent, both of whom reported to Indiana territorial governor William Henry Harrison. Harrison appointed Johnston Indian agent in 1809. Johnston served until he resigned June 30, 1811, and was appointed agent at Upper Piqua on March 5, 1812. By a coincidence, his successor at the Fort Wayne agency would be Benjamin Stickney of (later) Toledo fame.

During these years, Johnston witnessed Governor Harrison’s treaty-making with the Indiana tribes, which brought about the pan-tribal efforts of Tecumseh and his brother, The Shawnee Prophet. Yet much of Johnston’s labor was small items, like an 1809 distribution of “Beef, Bread, Salt and Whiskey” or an 1810 annuity to the Miamis, which included gunpowder, calico, cloth, blankets, needles and scissors.

But the letter that I stumbled across was one in a string of correspondence that was scattered hither and yon. One of the things Johnston did in retirement was act as commissioner in the building of a road from “Fort Meigs,” or Perrysburg, to Wapakoneta. The letter above is addressed to Joseph Mellinger, a Shelby County commissioner of the time, and I had seen it in some miscellaneous papers of the Shelby County Commissioners.

I had to put the letter in some kind of context to understand it. The next step was to check the standard history of Wood County. In it was the following:

“The Act of February 2, 1821, providing for a State road from Fort Meigs to ‘Wapakoneta,’ was observed prior to November 21, that year, when John Johnson [sic], of Miami county, and Samuel Marshall, of Shelby, submitted the plat and field notes.”

Likewise in the history of Shelby County was reprinted another letter from John Johnston, making more distinct what he had been commissioned to do.

“Upper Piqua, November 30, 1821.

Gentlemen : In pursuance of an act of the last general assembly authorizing the establishment of a state road from Wapakoneta to Fort Meigs, the undersigned, commissioners appointed for the purpose, have discharged the duties imposed on them by law. An account of their proceedings will be found in the Piqua Gazette of the 18th of October, 1821, which was communicated for public information, a paper containing their report is herewith transmitted, and to which we beg leave to refer as forming a part of this our official return as required by law.

A report was made from Fort Meigs to the commissioners of Wood county, and a plat of the road has since been forwarded to them in obedience to the law.

Mr. Benjamin S. Cox will hand to your board a plat of the road, which with their communication will constitute our report to the commissioners of Shelby county. An account of the expenses will be furnished to your board hereafter.

JOHN JOHNSTON, of Miami county,
SAMUEL MARSHALL, of Shelby county.”

Johnston himself told where to look next. It took some doing, but I finally located the Piqua Gazette of the aforementioned date. The battered newspaper article told the following story:

The Road Commissioners (Johnston and Marshall) were appointed Commissioners to plat a state road from “Wapaghkonetta” on the Auglaize River to Fort Meigs on the Maumee. They began work on September 10, 1821, and the Commissioners headed north with a “blazer” to mark the trail and “chain carriers” to help with the surveying instruments. They passed islands, swamps, and sugar maple groves. They visited the Indian town at Hog Creek, looked over the spot where Lima would be someday, and visited the Ottawa Indian village “under the chief Me-tesh-ne-wa.” Ottawa guides were hired. Fifty-one miles from Wapakoneta they intersected Minards Creek (near Grand Rapids), which in turn flows to the Maumee. They followed the Maumee until they reached the mouth of a creek named for Ton-ta-gi-nie, passed Roche de Boef, and intercepted a road from Fort Meigs to Urbana. That road ended at Maumee Bay, “the whole distance from Wapaghkonetta to the point of destination SEVENTY EIGHT miles and fifty five chains.”

Johnston reported his journey October 9, 1821. It had taken the Commissioners exactly a month to lay their trail. Johnston freely stated that both Shawnee and Ottawa Indians had helped guide them, that the ground was not as swampy as they feared, and urged “that the road be opened as soon as practicable.”

We can barely imagine what a wilderness Johnston and his colleagues saw. Our homeland now, but barely recognizable, so different it was. It is only by the records and letters of our forebears, including the initial, seemingly misplaced letter of John Johnston, that we can recover that wilderness. His letter set me on a different road, which is the nearest we can come to time travel.

[I would like to thank Stephen Grinch, Otterbein College archivist, for letting me explore the Shelby County material stored there. In addition, I used Gayle Thornbrough, ed., Letter Book of the Indian Agency at Fort Wayne 1809-1815 (Indianapolis, 1961), Commemorative Historical and Biographical Record of Wood County, Ohio (Chicago, 1897), and History of Shelby County, Ohio (rpt ed., Sidney, 1968).]

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