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History Of The Firelands

The story of the Firelands of Ohio may be unique in American history in that in no other instance were civilian victims of a war compensated with land. The war was the American revolution and the land is what is now mainly Huron And Erie counties.

During the American Revolution there was very little military activity in Connecticut, but the citizens were busy manufacturing goods and shipping supplies and material to the Continental Army. These actions angered the British, of course and they sent out a series of raids from New York City to destroy the supplies and cripple the shipping.

The raids got out of hand and a good deal of civilian property such as private home, churches and schools were also destroyed or damaged.

These people who lost property had no insurance and no federal disaster grants to help them rebuild. An example of the destruction is found in the story of Norwalk, Connecticut. It was raided July 11, 1779 and 80 of the 86 dwellings in the town were burned. Two churches, 87 barns, four mills and five vessels were also lost in that raid. The other towns raided during the war were New London, New Haven, East Haven, Greenwich, Danbury, Fairfield, Ridgefield and Groton.

The 'sufferers' petition

Several petitions were presented after the war to the Connecticut legislature by the citizens who lost property. They soon became known as "Sufferers." Their 1787 appeal was referred to a legislative committee which reported back in 1792 that the Sufferers ought to be paid, but the state had only western lands for compensation in lieu of cash. This western land was that part of northeast Ohio now known as the Western Reserve. Connecticut's 1662 royal charter had granted land from one ocean to the other. When the western claims of various states were settled after the American Revolution, Connecticut kept only a tract 120 miles long on the south shore of Lake Erie.

A half-million acres at the west end of the Western Reserve was given to the Fire Sufferers in 1792. The claims totaled $538,495.26 in 1792 dollars and the land was allocated at a value just over $1 per acre. A major problem to be overcome was paying off the Indian tribes who owned the land and then surveying it. This took until 1808 and by then most of the Sufferers had died or had sold their claims to land speculators. Very few of the actual Fire Sufferers ever saw the Fire Sufferers Lands (a name soon shortened to Fire Lands or Firelands) in Ohio.

Geographically, the Firelands is the area which is now Huron and Erie counties as well as Danbury Township in Ottawa County and Ruggles Township in Ashland County. None of the Lake Erie islands was originally included although they were later attached for judicial purposes. Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay was a part of the half-million acres.

Even before the surveying was completed in 1808 there were Americans "squatting" on the Firelands. Most of them lived along the lake shore and traded with the Indians or hunted and trapped. Frenchman John B. Flammand was operating a trading post on the river just south of Huron when the first Americans arrived and it was the only store on the Firelands.

Settlement slow at first

Settlement was slow before the War of 1812 due to the remoteness of the tract and the difficulties in reaching it. Some of the land speculators were holding out for high prices for their land and this discouraged settlement.

When the War of 1812 broke out there was a small militia unit stationed at Fort Avery, a stockade on the Huron River north of Milan. These troops and local civilians fought a contingent of Indians on the Marblehead Peninsula in September 1812. This was the first battle of that war in Ohio and one of the few skirmishes in the state. Almost everyone left the Firelands due to the Indian threat and there were at least eight civilians murdered in raids in 1812-13.

Settlement resumed quickly after the War of 1812 due to the natural westward expansion and due also to the Year Of No Summer in New England in 1816-17. This phenomenon was caused by a volcanic eruption in the Far East whose cloud of dust obliterated the sun and caused frigid conditions across the northern U.S. and Europe.

As the roads improved and land prices were modified, more and more settlers arrived. Most came from New York and New England, although a few middle states residents moved to the southern tier of townships of the Firelands. There were also great migrations from Europe in the 19th Century, making the Firelands a real melting pot. The architecture and physical surroundings of these areas reflect so readily the origins of the early residents.

Huron County is formed

Ohio's Legislature organized the Firelands as Huron County in 1809 and attached it first to portage and Geauga counties and in 1810 to Cuyahoga. By 1815, the county's population was sufficient to establish its own government and the initial meeting of Huron County's commissioners took place Aug. 1, 1815, at the first county seat north of Milan near the site of Fort Avery. In 1818 all functions of county government were moved to Norwalk and it has been the county seat ever since. During this time the western townships of Lorain County as well as most of Sandusky and Seneca counties were attached to Huron County. As soon as those areas had sufficient population they assumed their own government functions.

Erie County is formed

When the wilderness had been tamed some people began agitating for smaller counties. In 1838 Erie County was formed by the Legislature in the northwest quadrant of the Firelands with the townships of Groton, Margaretta, Portland, Perkins, Danbury and part of Oxford. In 1840, Danbury was given to Ottawa County with Milan, Huron, Berlin, Florence and Vermilion were taken from Huron County to make Erie County the size it is today. Ruggles Township was removed from old Huron County in 1846 to help create Ashland County.

Anyone wanting to learn more of the past can visit the Firelands Historical Society (external), 4 Case Ave., Norwalk. This is the second oldest historical society in Ohio, maintaining the second oldest museum.

This story taken, with permission, from the "Special Sections" area of the Norwalk Reflector (external).

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