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Formation of Ashtabula County; Its origins and townships.
From Ellsworth’s Historical Sketches of Ashtabula Co., Ohio
by Catherine Trapp Ellsworth

In those first months following the arrival of Moses Cleaveland's surveying party of 1796, the area now known as Ashtabula County was a wilderness, unruled by any local government, resisting in every way nature can, the progress of man.

The surveyors went about their appointed task of laying out the five mile square townships. They optimistically supposed they could accomplish the job in a single season. But, delayed by difficult terrain, shortages of supplies, unorganized communications and illness, they closed camp on Oct. 18, 1796, and left the area, the surveying incomplete. Ten people were left on the Reserve that winter, including the Kingsbury family at Conneaut. It was a winter of desperate circumstances, causing suffering that has become a fixed part of the history of the Western Reserve.

With the coming of spring, came the arrival of a new surveying team to complete the task begun the year before. Soon the small parties of settlers filtered through the wilderness to their lots, scattered throughout the townships, sometimes miles from neighbors. The move to the "new frontier" was, at best, a gamble loaded with serious hazards, and for most, with few rewards during those early years.

On July 10, 1800, the State of Connecticut, realizing the impossibility of governing these lands so far away, authorized the return to the United States government the right of jurisdiction over the Western Reserve. Thus the territory was converted, through proclamation of the governor and the judges of the Northwest Territory, into a county named Trumbull, for Jonathan Trumbull, Governor of Connecticut.

The first court session in the new county was called to meet in the county seat of Warren, August 25, 1800. During this session, a committee was named to divide the county of Trumbull into townships and make a report describing the boundaries of each.

The committee divided the County of Trumbull into eight townships known as Youngstown, Warren, Vernon, Richfield, Painesville, Middlefield, Hudson and Cleveland.

Richfield included most of the present Ashtabula County, except the two southern tiers of townships including Windsor, Orwell, Colebrook, Wayne, Williamsfield, Hartsgrove, Rome, New Lyme, Cherry Valley and Andover. Of these, Colebrook, Wayne, Williamsfield, Cherry Valley, Andover and New Lyme were in the township called Vernon. The others were in Middlefield township. The present towns of Madison and Thompson, now in Lake County, were also included in Richfield.

In May, 1801, the first election of local officials took place with the townships of Middlefield, Richfield, Painesville and Cleveland voting as the "northern" district. Settlers traveled miles to the home of Simon Perkins at Concord to vote for two trustees, a justice of the peace and constables.

As far as can be determined, the first trustees of Richfield were Noah Cowles and Nathan King, Aaron Wheeler became the justice of the peace, and John Harper and Miles Case, constables. This was the beginning of government by the people of the future Ashtabula County.

With the formation of Geauga County in 1804, most of what is now Ashtabula County was included in that territory.

In this same year, Gideon Granger of Suffield, Connecticut, postmaster general in Thomas Jefferson's cabinet, sent Eldad Smith to look at Granger's land purchase on the Reserve, and to lay out a town to be named Jefferson. Granger is quoted as saying he envisioned his land as 'the center of a small universe, and the seat of the future county."

Smith arrived with Granger's plan of improvement including the plotting of land in 302 one-acre plats. With Austinburg then one of the principal settlements, Smith laid out and cut a bridle path to Austinburg from Jefferson, and planted several acres of wheat in a clearing hacked from the forest. Six years later, the Ashtabula County Courthouse was built in his wheat field.

Granger had come to supervise his lands in person by this time. When the county seat was being chosen, his hopes were nearly dashed by Austinburg, where residents had cleared a tract especially for the courthouse, and put in an application for the county seat status.

Commissioners viewed the land at Austinburg, then went to Jefferson, where the forceful Granger promised to build a courthouse and a jail, emphasizing the central location. He won the commissioners over, and Jefferson became the county seat of Ashtabula County, which was organized January 22, 1811.

Granger kept his promise, building a 40 by 50-foot structure, made from clay taken from the property in the process of excavating for the building. It was two stories, with access to the second story by an outside stairway.

The lower story was one big room, serving as the court of justice. The second story included four rooms used for County offices, heated by fireplaces, as no stoves were available at this time. Four large fireplaces heated the lower courtroom. The structure was completed in 1811.

Next Granger began the work on his promised jail. This was a two-story block building 20 by 36 feet. It contained a dungeon and a 'debtors cell," as it was the practice of the day to imprison chronic debtors.

A man named Caldwell saw the need for a hotel-type dwelling to house those involved with the courthouse business. He built a fairly large, two-story frame building nearby, thus providing room and board for those needing the service.

Disaster was to follow, however, as the hotel burned to the ground during the first court session in June, 1811.

About 1827, the original jail was replaced by a structure made from hewn timbers, and a frame house was built in front of the jail for the sheriff. Again, disaster struck, in 1843, when fire destroyed the jail.

The structure was replaced in 1844 by Cornelius Udell, pioneer historian and builder. This building was made of hammer-hacked stone served until 1877.

The original courthouse was torn down in 1836. It was replaced by a new gothic structure. Built at a cost of $18,000, the beautiful building sported a wide overhanging roof supported by seven huge pillars.

Fire struck again in 1849, first noticed when flames broke through the upper windows of the courtroom. Though most of the books and papers in the lower rooms were saved, a large collection of historical documents and relics of the Ashtabula County Historical Society were lost. Jefferson Township records that had been stored in the courtroom were also lost.

In 1850, the burned building was rebuilt by Cornelius Udell, Stephen Hoskins and John Whickham. They were able to use the walls of the burned structure, the project cost $12,000. It was remodeled and enlarged several times during the years, remaining in use today.

The decision to place the county seat at Jefferson was favorable to the south of the county, but not to the lakefront area residents, because of the large swamp north of Jefferson.

The organization of Ashtabula County came about officially just fifteen years after the landing of that first surveying party. By act of legislature, the description of the new county is as follows; "That all of Geauga and Trumbull Counties which lies north of the Townships numbered seven, and east of the sixty range of townships, all in the Connecticut Western Reserve, shall be a distinct and separate County by the name of Ashtabula."

The first officers of the county were: presiding judge, Benjamin Ruggles; associate judges, Aaron Wheeler, Ebenzer Hewins and Solomon Griswold; treasurer, David Hendry; recorder, James Harper; county clerk, Timothy R. Hawley; sheriff, Nathan Strong.

The first election of county commissioners, held in Ashtabula, Austinburg, Jefferson and Harpersfield, was declared illegal by the common pleas judge. He ruled out the returns from those townships; and ruled that the votes of the remaining townships should be added together and that the candidates found to have the plurality of votes should be declared elected. This was publicly an unpopular ruling.

It is recorded that of those so chosen, only James Harper did not decline to serve. With the refusal of the others, Nathan Strong and Titus Hayes were appointed to serve by the court, until the next regular election. The reason for the court’s ruling is not clear in local history accounts.

The records show that the commissioner's expense bills, presented at the next term of court, are interesting in comparison to today's cost standards. James Harper submitted bills totaling $31.50; Nathan Strong spent $28; and Titus Hayes, $l3.20 for activities on behalf of the county.

The new county was n 0 "doing business," growing slowly but steadily. Over the next 27 years, townships became organized individually, holding elections, practicing self government in a form still in effect, that of the three trustees and a clerk, elected by their township's voters. It is a political subdivision of the county and state, having therefore, only those powers granted to it by the state legislature. It is the oldest form of government in Ohio.

Some of the townships in Ashtabula County were officially organized before the county government was formed in 1811.

CONNEAUT TOWNSHIP was formed in 1804, having been first named Salem. It was the second permanent settlement, following Harpersfield by one year, in 1799. Aaron Wright, Levi and John Montgomery, Nathan and John King, Robert Montgomery and family, and Samuel Bemus and family built cabins along the banks of Conneaut Creek.

HARPERSFIELD had the first permanent settlement in 1798, but they did not become organized as a township until 1807. The families of Harper, Gregory and McFarland emigrated from New York state to become the first settlers.

ASHTABULA and JEFFERSON organized in 1808, Matthew Hubbard, from Connecticut, being the first settler in Ashtabula in 1804, and Michael Webster, also from Connecticut, the first settler in Jefferson, in 1805.

KINGSVILLE became a township in 1810, with Walter Fobes of Connecticut being the firstt settler in 1804.

WAYNE TOWNSHIP organized in 1811, eight years after Joshua Fobes had arrived from Connecticut.

WINDSOR TOWNSHIP organized that same year, having first been settled by George Phelps in Connecticut, in 1799.

AUSTINBURG TOWNSHIP had been settled in 1799, by the families of Austin, Beckwith, Stevens and Allen, all from Connecticut. The township became officially organized in 1812.

NEW LYME and DENMARK townships were added to the official roster in 1813. New Lyme, originally called Lebanon, had been settled in 1803 by Joel Owen of Connecticut. Peter Knapp, from New York, was the first settler in Denmark, in 1809.

SAYBROOK and GENEVA townships organized in 1816. Saybrook was originally called Wrightsburg, and welcomed its first settler, George Webster of New York in 1810. Geneva was settled by New Yorker Theobalt Bartholomew in 1802.

PIERPONT and MONROE townships organized in 1818, with Pierpont settled by Ewins Wright in 1801, and Monroe by New Yorker Stephen Moulton in 1801. 

ANDOVER, MORGAN and LENOX townships organized in 1818. Andover was first settled by E. Lyman, from Connecticut in 1801. Morgan's first settler was Nathan Gilett of Connecticut, who arrived in 1801, and Lenox, by Maryland tobacco farmer Lisle Asque in 1807.

SHEFFLELD became a township officially in 1820, with first settler Chancey Atwater having arrived from Connecticut in 1817.

DORSET organized in 1824, having first been settled by Massachusetts resident John Smith in 1821.

TRUMBULL was added to the list in 1825, though first settler Daniel Woodruff of New York, had arrived in 1818.

ORWELL became a township in 1826, the name having been changed from Leffingwell. The first settler there was A.R. Paine, who traveled from New York in 1815.

WILLIAMSFIELD also became a township in 1826, first settler Charles Case of Connecticut having arrived in 1804.

COLEBROOK and CHERRY VALLEY organized in 1827. New Yorker Joel Blakeslee settled Colebrook in 1819, and Cherry Valley was settled by Nathaniel Hubbard of New York, in 1818.

RICHMOND organized in 1828, with the first settler having been the families of Yateman, Newcomb and Tead, who arrived in 1805. That same year, the last segment of Richfield, ROME TOWNSHIP, was organized. William Crowell of Connecticut settled there in 1806.

HARTSGROVE joined the list of organized townships in 1830, having been settled first by Thomas Burgand in 1828.

PLYMOUTH was the last to be officially organized, in 1838.  First settlers there were William Thompson and Thomas McGahhe, in 1805.

Though Ashtabula County boasted 28 townships in 1938, there are now 27 townships. The first to organize, Conneaut, became a city, when on January 1, 1963, the city of Conneaut merged with the village of Lakeville, ending the township form of government there. This also made Conneaut one of the largest cities in area in the state of Ohio, at the time.

The township form of government was brought to America by the Pilgrim fathers in 1620. This form of government spread west as far as the Rocky Mountains, with 22 states still using this plan.

Actually, township government predates our state government in Ohio. The size and shape of the township was determined by congressional acts when the various land grants were established.

The only district in Ohio not surveyed into townships was that area of southern and central Ohio known as the Virginia Military District (1784). The other grants were divided into townships either five-miles square, such as the Western Reserve, or six-square-miles as in the Congress Lands just south of the Western Reserve.

In some of the surveys, lands were set aside for the use of schools and religious institutions. One section was designated in each township to be used exclusively for those purposes.

With increased population of Ohio, it was a natural result that the townships became the basic unit of local government.

In those early days, beginning in 1804, officials of the townships included three  trustees and a clerk, the same as today.  In addition, there were two overseers of the poor, an overseer of roads, justices of the pace and constables. For some years, there was also a township treasurer and assessor.

The townships took particular care of the poor, also taking action by use of the constable, to remove certain noncontributing and indigent persons from the township.

Today, the township remains as a subdivision of the state, Officials actually have limited powers, those granted by the state legislature, and perform the governing functions under the direction of the state.

Over the years, these functions have changed, keeping in step with the changing times. Township officials have been given authority to provide improved services.

In today's highly technical world, the township has had to change services provided.  In times past, the sleepy rural community of most townships “closed down” at nightfall and stirred again at dawn.  Most residents were farmers with little need to be on the roadways at night.

Today, many townships are "bedroom" communities with residents working night shifts in nearby cities.  With the variation in work hours, roads must be cleared of snow round the clock.  This is costly in manhours and equipment, just one of the additional services and expenses of township government.