Point of Beginning

Located off of Route 39, straddling the border of Pennsylvania and Ohio, there is a short, granite marker indicating the beginning point of the U.S. Public Land Survey. The marker appears to have two metal signs on either side of it. I can’t tell what they say from Google street view, but presumably these are separate plaques erected by the Ohio and Pennsylvania Historical Society’s respectively to describe the significance of the spot. The borders of West Virginia (formerly Virginia), Pennsylvania, and Ohio meet at this location. It is also the arbitrary point of origin from which the government’s survey of the entire American West begins. Inaugurated in 1785 by a U.S. Ordinance entitled “for ascertaining the mode of disposing of lands in the western territory,” the Land Survey was the first mathematically designed rectangular land survey system ever conducted in the modern era. As stipulated, the survey was to divide the land into townships six square miles in size laid out along east and west and north and south base lines derived from a staked point of beginning. These townships could then be subdivided in 36 separate square mile sections, which could be further subdivided into minor rectangles of any desired size; and so it was with this frame of measurement that all property west of Pennsylvania and Virginia was given boundary and made salable.

On September 30th of 1785, the Geographer of the United States Thomas Hutchins led a party across the Ohio River to the Point of Beginning and initiated the survey. Hutchins measured a baseline running 42 miles west into the wilderness. Due to threat of Indian attack from the North, Hutchins team only surveyed lands to the south of the line. This first tract to be mapped and platted out was called the Seven Ranges. The United States government parceled out the ranges and sold them at auction for a minimum price of $1 per acre. Such land sales would be a principle source of revenue for the federal government for much of the 19th century.

The effect that the rectangular land survey system has had on shaping and transforming the American landscape really cannot be understated. Not only has it served as a catalyst for westward expansion and for the peopling of the West, it is also why roads in the United States are constructed to run in straight lines—sometime in direct defiance of topography—and why they intersect at right angles. It is why the Midwest is a patchwork of rectangular fields and why the furrows in those fields are plowed as a succession of parallel lines. The rectangular land survey is a classic product of Enlightenment thinking: rigidly geometric and mathematical, an indisputable and endlessly reproducible demarcation of property emanating from the intersection of legality and engineering. It wrests with nature and forces it to submit to definition. Its maps are not maps of the land but maps of how the land might be used; they are procedural guides for making the land conform to human will and for dividing the plunder fairly among its owners.

The marker found on the side of the road on Route 39 is actually not the original Point of Beginning. The true point was submerged by damming of the Ohio and is no somewhere in the middle of the river. One assumes though that it could still be found from its recorded coordinates and by tracing the original geographer’s line and the state border to their point where they meet.

Ft. Recovery

Near the headwaters of the Wabash in central western Ohio, there is a small farming town that has grown up out of one of the frontier forts established by Gen. Anthony Wayne and the Legion of the United States during their campaign against the Western Confederation Indians of old Northwest. In the summer of 1793, Wayne ordered that a fort be built on the same site where Arthur St. Claire had been routed two years earlier and his regiment nearly decimated. 632 men lost their lives in that battle, an astounding 69% of St. Claire’s total force of 920. Almost everyone else was wounded. Reports suggest that only 24 men escaped the fighting unscathed. Added to this, all of the camp followers (women, servants, laborers), possibly as many as 200 people, were slaughtered by the Western Confederation and scalped along with the soldiers. The effect of the defeat on the nation’s morale must have been devastating. A quarter of the entire U.S. Army had been lost in a single conflict. As gesture of defiance, Wayne occupied the old battlefield and built fortifications so that the position could be defended. This was Ft. Recovery, a hastily constructed stockade with a detachment of 250 men and several small artillery pieces. The Western Confederacy met Wayne’s gesture with one of their own: the Indians marched on the fort with a force of more than 2000 Shawnee and Miami warriors. For two days the men of the fort endured successive assaults from the Indians. Unable to scale the walls and lacking heavy guns to knock them down, the warriors of the Wabash confederacy finally withdrew. It was been speculated that the Indian’s loss at Ft. Recovery was the real precipitating factor that ultimately led to the disintegration of the tribal alliance. We know that after the battle, leadership of the Western Confederacy’s warriors passed from Chief Little Turtle of the Miami to the Shawnee chief Blue Jacket. This transfer of power away from the Miami, who were more numerous and a more senior member in the confederacy, to the Shawnee might have caused some allegiances to dissolve among the tribes. That might account for the Confederacy’s lack of temerity at Fallen Timbers where they had gone into retreat after suffering only a few dozen casualties.

Today, Ft. Recovery is a small, inconspicuous town of about 1400 people located in the fertile agricultural belt of Ohio’s till plain. There is a well-appointed historical museum that offers the standard of mix of artifact exhibits, verbose expository panels, and creepy mannequin dioramas. According to its monthly newsletters, the museum hosts regular history lectures and fund-raising auctions. There is a replica palisade and tower on the museum grounds. This was built in the 1930’s by a public works crew that employed out-of-work men during the Depression. I wonder what it must have been like for unemployed carpenters to construct this fragment of frontier fort. It’s just a single wall, which I think is significant in that, if it is to function as a fort, you are neither inside it nor outside it, or perhaps you are both inside and outside, defending and attacking. Building it must have felt so purposeless.

In the middle of town, occupying the village square, is a tall obelisk memorializing those fallen in St. Claire’s defeat. Beneath the obelisk, there is actually a mausoleum that contains the soldiers’ remains. As the story goes, in 1851, a group of boys were playing along the banks of the Wabash and came upon some human bones. Area residents dug at the spot and discovered hundreds of skeletons interred together in mass graves. It was determined that these were the remains of the soldiers who had perished in the Ft. Recovery battles, both in 1791 and 1794. A ceremony was held to rebury the bones. By all accounts, the event was very large. Thousands came to pay honor to the dead. Today, the battle is just an obscure fact of American history, but to Ohio pioneers it must still have been a very potent memory. They owed their land and their homes to the men who fought in these battles. After the burial, there was desire to see a monument built over the spot to commemorate the dead, but the years wore on with nothing being decided and no money raised to begin construction. As an attempt to renew interest in the project, a large imitation monument was erected on the main intersection of town. It was a wooden pyramid, about 35 feet in height, painted yellow and coated in sand. A gas pipe was run through the center so that a flame could be lit at the pyramid’s apex. This test monument collapsed after a few years in a windstorm. Construction on the permanent monument—the granite obelisk—was not begun until 1912, 120 years after the battle. Perhaps this is an example of how victories are better remembered than defeats, but monument is not so much a memorial to the battles but to the sacrifice of the soldiers, whose lives were squandered despite having fought bravely. Yet even more than being a tribute to the fallen, I think it can be viewed as a shrine and benediction of the country’s relentless campaign of westward expansion, one of many throughout the Midwest that stand as milestones in time and space on the path of American triumphalism. Today, in the late stages of empire, we tend these monuments which stand in juxtaposition to the ongoing decay and mounting inconsequentiality of the places that surround them. A question I ask myself is what relevance such monument have in the communities where they are located. I think the answer is that they mean quite a lot. In larger, more vital cities, the community’s identity changes drastically from generation to generation. The meaning of an Ohio town remains relatively static from year to year, decade to decade, generation to generation. The only change is change caused by decline. New history is not often made, and so old history becomes more salient and enshrined.

Fallen Timbers

The Battle of Fallen Timbers Historical Site in Maumee, Ohio, just southwest of Toledo is an appropriate place to begin this Ohio travelogue since this is probably the place and memorialized time in history that Ohio began, at least the Ohio that is available to memory. In the years following the Revolutionary War, settlers from Virginia began to migrate through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and were met with violent resistance from the Indian tribes that resided in the area. These were tribes that had sided with the British during the Revolution and remained hostile toward the United States. Seeking to defend their territory from colonization and intimidate settlers into returning east, the tribes carried out raids against Kentuckians who had settled along the Ohio River. Over the course of the 1780s, the Ohio Indians reportedly killed upwards of fifteen hundred settlers. During this time it became a mark of distinction among the Kentuckians to be considered an Indian killer. Settlers banded into local militias and engaged in retaliatory actions such as burning villages and crops and terrorizing non-combatants. These Indian wars of the 1780s amounted a bloody civil conflict, each side trading atrocities of escalating in brutality.

With ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, the new federal government could finally allocate funds for a standing army defend American Sovereignty over the West. To pay off war debts from the Revolution, the U.S. government has begun selling land north of the Ohio River; consequently, security of the frontier and protection of property claims in that region became the Republic’s top priority.

General Josiah Harmar

In October of 1790, General Josiah Harmar marched north from Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati) with a force of about 340 regular soldiers and 1,000 Kentucky and Pennsylvania militiamen to subdue the Miami village of Kekionga in Northern Indiana and to build a winter fort there. Harmar was unaware that the Ohio tribes had joined in alliance and would be fighting him in concert. When he arrived in Kekionga in late October, he was astonished to find a force of over 1,000 warriors waiting there to meet him. The Indians fell on Harmar while his forces were divided. An entire detachment of American regulars were lost in a conflict that came to be know as the Battle of the Pumpkin Fields, so named because the steam rising off of the skulls of the freshly scalped soldiers reminded the Indians of cooked squash steaming in the Autumn air. Dispirited at the ineptitude of their commander, Harmar’s militias deserted and he was forced to withdraw across the Ohio.

The resounding failure of this first Ohio campaign was a serious blow to the credibility of Washington’s fledgling government. Angry over the defeat, he ordered the Kentucky Governor Arthur St. Clair to lead a force himself into Ohio and to establish a permanent fort to defend the territory. St. Clair set out late in 1791 with an ill-equipped force that had not been sufficiently trained for wilderness fighting. They were shadowed by the Indians and forced into skirmishes throughout the march. On November 4th, while in camp near the headwaters of the Wabash River, St. Claire’s was surrounded by the entire force of the Western Confederation, a force composed of warriors from more than a dozen different tribes. St. Claire was hastily pressed into battle and in three hours of intense fighting, 2/3 of his force had been killed and the other third wounded. The American only escaped absolute annihilation with a last ditch bayonet charge which broke the Indians’ line and allowed the remainder of the force to escape into the forest.

St. Claire’s defeat was so severe that it prompted an investigation of Washington’s mishandling of the Indian Wars. These early military setbacks very likely called into doubt the country’s capacity to defend itself and to secure its territorial claims. Sensing that vulnerability, the British, still ensconced in Canada, crossed Lake Erie and built forts in Ohio where they could supply arms to the Indians and potentially exploit America’s weakening claim. Faced with a rather desperate situation, Washington recalled Anthony Wayne, one of his more successful commanders from the Revolutionary War, to lead a new force into Ohio and shatter the Western Confederation. Wayne mustered a new army in Pittsburgh and, rather than immediately marching into war, he spent of the summer of 1792 drilling his soldiers and training them in new tactics. Wayne devised a new system of small force warfare wherein infantry, cavalry and artillery would be grouped into the same battalions rather than commanded as separate units on the battlefield, as was traditionally done, and led to battle as a working unit. This made the overall force much more flexible and more capable of defending itself in the event of an ambush. Wayne led his new army, which he called with conscious grandiosity the Legion of the United States, into Ohio the summer of 1793. He marched up the Great Miami River, building and garrisoning forts along the way. The American’s managed to defend these positions into the winter. Then, that following summer, the Western Confederacy fielded its largest force yet, more than 2,000 braves, to besiege the new forts and to confront Wayne’s main force. The Legion of the United States met the Western Confederacy army on the banks of the lower Maumee on August 20th. The battlefield is called Fallen Timbers because a windstorm had blown down a stand of trees on the spot, and the Indians believed the felled trunks would limit Wayne’s mobility. This, however, proved not to be the case. The Americans flanked Western Confederacy with cavalry and very quickly broke its line with a heavy bayonet charge. Fighting was very brief; only a few causalities were taken on either side. More effective was Wayne’s show of strength which succeeded in demoralizing the less warlike tribes in the confederacy. This combined with British Canadia’s sudden withdrawal of support caused a break up of the Western Confederacy which remained in disarray until the ascendency of Tecumseh fifteen years later.

After the battle, Wayne built a line of forts along the Maumee which would defend the northern marches of the Indian country and secure the south part of Ohio for settlement. Americans began clearing and planting properties along the main rivers and then moved further into the interior, and, within just nine years after Wayne’s victory, Ohio was given statehood and admitted into the Union.

The Ohio Historical Society maintains a small memorial to the Battle of Fallen Timbers off of Route 24 just outside the city limits of Maumee. It features a bronze statue depicting General Wayne flanked by a Native American figure to his right and a Kentucky frontiersman to his left. The group stands atop a stone pedestal and is positioned at the end of a tree-lined arbor about 100 meters in length. Near the statue group is a boulder called Turkey Foot Rock. According to legend, as the Indians were in retreat, Chief Me-sa-sa of the Ottawa leapt atop the rock to rally his warriors away from the battlefield. He was struck by a musket ball and died beside the stone. For many years following the battle, locals would find offerings of beef, corn and barley on the boulder.

Across the highway lies the actual battlefield grounds, which has not yet open to the public. There is a thicket of trees on the site surrounded by open field and suburban tact housing. On the battlefield’s west edge is an enormous mall and shopping center called “Shops at Fallen Timbers.” Constructed in 2007, the development is termed by its owner and developer, a “ retail lifestyle center,” a designation that apparently indicates combination of traditional retail stores with leisure amenities oriented toward more affluent consumers. I’ve actually been to this place. I was visiting family and we dined at the P.F. Chang’s restaurant located in the Fallen Timbers complex very soon after the property opened for business. As I remember, it was in the middle of winter, in the dead of night, we were possibly having Christmas Eve dinner. It was a very cold night, with ice and snow, and I was not able to see any neighboring development beyond the parking lot. The place impressed me as being very desolate and isolated. It felt like an outpost of regimented and rehearsed activity in an ocean of nothing. It was an aggressive assertion of will, that it should exist in a place where nothing suggested that it should, not dissimilar, in many respects, to the real Battle of Fallen Timbers.


I want so much to begin my Ohio series, but I can’t due to other responsibilities relating to wage earning taking up all of my time. The constant need to earn a living is a major source of frustration for me. There is no market for the kind of material I am suited to produce (readership of this blog hovers right around 20 views a day, for example), and so I have to do wage toil to get capital to live on. Most days I resign myself to the way the world is and how the people are who live in it, and I do what is asked of me (web programming and low-level graphic design). Today my mind revolts at the work I’m trying to make it do. I am sitting at my desk in my windowless office trying to concentrate, and my thinking is just very fitful and continually escaping into daydream. This struggle to harness and control myself is agonizing because it requires me to apply immense effort to enact the suppression but then I must also be the victim of my own suppressing. The misery of it puts me in the mind of what torture is—I mean what it really is, which is more than just the experience of pain. The term torture comes from the Latin root “tort”, which denotes twisting or bending. The term describes how the body writhes and contorts under infliction, which is an instinctual reaction compelling the body away from the thing causing the injury. Under torture, the body frantically struggles to escape, but since it is restrained, the escape is thwarted. Herein lies the true anguish and trauma of the torturous ordeal: it is not the pain, but the inability to escape the pain that so impossible to endure. Pain, after all, is imaginary and can be displaced with mental discipline. Mutilation or injury, of which the pain is a signal, is real; it is the substantive event and cannot be ignored without surrendering oneself to delusion. So torture really has more to do with the context that surrounds the pain, the fear and uncertainty and distress and isolation and loss of hope. Pain is merely an intensifier to the emotional torment of being trapped.

Thus, my current state can be understood as follows: I feel no pain, but I feel a compulsion to escape as if I were undergoing some painful trial. Because I cannot satisfy this compulsion, I am in fact subject to what could legitimately be called a torture. I think this could be said of anyone who is trapped. It is always torture, the very worst thing that a human being can suffer; sensing the urgent need to escape and being kept from doing so.

Series: Roadside Monuments of Ohio

For the next several weeks (perhaps longer) I shall be writing posts about monuments and memorials from the state of Ohio. I will be using notes that I have compiled for over the course of several years. Roadside historical have always been an errant interest of mine, and I have always believed Ohio’s to be the best. I’m sure there are a number of political, historical and geographical reasons for this. I don’t really care about any of them. I shall be treating Ohio as though it were any other place, because that is after all what it is. I did not begin the Monuments of Ohio project because I was interested in Ohio history or because I have a fondness for the place. I was born in an Ohio town, but I know almost nothing about Ohio. I have not visited any of the monuments I will be writing about. I only know about them because they are included in a road atlas that I won in a geography bee when I was in middle school. I would look at this atlas compulsively—and still do—and I would study the place names and markers. This is how I became acquainted with Ohio’s odd “points of interest”, like the Dental Museum of Bainbridge or the Mac-o-Cheek chateau; America’s first stretch of paved road; the myriad birthplaces of presidents, civil war and astronauts; the one or two frontier battle fields and the countless others that were forgotten and lost. I found them on a map and looked them up on the internet. If I there was a phone number to a front desk or something I would call and ask the person who answered to explain where they were and what they were doing there. For a long time I wanted to make a book out of these notes, but there was not unifying principle I could use to organize them, no cohesive theme beside basic fact of proximity. That these things reside in a place which had recently been termed Ohio is not a good enough commonality for me. As I commit my findings to the Golden Assay logs, I shall be attempting to understand what they mean, and what there is to be learned from them beyond the plain reality of their existence.

Free Speech Monument

Embedded into the pavement of Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus is a monument to the Free Speech movement which began in 1964-65 as a reaction to the University of California’s attempt to suppress student protests of the Vietnam War with violent force and arrests. The university’s policy toward the demonstrations was perceived as a challenge to free speech and free expression, and it led to further protests by the students to protect their right to assemble and express political opinions.

The monument was built in 1992 by Mark Brest Van Kampen, but it’s really less of a monument and more a work of conceptual art. There is no mention of the Free Speech Movement anywhere (Berkeley administration wouldn’t allow it, apparently). Instead Van Kampen attempts to create a piece of ground where the ideals of the movement could be fully realized. In the center of the monument’s tile is a circle of land, about 6 inches across, which is supposedly completely ungoverned. The monument declares that this bit of soil and the column of air space extending over it are not part of any entity’s jurisdiction. Van Kampen actually petitioned the United States government to cede this land over to the project to be a neutral and free parcel, not part of any country or state. He was never able to accomplish the cession. The government refused to give the land over, probably for fear that it could be claimed by another state. The episode brings up an interesting point about the modern world: there is not a single inch of the earth’s surface that has been left unclaimed. Law and sovereignty extend to every corner of the globe. Ratification of the Antarctic Treaty in 1961 legitimated the territorial claims of seven different countries over the continent of Antarctica, thus placing the last unclaimed land on earth under suzerainty.

Concern for Household Economy in 17th Century England

I am reading a book of autobiographical writings from Quaker women who lived in England between 1650 to 1690. These were the years of the “sufferings” for the Society of Friends, when they were persecuted by both the Church of England and the puritanical sects. The government banned their meetings in many counties, and the populace was extremely hostile toward them. In addition to violence and imprisonment, Quakers were often taken to court so that their goods could be seized. Since their beliefs restricted them from taking oaths, they were unable to defend themselves on the stand, and so, often lost the cases brought against them. Of all the offenses the Quakers had to endure—beatings, public humiliation, wrongful incarceration, loss of social standing, estrangement from family—confiscation of property and lands seems to have been for many the most injurious and intolerable. Alice Curwen was the wife of a shopkeeper in Bristol. She and her husband were both Quakers and withstood constant harassment from their neighbors and relatives, but when the king’s officers came to her store and carried off some of her merchandise, she followed them all over the city and would not leave their company until they returned what they had taken from her. In her autobiography, Mary Pennington complains at length about the confiscation of her lands in Kent. Pennington was the mother-in-law of William Penn and was reasonably well-off, with a number of farms from which she collected rent. The loss of this income seems to have affected her a great deal and she still seemed to hold a grudge against those who were responsible writing almost 15 years after:

“As such, they stoned, abused, and imprisoned us, at several towns and meetings where we went. This not being enough to prove us, and work for us a far more exceeding weight of glory, it pleased the Lord to try us by the loss of our estate, which was wrongfully withheld from us, by our relations suing us unrighteously. Our own tenants withheld what the law gave, and put us into the Court of Chancery, because we could not swear. Our relations also taking that advantage, we were put out of our dwelling-house, in an injurious, unrighteous manner. Thus we were stripped of my husband’s estate, and a great part of mine.” (1676)

One might think that the Quakers would be more willing to eschew material wealth and earthly comforts and accept a more ascetic life. This was the case for some but no for most. Many of the Quakers in the 17th century occupied a new, burgeoning middle class that was beginning to take hold in the provincial cities of England. They were small landowners, private farmers, shopkeepers and tradesman and were very much concerned with gradually and steadily accumulating wealth and bettering their position in the world. This sort proved incredibly valuable to the Quaker movement because they possessed surplus wealth and were not yet affiliated with the old feudal powers of church and aristocracy. Thus we see among the puritans of that age a major emphasis on personal prosperity (see post on Visible Saints).

New behavior in regard to wealth management and household economy could be seen all over England at that time. Samuel Pepys, writing just after the Restoration, exhibits an obsessive interest in his accounts. He keeps a regular record of his net worth in his diaries and reports every gain and loss outside of his normal income and expenses, even money obtained through bribes and collusion. One of my favorite entries in the Diaries of Samuel Pepys comes from a day in the winter of 1664 when Pepys discovers that he can save himself the expense of going to the barber everyday by learning to shave himself. After buying a razor and trying it, he reports with some astonishment that it is actually very easy to do and that he will shave himself everyday henceforth. Of course, Pepys is missing the whole point of going to the barber. This was a custom of the aristocracy, imitated by the professional classes, that signified power of coercion. The nobility demonstrated their right to power by abstaining from all work, a renunciation that included the labor of dressing and grooming oneself. To men of the middle classes who engaged in work daily and who defined themselves to a great degree by the work they did, such reservations made no sense. What we see in Pepys’s determination to shave himself is the incremental formation of a new value system, founded on industriousness, self-reliance, prosperity, and thrift.

Performative Oath

Statue of William Penn bearing turf and twig for the Livery of Seisen, the ritual granting him deed to Pennsylvania.

The problem with verbal oaths is that they are vulnerable to reversal. It is much easier to break promises than it is to keep them. It is necessary in most cultures to require a more concrete expression of the oath, either manifested through elaborate ritual or represented in an object. This is the basis for contract law: the contract acts as the document of an agreement to which a signatory is often forced to honor. It is proof that it took place and that the parties entered into it on unambiguous terms. In most modern legal codes, verbal agreements mean nothing unless “put into writing.” Even if you have witnesses present who can attest that the promise was made, the spoken word is still not considered binding. Resolution is conveyed only in the act of signing. Words mean nothing. I do know of one exception, though: Scotland. I once knew a Scottish law student who told me that in Scotland verbal agreement can be used as substance for contract if the utterance is verifiable. This system of verbal contract must be a nightmare from the standpoint of practical enforcement but there is something about it that is satisfying. It suggests a basic expectation of honor, that one must uphold his or her word—the literal words which emit from one’s mouth.

There are numerous initiation rituals used to redeem one’s membership to a group. Such rituals are often difficult or distasteful to those who have to perform them; this is done so that a barrier to entry is created through which only the devoted would be willing to pass. The most common initiation ceremonies are weddings. Active rituals like the ring exchange or the kiss at the end function to inaugurate the conjugal bond. In traditional Ashkenazi Jewish weddings, the marriage was considered complete only after the Yichud, a period of seclusion immediately after the ceremony in which the bride and groom share 10 to 20 minutes alone together in a private room. In a different era, the bridal couple would have presumably used this time to consummate their marriage with sexual intercourse. Today I think the practice, when it is performed at all, is supposed to be a time for repose and quite meditation.

Many oath systems require that a declarant substantiate his or her conviction to an idea or position by offering a show of sacrifice to the opposite party in the agreement. All feudal systems operate this way, with the vassal delivering some form of tribune to his lord as a display of obedience. One of the more interesting conviction/obedience rites I’ve found is in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. Behn describes how warriors of an indigenous tribe in Suriname (probably fictional) demonstrate their worthiness for leadership through self-mutilation:

“…these two men were to stand in competition for the generalship, or great war captain, and being brought the old judges, now past labour, they are asked what they dare do to show they are worthy to lead an army. When he who is first, making no reply, cuts off his nose and throws it contemptibly on the ground, and the other does something to himself that he thinks surpasses him, and perhaps deprives himself of lips and an eye. So they slash on till one gives out, and many have died in this debate. And ‘tis by a passive valour they show and prove their activity…” (50)