LIMA — On a May day in 1819, a U.S. government surveyor named Sylvanus Bourne began walking due east from a wooden post he’d set on the Ohio-Indiana state line. He placed a new post every half mile for more than 100 miles.
Bourne’s journey along what was, to his best reckoning, the 41st degree of latitude was “one of the most important walks in local history,” historian and surveyor Michael Buettner wrote in 2014 for the Allen County Reporter.
Soon, other surveyors began working north and south of Bourne’s base line, laying out six-mile square townships that would form the framework for future surveys. “Among these were Samuel Carpenter, Alexander Holmes and James Holmes, who in May and June of 1819 surveyed the perimeters of those townships now within Allen County,” Buettner wrote.
On Feb. 12, 1820, 200 years ago today, Allen County as well as 13 other northwestern Ohio counties were legislated into existence by the Organic Act of 1820, which set boundaries for the counties.
The Allen County that was created was larger than the one we know today. It was 24 miles across its northern boundary, 23 miles on its western boundary (losing a one-mile swath on the south to Shelby County) and would have been a perfect rectangle except it had a skewed notch in the southeastern corner that was part of Logan County. It included most of today’s Auglaize County — which was created in 1848 from parts of Allen, Mercer, Logan, Darke, Van Wert and Shelby counties — but did not include the areas where Bluffton, Delphos and Cairo would be platted. It had no county government and was attached to Shelby County and later Mercer County for administrative purposes because the population was too small to justify organization of a government.
It was also a forbidding place. “The most prominent and outstanding feature of the wilderness was the deep solitude,” wrote Nevin Winter in his 1917 history of Northwest Ohio. “Those who plunged into the bosom of the forest abandoned not only the multi-sonous (having many sounds) hum of men, but of domesticated life in general. The silence of the night was interrupted only by the howl of the wolf, the melancholy moan of the ill-boding owl, or the frightful shriek of the stealthy panther.”
Until the early part of the 18th century, it had mostly been the haunt of Native American tribes, principally the Shawnee. In September 1817, a treaty signed at Fort Meigs on the Maumee River consigned the tribes to reservations. Two of the largest were the Shawnee reservations in Allen County. One was centered near what is today the intersection of Shawnee and Fort Amanda roads while the second, and much larger of the two, was at Wapakoneta.
Settlers, however, had not waited for the land to be ceded and began moving into the area that became Allen County early in 1817. Fort Amanda, which had been abandoned by the military after the War of 1812, served as an incubator for early settlement. Beginning in 1814, Francis Duchouquet, a French trader who married into the Shawnee and often served as an interpreter, lived at the fort before moving on.
Andrew Russell from Dayton moved his family into the abandoned fort early in 1817 and it was there on July 13, 1817, that his daughter, Susanna, was born in July of that year. Susanna Russell is generally accepted as being the first white child born in Allen County, although the county did not officially exist when she was born. On Sept. 20, 1817, nine days before the Fort Meigs treaty was signed, a son named Francis was born to Peter Diltz, another squatter at the fort who came north with Russell.
Russell was the first to move out of the fort, though not far, and begin farming. “The location of this first farm is indefinite,” Buettner wrote, “because Russell was issued seven patent deeds in 1822, including deeds for one parcel in present-day Allen County and four parcels in present-day Auglaize County (all of these were at or near Fort Amanda, according to Buettner).”
A historical marker just west of Fort Amanda and Sunderland roads in today’s Allen County recognizes the Dye Sunderland homestead as the first permanent farm in the county. Sunderland, who was Andrew Russell’s brother-in-law, had also come from Dayton and settled in Allen County in 1821.
Buettner noted that, although the lands of Northwest Ohio “were surveyed to be sold,” the sale didn’t go well at first for Allen County. With a general settlement pattern in this part of the state from south to north, and with plenty of good land available in Shelby and Mercer counties, and with plenty of malaria available in Allen County because of its proximity to the Great Black Swamp — not to mention the Shawnee reservations — settlement was slow going.
The most active area of settlement in Allen County in the 1820s was along the banks of Sugar Creek north of the future site of Lima in what would become Bath Township. The first to arrive here was Christopher Wood, who, Buettner noted, “accomplished many of the most important tasks in the early history of Allen County.” Among the most important was deciding on the location of a seat of justice for Allen County. This was accomplished in 1830, the same year the U.S. Government passed an act calling for the removal of the Native Americans to west of the Mississippi River.
Wood, The Lima News wrote April 19, 2006, “scoped out 160 acres of fairly swampy ground north of the Shawnee reservation and declared that land the new county seat. Legend has it that the name for the new town was drawn from a hat at a gathering in the cabin of county Commissioner James Daniel.” The name, the story goes, was suggested because Lima, Peru, was the capital of the country from which quinine was obtained to treat the ever-present malaria.
A pioneer named William Rumbaugh, who came to Allen County in 1832, remembered early Lima as having only “a few log huts (that) fringed the edges of what is today the Public Square,” according to the 2006 article in the News, which added that “he also remembered snakes crawling everywhere …”
Despite the mud, malaria and slithering abundance of snakes, Lima became the county seat of Allen County, which was officially organized in June 1831. Lima was incorporated as a town in 1842 and Henry DeVilliers Williams was elected its first mayor. Williams, a dog fancier, was bitten by a dog and died of rabies in 1844.
In 1848, Allen County lost a portion of the county on the south to the newly formed Auglaize County, including the site of Fort Amanda. Wapakoneta was chosen as the county seat after a spirited battle with St. Marys, despite a claim from a St. Marys partisan recorded in a 1937 history of Ohio that “you cannot find a meaner place or a meaner set of men than are to be found at Wapakoneta.”
Allen County, meanwhile, received land from Mercer, Van Wert and Putnam counties. “Putnam County lost valuable lands to Allen County by an Act of Feb. 14, 1848,” according to the Putnam County Pioneer Association’s 1973 centennial history. “It included much of the best improved lands of Putnam County and contained the thriving villages and towns of Bluffton, Beaver Dam, West Cairo and that part of Delphos situated east of the Miami and Erie extension canal … .” In return, according to the history, Putnam County received some “mostly swamp” land from Van Wert County. In 1853, Allen County agreed to pay Putnam County $3,848.76 compensation.
On Feb. 12, 1920, 100 years after Allen County first appeared on the map, the Lima Daily News and the county’s citizens in general marked the occasion by — well, as near as can be determined, ignoring it. The News that day took note of Lincoln’s birthday, editorially deplored the quality of work on Lima’s newest reservoir and reported that Idaho had become the 30th state to ratify a women’s suffrage amendment. “Women Must Save World,” read a sub-headline.
There were celebrations in 1917, marking the centennial of settlers arriving in the area and another in 1931 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the county’s organization. The 1917 celebration was highlighted by the construction of a pioneer log house in the Public Square and the delivery of mail by airplane from the Lima Driving Park, where Lima Memorial Health System is currently located, to the downtown post office. In 1931, members of the Shawnee tribe, which was escorted out of the area a century earlier, were invited to take part in the celebrations. They were presented with a key to Allen County.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.