Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Adams County Seat Fight

What follows is another revised section of the conference paper I presented at the University of Dundee in July 2009. We pick up the story of the role land speculation played in generating frontier lawlessness in the Lower Scioto Valley. The signing of the Greenville Treaty of 1795, opened the era of American settlement in the valley and led to a series of conflicts over the location of seats of government. Here we turn our attention to the county seat fight in Adams County. In future posts, we will examine the dispute over locating the territorial and state capitals in Chillicothe and the Highland County Seat Fight, which culminated in a bloody melee in the streets of New Market. ~ ALF


Following the Greenville Treaty of 1795, the rapid settlement of Chillicothe and its environs, along with the further settlement of Manchester (Massie’s original town speculation in the Virginia Military District), and the founding of Alexandria at the mouth of the Scioto River, necessitated the creation of local territorial government in the Lower Scioto Valley. With the lands on the eastern side of the Scioto closed to sale by the US Congress, the Scioto Valley was cleaved in half, with settlement and economic development first concentrated on what became known as the “West Side” of the Scioto. Under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the territorial governor had the power to establish the boundaries of new counties and the location of their seats of justice. These executive powers quickly became the source of conflict in the years following the Greenville Treaty.

The Creation of Adams County


In July 1797, Winthrop Sargent, the Territorial Secretary, acting in place of Governor Arthur St. Clair, who was absent the North-West Territory, proclaimed the creation of Adams County, which encompassed much of the eastern section of the Virginia Military District, along with lands on the eastern side of the Scioto. The county included the first three major settlements in the valley – Manchester and Alexandria on the Ohio River and the booming town of Chillicothe to the north. The fortunes of the settlers and speculators of the new Adams county now turned on the establishment of seats of government and locating of new county boundary lines.

The Adams County Seat Fight: Manchester Partisans versus the Up-River Faction

When creating the county, Sargent also appointed all of the county officials – from the Justices of the Peace, to the clerk of the Court of Common Pleas to the County Sherriff, among other lesser offices. Sargent’s proclamation authorized David Edie, the Sherriff, to choose a temporary seat for the court’s inaugural session in September, after which the Territorial Governor would establish a permanent location. Thus, according to Edie’s order, the first meeting of the court was held in Manchester on 12 September 1797.



Thanks to Google Earth, here's a satelite image of modern day Adams County, with the locations of Adams County's various county seats.  West Union became the permanent seat in 1804.

Just prior to this first meeting, Sargent appointed a special commission to select the permanent site. Chosen from the county’s newly appointed officials. Nathaniel Massie (Justice of the Peace and Justice of the Court of Common Pleas), John Beasley (Justice of the Peace and Justice of the Court of Common Pleas), John Belli (Justice of the Peace, Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, and County Recorder), and John S. Wills (Prothonotary of the Court of Common Pleas and Clerk to the Court of General Quarter Sessions of the Peace), four of the region’s largest land speculators, were given the authority to select the site, operating under certain restrictions. Sargent expressly forbid the selection of Manchester, Chillicothe, or Alexandria, indicating a preference for a site at or up-river from the mouth of Ohio Brush Creek. Except for Massie, the commissioners were all Federalists. John S. Wills, a lawyer and land speculator who lived in Cincinnati, led the so-called “Up-River” faction.

The Town of Adamsville

On the 26th of December, 1797, based upon what Sargent described as the “majority” opinion of the special commissioners, he issued a proclamation establishing the permanent seat of justice, up-river from Manchester, at the mouth of Stout’s Run. The town’s official name was Adamsville, but the Manchester faction would call it “Scant,” for the lack of any structural improvements, excepting a hastily constructed log cabin courthouse. Massie and his allies viewed the selection of Adamsville as a transparent attempt to thwart their interests and undermine the influence of Virginians in the Scioto Country.

When the Court met for the first time in Adamsville, in December 1797, the Massie faction boycotted the meeting. By the June 1798 meeting of the Court, the various Justices of the Peace who favored Manchester had settled upon their strategy; they would introduce a motion to accept offers of land for the erection of a courthouse and jail. Five offers were made and after much debate, a majority of the JPs voted to accept Massie’s offer of one acre of land in Manchester. Thus, a new and broader majority of county officials voted to return and fix the county seat at Manchester.

Governor St. Clair Intervenes

The fight over Adams county’s seat of government had really only just begun. When news of the Court’s decision reached Governor St. Clair, he was incensed. He quickly wrote a letter to Massie, who had served as the presiding judge during the June meeting. “The power of fixing the places where the courts are to be held in every county is exclusively in the Governor,” explained St. Clair. “It is an exercise of executive authority of which no other person or persons is or are legally capable; and it is important to the people that the places where they have been appointed to be held should not be subject to wanton change.” The capital investments and the hard earned fruits of settlers’ labor -- their larger fortunes -- were at stake. “When the people lay out their money in improving county-towns,” St. Clair continued, “it is in confidence of their stability; and, when the courts are removed from those towns their importance is lost, and the property of the adventurer sinks with it, and it is to them a real breach of public faith.” He accused Massie and other Adams County JPs of “a most unwarrantable assumption of power and contempt of authority by the justices, which might subject them to prosecution.”

St. Clair charged the Manchester JPs with pursuing their own private interests. “In the situation of a county town a Governor can have no private interest of his own to serve, but,” explained St. Clair, “it is very possible that even a majority of persons who may have been appointed justices may have such interests, and be disposed to prefer them to those of the public at large.”

The Town of Washington

In September 1798, due to Adamsville’s tendency to flood and a pending lawsuit involving the title to the land upon which the town had been located, St. Clair overruled the Court’s decision in favor of Manchester and ordered the courts to meet at a new location at the mouth of Ohio Brush Creek. There, another new town would be platted on the lands of Noble Grimes, and named Washington. Grimes and his family had immigrated to Ohio from Pennsylvania in 1796. He had purchased title to a thousand acres at the confluence of Brush Creek and the Ohio, and emerged as a leading Federalist and opponent of the Manchester faction.

Massie and others balked at St. Clair’s orders and their outright defiance led the Governor to strip Massie and another JP, William Goodin, of their judicial commissions in October 1798. St. Clair and Sargent claimed that the two men “had Misdemened themselves in the execution of their office by attempting to disturb the regular administration of Justice by adjourning the sessions of the said Courts ... to meet at Manchester where they had been duly & regularly appointed to be held thereafter at Washington and fixed at that place by a Proclamation of the Governor.” Stripped of his local governmental power, Massie did not give up on his Manchester speculation. He, along with his allies in the VMD, would seek redress in the new Territorial Assembly and, if necessary, from Congress. The issues involved in the struggle over the location of the Adams County seat would be at the heart of the controversy between Republican forces in the VMD and Governor St. Clair and his Federalist allies.

The First Territorial Assembly and the Clash Over County Boundaries and Seats

The rapid growth in population in southern Ohio led to the creation of the first Territorial Assembly in 1799, through which Nathaniel Massie and other Virginians attempted create new county boundaries and seats of local government. The focus of Virginian interests in Ohio now shifted to the new Territorial Assembly. The election of the first Assembly in 1799 allowed frontier Ohioans to assert local government powers that had previously been claimed by the Territorial Governor. While the governor continued to have the power to create new counties and appoint the locations of their original county seats, the new assembly claimed that they had the power to redraw existing county boundaries and relocate existing county seats. As Andrew R. L. Cayton has argued, the devolution of power to the county officials or to the new Territorial Assembly would “forfeit all the efforts of the Federalist hierarchy to increase the power of the national government in the Northwest Territory.”

In October 1799, the Assembly, to which Massie had been elected, passed a resolution fixing the Adams county seat at Manchester. St. Clair then vetoed the bill and hatched a plan to divide the territory in such a way that the speculative schemes of Massie and others in the VMD would be forever ruined. Frustrated at the local and territorial levels, the Virginians and their allies would turn to the US Congress to block St. Clair’s plans and thereby advance their own interests.

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