Connecticut’s long lost Western Reserve

Alex DuBois presented a lecture Saturday, April 13.

Leila Hawken

Connecticut’s long lost Western Reserve

SHARON — Horace Greeley’s advice to the young man may have been valid later in the 19th century, but at the dawn of that century, when area families contemplated going west to the uncharted Western Reserve, mapped as “New Connecticut,” the going was not for the faint of heart.

During a talk titled, “To Certain Western Lands: Connecticut Stories from the Western Reserve,” Alex DuBois, Curator of Collections at the Litchfield Historical Society, described the realities faced by those who ventured west, leaving New England for a variety of reasons. The lecture was presented by the Sharon Historical Society on Saturday, April 13, following its annual meeting and election of officers.

Noting that his information about Connecticut’s role in settling of the Western Reserve has taken years to assemble, DuBois began the timeline with the original charter in 1666, when the state’s western boundary was undefined so that in theory the colony extended from the western border of the colony of Pennsylvania all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Due to the vast distance involved, the western boundary was eventually decided to be the Mississippi River, DuBois indicated.

After the American Revolution, DuBois said Connecticut gave most of its claimed western lands over to the new American government, but it “reserved” 35 million acres in the northeast of present-day Ohio from Pennsylvania to the lower tip of Lake Erie for its continued use and settlement. This area was named the Connecticut Western Reserve, also known as “New Connecticut.”

Sharon native and surveyor Amos Spafford was instrumental in the early surveying of those lands, not an easy task to map townships defined by precise single square miles arranged in blocks of 25 or 36, a concept know as five-by-five or six-by-six.

DuBois recounted that once the land was mapped, investors could either set about to farm the land themselves or they could sell to Connecticut residents who might move to the land. The Connecticut Land Company, specializing in speculation, was actively involved.

In the course of events, Ohio’s native tribes were being displaced. Numerous military actions were always ended by treaties that invariably called for the tribes to cede land.

“It’s harder to find their voices,” DuBois said of his work to uncover the tribal historical record. He spoke of Seneca and the Wyandot Nation.

As for the families who went to the Western Reserve as migrants, DuBois said that the ads promoted the idea as a good move, while in reality it may not have been so.

“When you went, and how much money you had predicted your outcome,” DuBois said.

People who sought freedom found their way to “New Connecticut.” Freed slaves found it to be a place of opportunity. Slavery was not permitted in Ohio, but the prohibition was not enforced, and slaves were regularly seen working the fields. Fugitive slaves were returned to their owners as a matter of course.

In time, however, the Western Reserve became aligned with the abolitionist movement.

“It’s an important story for Connecticut,” DuBois said.

Re-elected to their positions as officers at the historical society were Chris Robinson, president; Jodi Scheurenbrand, vice-president; Stephanie Plunkett, secretary; and Douglas Rick, treasurer.

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