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Friday, May 7, 2021

The Dean of Hollywood

You may not know that a prominent movie star, producer, director and industry leader was born in Marietta. I didn’t until I learned about Hobart VanZandt Bosworth. Few people have heard of him, except maybe historians and long time Hollywood residents. That’s because Hobart was active in stage and silent movies in the early 1900’s. He was a prolific actor as well as a producer, director, and movie company owner - including part owner of the early Paramount Pictures studio. This guy was amazing; his own life would make an inspiring and entertaining movie.

Publicity portrait circa 1920

He was born in Marietta in 1867, the son of Daniel P. Bosworth, Jr. and Clara VanZandt Bosworth. He proudly traced his ancestry back to Massachusetts colonists Miles Standish and John and Priscilla Alden on his father’s side, and New York’s Van Zandt family, the first Dutch settlers in the new world, on his mother’s side. 

The Bosworth family are descendants of Marietta founder Rufus Putnam. Hobart’s grandfather Daniel P. Bosworth was a prominent Marietta merchant whose name appeared on the Bosworth-Wells building built in 1840 at 155 Front Street. Hobart’s great uncle was Sala Bosworth Jr., a well known Marietta artist. Marietta Times columnist Joan Pritchard noted that because of their lineage “great things were expected of Hobart Bosworth and his younger brother Welles.”

But “great things” often start from humble beginnings. Not much is reported about his early life in Marietta. His mother died when he was 6. His father remarried, but Hobart developed an intense dislike for his step mother. The family lived on Fourth Street; his name appears in 1880 census records. Hobart stated to an interviewer in 1914 that he was “ill-used and cruelly treated” and ran away from home at age 11 to New York City.  Yet he later admitted, “I know, now that I can look back dispassionately, that my stepmother really treated me well, better than I deserved.”

His unlikely path to stardom begins at sea, as a cabin boy on the clipper ship SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS out of New York. He recalls that on his twelfth birthday, the ship was right off Cape Horn. That voyage ended five months later in San Francisco.  There were two Marietta connections that he made then. Just after the voyage while sleeping on a park bench near Trinity Church, he remembered hearing organ music from the church. A Captain Roberts told him later that Hobart’s uncle was the organist. Hobart never mentioned his name of if he met him. The same Captain Roberts also told him that Hobart’s grandfather had built the ship MARIETTA* and had sailed her to San Francisco.

He spent three more years at sea, later explaining that "All my people were of the sea and my father was a naval officer." He then worked numerous odd jobs. By age 21, he had worked as a stevedore, miner, a boxer and wrestler, rancher, stage hand, and eventually stage actor. He became an expert horseman as a ranch hand. Love of horses became one of his signature interests later in life.

Another of his lifelong interests was painting. “I was always interested in art,” he said later, “and felt I might make a success as a landscape painter.” On the advice of a friend, he got work as an extra at the California Theater in San Francisco to pay for art instruction. “I suped** and painted,” he said. Life was good. 

Landscape Painting by Hobart Bosworth. Setting and time period not known. Bosworth created many works, though few seem to be in the public domain. Viewed at where this painting was offered for sale.

He was given a few bit speaking parts, piquing his interest in acting. Hobart signed on with a touring company and then the Alcazar Theater. By age 21, he had played most of the famous Shakespearean roles, though he admitted “with truth and sorrow, I was the worst exponent of Macbeth the stage has ever known.” An illustrious acting career was underway. And he continued painting, especially later in life, and produced numerous art works. 

Bosworth in costume, early in his career. From

His early career featured mind-boggling twists and turns. He moved on from San Francisco - perhaps because he was broke. Bosworth: “I got stranded and took a Denver and Rio Grande train by the underneath route and landed in Park City, Utah.” Underneath route - maybe his term for hitching a ride hobo-style on the train? He worked pushing an ore wagon in a mine to raise money. To escape the mine, he found a job with magician Hermann the Great as an assistant. They toured in Mexico. 

During this time, he saw his father for the first time in eleven years; the occasion is not reported. Hobart recalled, “He looked at me and said, ‘Hum! I couldn’t lick you now, son.’” He never saw his father again. There must have been an estrangement. I found nothing further in Hobart’s public comments making reference to his family or his roots in Marietta.

He returned to New York and worked for ten years in theater playing in Shakespeare plays, mostly in minor roles. He finally gained lead roles in Julia Marlowe’s acting company. Just as he was emerging as a star in the New York theater world, he was stricken with Tuberculosis sometime around 1900. He was forced to withdraw from the theater. Tuberculosis (“TB”) was a scourge at the time. There was no known cure; it was often fatal. Rest was thought to be the only way to survive. Hobart rested for a while but soon came back to the theater. He worked harder than ever. “Harrison Gray Fiske featured me in Marta of the Lowlands, and I became a broadway star,” he recounted later. But the end was in sight. He was forced to retire again after losing 70 pounds.

Eventually he moved to the drier climate of Tempe, Arizona. There he did odd jobs, rested, painted, and worked on recovery . “I kept fighting, fighting, fighting,” he exclaimed,  “And I won out.” The quote is from an article about Bosworth in Movie Pictorial, a popular movie fan magazine which interviewed Hobart in 1914. He had just started the Jack London*** series of movies. The article was titled “A Jack London Hero: Hobart Bosworth and his Fighting Career.” It began with an overview. “Hobart Bosworth’s life reads like one of the stirring (movie) tales he produces. If there ever was a fighter, he was one....Mr. Bosworth has had to fight that most insidious of all enemies, disease. Again and again, physicians (and those) who knew him have given him up. But he never gave himself up. His passionate will to live has (saved his life and helped him) in achieving success.” 

Back to his story: He moved on from Tempe to San Diego which was said to have the best climate in the country. There in 1909 his career received a fortuitous boost: involvement in the fledging movie business. After resurrecting his theater career at the respected Belasco Theater Company in Los Angeles, TB forced him to give up that job. Meanwhile, William Selig, whose Chicago company Selig Polyscope produced short feature films, had set up a makeshift studio in Los Angeles. It is was the first movie studio in California. Francis Boggs, Director of Selig Polyscope, offered Hobart Bosworth the leading role in a short movie. Hobart’s reaction to Boggs’ offer was surprising: “I was heartily indignant,” Hobart recalled. He believed acting in the unproven film medium would be demeaning for an accomplished theater actor. Boggs was persistent, declaring that film-making was an honest and reputable activity. He even offered to withhold Bosworth’s name from the credits. Bosworth’s concern seems amusing now, but then movies were totally new, unproven medium.

Bette Hart and Hobart Bosworth in The Roman made in 1910, one of the very first movies made in Hollywood, from

Hobart Bosworth accepted Boggs’ offer and starred in the short film “In the Power of the Sultan,” considered by some as the first movie made in the western U.S. Hobart found the movie-making process awkward and tedious compared to the theater. But soon he was hooked. He realized movies allowed him to continue his passion - acting - in a way that accommodated his tuberculosis limits. Actual filming was done in short bursts with long rests in between. He could work in the open air since movie sets then were outdoors to capture ambient light. And these were silent movies; no speaking was required, so his TB weakened lungs and voice were not a limitation. Bosworth later reflected, “I believe that...motion pictures...saved my life. How could I have lived on and on, without being able to carry out any of my cherished ambitions? What would my life have meant?”

Montage of Hobart Bosworth images from a Google search. There are hundreds of these in Google search and other sources. During his career, his image appeared in thousands of photos, posters, and movie scenes

Soon he was acting in other movies. Not only that, he was writing and directing many of them. He claims that during his time with Boggs, he wrote 112 films and directed many of them himself. Granted, many of the early films were short, not feature length. Yet this is an example of what impresses me so profoundly about Hobart Bosworth: he was so versatile, creative, and hard working. In this case, he was just learning about acting in the fledgling movie art form. Then he immediately leaped forward to writing screen plays for, and directing, additional movies.

He formed his own production company, Hobart Bosworth Productions Company, in 1913 to produce several films based on Jack London novels. He produced, directed, and acted in most of the films, among them, The Sea Wolf, The Valley of the Moon, and John Barleycorn. In 1916 Bosworth’s company was absorbed in to the famous Paramount Studios. He remained a part owner of Paramount for a time, along with early movie moguls such as Jesse Lasky, Samuel Goldwyn, and Cecil B. DeMille.  Bosworth Productions Company and it’s successors produced 31 films, most of which starred Bosworth.

Publicity booklet for The Sea Wolf, produced by Bosworth’s production company in 1913, viewed at

After he sold to Paramount, his leadership role in the movie industry faded. His health may have been a factor in this change. Plus, he was in his fifties by then. From the late 1910’s, he transitioned to acting only - usually in supporting roles, often as prominent characters in secondary “B” movies. But he kept active, appearing in dozens of movies through the 1920’s  He was often cast as a fatherly type in roles like governors, clergymen, fathers, sheriffs, and judges. His roles over his career were phenomenal in variety: Jack London and Shakespearean characters, Kit Carson, George Washington, Braveheart, Robert E. Lee, Wizard of Oz, Jesus Christ, Spanish Explorer Cortez, Davy Crockett, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Kaiser Wilhelm. He played cowboys, Indians, royalty, explorers, sea captains, politicians, soldiers - often with elaborate costumes. 

Hobart Bosworth as Jesus Christ in Business is Business (1915) and a clergyman in The Scarlet Sin (1915). Viewed at It is bizarre that these photos showed up on a dating website, announcing that “Hobart Bosworth is possibly single.”

He made the transition to talking pictures, and his voice recovered. His later roles in the 1930’s were often cameo roles or bit parts, probably due limited demands for an actor over age 60. But he kept at it. His last film appearance was in 1942, the year before his death.

Bosworth became a fixture in Beverly Hills. He was active in the community and built his “dream home” on Hillcrest Road. Bosworth was known for riding his horse Cameo around town and talking to everyone. He helped fund construction of the Beverly Hills equestrian trail which ran along the median on Sunset Boulevard. It opened in 1926; Hobart served on the trail’s board. 

Grand opening of the Beverly Hills equestrian trail in 1926

He was active in civic groups and good friends with neighbor Will Rogers. He was affectionately called the “Dean of Hollywood” for his pioneering role in the movie industry. Hobart Bosworth was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6522 Hollywood Boulevard.

Photos of Hobart with his horse and autograph message (above) and at his “dream home” on Hillcrest Road in Beverly Hills (below)

Bosworth was a prodigious actor, director, and producer. He is credited with appearances in over 250 movies from 1908 to 1942, directing 44 from 1911 to 1915, writing screenplays for 27, and producing 11 movies from 1911 to 1921. His actual count might be many more. And that was after a stage career that spanned nearly 20 years. How many movie stars of today can cite numbers like that? He certainly passed the “great expectations” test predicted from the accomplishments of his Marietta ancestors. Hobart VanZandt Bosworth truly was a star.

Walk of Fame star on Hollywood Boulevard

*Without further information, it is hard to verify this statement and identify which MARIETTA vessel it might have been. There were several.
** A supernumerary (“supe”) was a theater extra - a person with a nonspeaking role or part of a crowd.
***Jack London was a popular author of rugged adventure stories published in the early 1900’s. Hobart Bosworth was a pioneer in introducing well known novels to the movie screen.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Black History Month: 3 African American Pioneers

These are profiles of three African American men from our early history. Each distinguished himself with a life of courage and perseverance. Each had the opportunity to live as a free man in the Northwest Territory or Ohio where foresighted leaders had adopted laws to prohibit slavery.

Christopher Malbone aka “Kitt Putnam”
Kitt Putnam panicked as the flatboat started to sink crossing the Ohio River in 1793. He was helping Aaron Waldo Putnam and Major Robert Bradford move cattle from Belpre, Ohio to Virginia. Drowning was a common risk on the early frontier because waterways were often used for transportation. Kitt was an African American servant in the household of Israel Putnam Jr. of Belpre.

He was frightened because he could not swim. The canoe sent to rescue the men could only take one at a time. One version of the incident said that the two white men with him insisted on being rescued first. Israel Putnam Jr., in whose home Kitt served, encouraged him to bounce on his tip toes to stay above water. He also admonished Kitt to not to disgrace the family name by showing any fear. There was no context with the latter comments, but the impression is one showing little empathy or encouragement.

Kitt Putnam's given name was Christopher Malbone. He was one of the first Blacks to live most of his life in Washington County. He was a servant of General Israel Putnam, then his son Colonel Israel Putnam Jr. Kitt came to Washington County from Connecticut with Israel Putnam Jr. in 1789 and lived at The Farmer’s Castle stockade in Belpre as a teen. He was described as friendly, athletic, a hard worker, and kind. He was an excellent worker and sentry, standing watch to warn those working in the fields of danger.

Kitt achieved distinction as the first Black person to vote in Ohio and maybe the Unites States. He voted in the 1802 selection of delegates from Washington County to the Ohio constitutional convention. Ironically, the Constitution, while it prohibited slavery, denied Blacks the right to vote in the State of Ohio.

This image shows a list of voters for delegates to the Territorial Convention, District of Marietta, dated second Tuesday of October, 1802. Christopher Malbone, a.k.a. Kitt Putnam, the first person of color, to vote in the new territory, is listed on line 133 (fourth from the top) as Christopher Putnam. Photo courtesy of Marietta College’s Local Government Records and Legal Documents collection. 

This actor portrayal of Christopher Malbone voting, from the documentary film “Opening the Door West,” can be seen as part of the “Pathways to Freedom” exhibit at the Campus Martius Museum. (Photo by Erin O'Neill). Copied from Marietta Times article February 7, 2018.

At age 21, Kitt Putnam became a free man* and could seek other employment. He started working for Captain Devol who lived near the Muskingum River helping clear fields and tend the floating mill. He died unexpectedly in 1802; there was great sadness at his passing. The cause of death is unknown. It is also not known if he had a family or where he is buried.

*The nature of his servant status is not clear. He was not a slave but may have been an indentured servant under a contract which expired on becoming an adult at age 21.

Bazaleel** Norman
This man was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Blacks served in the war, starting in 1777. There were reservations at first about their bravery and whether military training and access to weapons might tempt them to rebel. Blacks were also fighting for their own independence. Some also had to decide which side, America or Britain, would give them the best chance for freedom. Blacks in the Continental Army served with distinction. They also provided needed manpower, especially at crucial times of low enlistments in general. The Black soldiers served for an average of 4.5 years, more than 8 times the average white soldier.

Bazaleel joined the Continental Army in 1777. Most Army units then were integrated. Bazaleel Norman likely fought alongside white soldiers to gain freedom for country - and for African Americans. He served in Captain Richard Anderson’s company in seventh regiment of the Continental Army Maryland line. His service included the battles of Monmouth, Camden, Cowpens, Gilford Court House, and Eutaw Springs. He served the entire war until the Maryland line of the Continental Army was disbanded in 1781.

After the war, in 1782 he married Fortune Stephens in Frederick County, Maryland. They had six children. Sometime before 1819, they moved to Roxbury Township*** in Washington County, Ohio. There he farmed.

Bazaleel was granted a pension in 1818. An affidavit required to continue his pension was filed in 1820 with the Washington County Common Pleas Court. It listed his war service and also included a list of his assets and debts. Many veterans, especially African American, were poor and relied on the pension for survival. Here is a partial list of his assets: 

100 acres of land third rate, two old Horses the one 14 & the other 17 years old. One Cow 14 years old one spring calf, one two years old Heifer, two yearling calves, two sheep & two Lambs, one Sow & Eight Pigs. Three old Kitchen chairs without bottoms, one old Crock. 4 Pewter plates, 4 old Knives & Forks one old Bucket one shovel Plough. 1 old broken Pot 1 Log chain. One 7 gallon Kettle one small broken Bake Pan 4 old pewter spoons. an old drawing Knife. and old handsaw. two old Chissels. One small fire Shovel. one old axe. one old hoe. one worn wedge

Some of the debts included: “One Hundred & Twenty five dollars to Joel Adams. Thirty Six dollars to Dudley Woodbridge. Fourteen dollars & Seventy dollars to Augustus Stone...” Woodbridge and Stone were merchants in Marietta, quite a distance by horse or on foot from where Bazaleel lived in western Washington County. 

Pension certificate for Bazabeel Norman - image from National Archives viewed at

Bazaleel’s 1820 affidavit plaintively stated: “I am by occupation a farmer, but owing to age and infirmity I am unable to do very little toward supporting myself.” His signature appeared as “Bazaleel his X mark Norman.” He was signing with an “X” likely indicating that he was illiterate.

Bazaleel Norman died in 1830. His wife Fortune applied for the survivor pension benefit in 1832. It listed Bazaleel’s cause of death as “falling from a rock...his family found him dead at the foot of a precipice” after he had been missing for a day. Another application was made in 1837, and the pension was finally granted - only four years before she died. For some reason, the pension had been delayed or denied for nearly five years. Fortune Norman died on February 3, 1841.

**His name also appears elsewhere as Bezael, Basil, and Bazabeel

***Roxbury Township was an early township that was dissolved in 1851. Parts of it went to Palmer Township, Morgan County, and Noble County.

William Peyton
Washington County resident William Peyton, “Uncle Billy,” was proclaimed the oldest person in the United States in 1912 at age 120. He lived until 1919, dying at age 128, still thought to be the oldest person in the country. He was born as a slave in 1792 in Prince William County. William was bought for $333 as a child by George Creel, an early settler in Wood County, Virginia. He remained with the Creel family for generation after generation. He left them in 1868 and moved to Decatur Township in Washington County where he lived for the rest of his life - another nearly fifty years.

Uncle Billy was one-of-a-kind in many ways. He was described as a “large man with a splendid physique” who loved work. On his eightieth birthday he set a local record by splitting 320 fence rails in a single day. His long life was remarkable because “he used liquor, chewed, and smoked tobacco.” He had an excellent memory and could recall events when Thomas Jefferson was president. His fitness was legendary; he would often walk to Marietta or to Wood County to visit the family of his former masters. Emancipation Day on September 22, 1916 was the fifty- third anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves. There was a county-wide celebration - said to be the largest in the State of Ohio. The Marietta Register-Leader newspaper reported that William Peyton was the parade honoree.

Collage of information about “Uncle Billy” Peyton from Facebook post 2/21/2021 on Harmar Village - Marietta, Ohio page. CLICK TO ENLARGE

“Uncle Billy” died on December 26, 1919. Peyton’s headstone is at the Decatur United Methodist Church, reading: “William Payton, Sept. 2, 1792, Dec. 26, 1919, 127 Y. 3 M. 24 D.”  His wife was forty years his junior and died in 1900. He was survived by one son and a granddaughter. Judge L. N. Tavenner of Parkersburg reviewed his birth records and substantiated his year of birth as 1791, a year earlier than the date on his gravestone. He had lived through the administrations of twenty-eight presidents from George Washington to Woodrow Wilson.

Burke, Henry Robert, “Lest We Forget” website, “William ‘Uncle Billy’ Peyton 1792-1919” viewed at

Dennis, James L., “Washington’s Darker Brother, 100 years of Black History in Washington County, Ohio 1788-1888,” published 1967 by the author

Hildreth, Samuel, Biographical and Historical Memoirs of the Early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio, Cincinnati, H. W. Derby & Co., 1852

Historical Marietta blogpost, August 6, 2016, “53 Years of Freedom to be Celebrated” article from the Register-Leader, August 19, 2016

Marietta Times article, “Black History Month: First to Vote,” February 6, 2018, article by Erin O’Neill

National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application File W. 5429, for Bazabeel Norman, Maryland, viewed at 

Friday, February 5, 2021

Wood County Pioneer: Alexander Henderson, Jr.

 A duel was fought in Belpre, Ohio on October 8, 1805. That caught my attention. I had never heard of this or any other duel in the Ohio Country. It seemed out of character with practices of that time, though the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr had taken place just a year earlier. The duel combatants were Alexander Henderson, Jr. and Stephen Wilson, both of Wood County, Virginia (now WV). Here is a newspaper account from the Virginia Argyle on December 4, 1805, likely reprinted from the Ohio Gazette:

We understand that a Duel was fought on the 8th (of October, 1805) in the settlement of Belpre, Ohio, by Stephen R. Wilson and Alexander Henderson both of Wood County, Virginia. The distance agreed upon was fifteen steps, and to wheel and fire; when the word was given, they both advanced, the one in a deliberate walk, the other at full speed, till when within an arm’s length of each other, when they both fired and fell side by side. Mr. Wilson received a ball in his knee which shattered it to pieces. Mr Henderson a ball in his thigh near the upper joint, which it was feared would deprive him of his life; but we understand that they both are in a fair way of recovery. - Ohio Gaz

I discovered this curious and underreported event while reading The Hendersons: One Family’s Legacy by Pamela Brust. This book chronicles the fascinating story of the Henderson family of Wood County, West Virginia. Alexander Henderson, Jr. was an early area pioneer with numerous Marietta connections. I was captivated by his life of pioneering successes sadly intermingled with tragic low points. Alexander Jr. was known by his nickname (shared with his father), "Sandy." He was described as "fair, blue-eyed, handsome with a most cheerful and genial disposition."

Alexander achieved a number of pioneering "firsts" in his Wood-Washington County community:
  • One of the first settlers in what is now Wirt County WV, then a remote wilderness
  • Fought in the first (and probably last) recorded duel in Ohio
  • One of the first area settlers who successfully overcame a permanent disability
  • Was a Captain in the first Wood County militia
  • One of the first magistrates in Wood County
  • One of the first, with his brother, to alert President Thomas Jefferson of Aaron Burr’s allegedly treasonous plot
  • A charter member of the first Washington/Wood County Agricultural and Manufacturing Society board
  • Worked as cashier at the first chartered bank in Ohio - the Bank of Marietta
  • Was one of the first members and vestrymen at St. Lukes Episcopal Church in Marietta

Also, he had or learned many skills: farmer, hunter, land broker and developer, civic leader, socialite, banker, judge.

But there were devastating low points with life-changing impacts.
  • The duel which inflicted permanent physical injury, making him “a cripple for life.”
  • The deaths of two of their children as young adults in the bilious fever epidemic of 1823.
  • Bankruptcy in 1826, requiring all of his assets to be sold to meet debts, from which he never recovered.
The Henderson family American patriarch, Alexander Henderson, Sr., was a wealthy businessman and politician from Dumfries, Virginia. He was a close friend and associate of George Washington - on whose advice Henderson Sr. purchased land in western Virginia. Washington also owned land in the area, including the “Washington Bottom” area of Wood County. Three of the Henderson sons, John G., Alexander Jr., and James settled on Henderson land located in today’s Wood, Wirt, and Pleasants Counties. John G. was the first arrival, in 1797; Alexander Jr. followed in April, 1799. They brought slaves from Dumfries to help them clear land and raise cabins.

Life was rough and dangerous on the Western Virginia frontier. The early days of their habitation were challenging. John Glassford Henderson, Alexander Jr.'s brother, mentioned numerous setbacks and financial losses in his journal - horses lost, damage from windstorms, livestock killed by bears, illness and injury of their slaves. There was the constant threat of disease: malaria, smallpox, and similar epidemics were commonplace.

With the help of his brother and their slaves, Alexander Jr. carved out a homestead known as "Beech Park" near Burning Springs along the Little Kanawha River. He returned to Dumfries and married Jane Hutchinson Lithgow, known in the family as "Hutchie," on May 21, 1801. The wedding was performed by Mason L. Weems, author of the "Life of Washington" and creator of the well known George Washington cherry tree tale. He was also pastor of the Pohick Church where Alexander Henderson Sr. attended and was a vestryman along with Virginia luminaries George Washington, George Mason, and others. Sandy and Hutchie returned to their wilderness home at Burning Springs on August 28, 1801. 

Beech Park: Copy by author of image from The Hendersons, One Family’s Legacy, by Pamela Brust

They settled in. Before moving west, Hutchie had sought a neighbor's help to learn the pioneer skills of spinning and weaving. Author James Callahan includes a quaint description of her adaptation to frontier living: “It was a new experience for her. She had been reared in luxury and was a petted beauty, unused to any kind of hardship. She took up the duties of life (in the wilderness) with good cheer and resourcefulness, and in her cabin in the wilderness, five miles distant from a neighbor, learned to spin and weave......” She became quite skilled in making coverlets, quilts, and other adornments which later became family heirlooms. 

She gave birth to their first child, George Washington Henderson, in 1801. He grew up to be quite successful and established Henderson Hall plantation. Two other children, John Alexander (1803-1823) and Mary Page (1805-1823) followed but died as young adults from a malaria epidemic which swept the area in 1823. 

Alexander, Jr. and his brother John G. were active in civic activities and social life of the area. Early accounts mention their involvement in land brokerage. Alexander was appointed as a captain in the militia. He is listed as one of several Justices in Wood County, Virginia in an 1811 document. They were acquaintances of Harman Blennerhassett, prominent socialite, owner of the island Blennerhassett Mansion, and associate of Aaron Burr in the “Burr Conspiracy.”

Alexander’s life took an unexpected and tragic turn in 1805 when he fought a duel with Stephen Wilson. The two had been at odds for some time. Observers noted that Wilson was the primary instigator of ill will. Alexander called Wilson a “paltroon and coward” in response to an accusation from Wilson. Wilson then challenged Alexander to a duel to be fought on a bluff overlooking the river in Belpre, Ohio. That location in Ohio was probably selected since dueling was prohibited in Virginia.

It’s likely that Henderson’s family and friends tried to dissuade him from dueling. He had three young children and was otherwise well established in the Wood County community. Why risk his life answering a spurious accusation from a scoundrel like Wilson? His granddaughter-in-law, Anna Rosalie Henderson, years later voiced eloquent dismay at his choice to duel: “From the wound inflicted by this duel...., a hearty young man 27 years of age was made a cripple for life.......What unspeakable folly of theirs, handicapped for such a trifle? What a trial it must have been to his wife, what ceaseless regret to himself.”

The report of the duel suggests that they were almost face to face when shots rang out. I thought that duelers stayed some distance apart. Both were seriously wounded but survived. Alexander was thought near death at one point but gradually recovered. Sadly, he was left with permanent disability, unable to walk without a crutch. He could ride a horse but only with a side saddle; some of those saddles remain at Henderson Hall.

This article appeared directly under the newspaper report of the Henderson duel. It recounts a threatened duel from 1753 in Massachusetts. The would-be duelers were arrested and pleaded guilty. Their sentence was “to be carried with a rope about their necks to the gallows in a carat and to sit on the gallows with the rope about their necks for the space of an hour and afterwards to be committed to jail...for twelve months...” Apparently the judge - and the editor of this newspaper decades later - were serious about making a public statement to discourage duels.

Disability did not slow Alexander Henderson Jr. down. He resumed his business, family, and social activities. Shortly after his recovery, he was in the national spotlight with his brother John G., testifying at the trial of Aaron Burr. Harman Blennerhassett, a friend of Alexander and his brother, had tried to recruit the Alexanders in late 1806 to the Aaron Burr project. The Hendersons were shocked at Blennerhassett’s description and apparent endorsement of Burr’s treasonous-sounding plan. They contacted their father Alexander Henderson Sr., who in turn alerted President Jefferson. Jefferson dispatched John Graham, Governor of the Orleans Territory and a person known to Alexander Sr., to the Ohio Valley to learn of Burr’s plans. Graham talked to the Alexander brothers and Blennerhassett himself. He then left to alert Ohio governor Edward Tiffin, urging action to thwart the planned actions of Burr and his agents.

A few years later, Alexander Jr. and his family moved to Marietta to take advantage of educational opportunities there for the children. He lived at 126 Second Street in a brick house. While in Marietta, he worked at the Bank of Marietta from 1815-22 and was treasurer of Marietta schools. In 1819 served on the first board of “Agriculture and Manufacturing Society of Washington County, Ohio and Wood County, Virginia.” It was set up to encourage and support farming activity in the area. He was also a faithful member and vestryman of the St. Luke’s Episcopal church in Marietta.

Alexander and his brother John G. developed a substantial farm at Cow Creek in 1806 near Willow Island in Pleasants County Virginia. The family referred to it as the Cow Creek farm. Lewis Summers kept a journal of his visit to the area in 1808. He mentions the Henderson farm: “this farm contains 2,000 acres, about 200 in corn, expect to make 2,000 barrels. They work 30 hands. Stock of hogs, cattle, and horses fine.” Henderson built a home there in 1814 which still stands today, used as an office by Solvay Technology Solutions.

Cow Creek Farm home built about 1814, at Willow Island, now in use as an office

Alexander Jr.’s family lived there when tragedy struck in 1823. Their son John Alexander and daughter Mary Page died within days of each other of “bilious fever” (believed to be forms of Malaria and Yellow Fever) in December of 1823. There was a substantial epidemic at the time. Read more about it by clicking here. Their oldest son George Washington (GW) Henderson was studying law in eastern Virginia at the time and escaped the illness.

Loss of children from illness was common in those days. It must have been devastating. GW and his wife Elizabeth Tomlinson Henderson would lose seven children to illness decades later. Elizabeth wore a brooch  with locks of her deceased children’s hair and often experienced bouts of depression. Her journals mention her faith as a major support. Such must have been the experience of Alexander Jr. and his wife Jane.

Their woes were compounded as financial setbacks occurred in the 1820’s. He had purchased land near Cow Creek from relatives thinking he could pay for them over time. But he could not. There were also land ownership disputes with other parties. His son GW returned to the area from law school to recover from the financial problems. Such efforts failed. All of his property and possessions had to be sold in September of 1826 to settle debts. Apparently there were bitter accusations from his some of his siblings. 

Alexander sadly recorded his thoughts in a notebook: “I am 49 years of age, and we are about to stripped of all that we have....The prospect is gloomy indeed. I have struggled hard, have endured great privations...I came to Wood County 27 years ago last April when it was nearly a wilderness and assisted not a little to open farms for my brothers and sisters benefit. Far from meaning to act dishonestly toward my brothers and sisters I have, as I live, done the best in my power to advance their interest. More might be said on this subject but I forbear.” 

It was an embarrassing, disappointing outcome for such a talented and capable leader. Thereafter he lived with or near his son George Washington Henderson. Despite the setback, Alexander and John’s pioneering efforts assured that the Henderson family would continue to be an economic, social, and political force in the area for many years to come.

Brust, Pamela Douglas, The Hendersons, One Family’s Legacy, Bloomington IN, AuthorHouse, 2019

Callahan, James Morton, History of West Virginia, Old and New, Volume 3. Chicago and New York: The American Historical Society, Inc., 1923

Cunningham, Connie, “Echoes from Henderson Hall: The History of One Pioneer Family Settling in the Ohio Valley,” a master’s degree thesis, Marietta College, 2005

Henderson Hall website, history section,

House, John A, “Pioneers in Wood County, WV”, a paper document published in 1936, viewed at, searches for reports of the 1805 duel, Alexander Henderson (Sr.) (1737-1815), Alexander Henderson Jr. (1778-1838)

Williams, H. Z., History of Washington County Ohio, Cleveland, H. Z. Williams and Bro, 1881

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

What do Rufus Putnam and Ohio State Football Have in Common?

Never thought I’d see Rufus Putnam, venerable pioneer and founder of Marietta, mentioned in college football playoff hype. The occasion was the build-up to the College Football Playoff  (“CFP”) semi-final game between Ohio State and Clemson on New Years Day, 2021. Ryan McGee, ESPN Sports Network Senior Writer, wrote an article for ESPN titled “Ohio State vs. the world: How the Buckeyes and their fans feed off perceived slights.”

He observed that the Buckeyes were being “disrespected” by all manner of  coaches, sports pundits, and fandom realms who questioned their selection for the 2020 playoffs. The Bucks had played only 6 games because of COVID issues. Plus, some said their schedule was weak, and they floundered at times against worthy opponents. Several major head coaches had ranked them below the top four. Most egregiously,  Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney ranked them 11th in his voting.

All of this aroused Buckeye Nation to indignation, anger, and frustration. McGee noted that this attitude towards Ohio State football - and the State of Ohio (“the fly-over state”) in general - seems be endemic in the national psyche. It also, he said, brings out passion and pride from Ohioans. He then eloquently noted the state’s pioneer heritage and proud spirit. He had indeed done his research, breaking into what I am calling an Ohio Pride cheer in this excerpt from his article:

.....This is a state that was founded by Rufus Putnam, a Massachusetts man who was so angered by the British march into Lexington and Concord that he joined the Continental Army the very next day and rose to become one of George Washington's right-hand men.

This is the state that got so fed up with the federal government in the early 19th century that it said, "We're out of here," and it moved to secede in 1820, a full four decades ahead of Fort Sumter.

This is the state that has birthed eight presidents, more than any other, including Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union to victory in the Civil War. Not to mention, Grant's sword that cut through the South, William Tecumseh Sherman. From the Wright Brothers, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Jack Nicklaus, Paul Newman and Steven Spielberg to Gloria Steinem, Toni Morrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Annie Oakley ... you think this state is going to produce people who are going to sit back and take lip out of Paul Finebaum and that damnable Dabo Swinney?!

"It's pride, pure and simple. There is something about this land that it just becomes a part of who you are, so you are going to love it and you are going to defend it if you feel like it's being disrespected by someone outside of Ohio," explains Columbus attorney Alex Hastie, producer and host of the "Ohio V. The World" history podcast.

Rufus Putnam is referred to in Wikipedia as the "Father of Ohio." He was a prime mover in the initial settlement of Ohio starting at Marietta. He also a delegate from Washington County at the constitutional convention for Ohio statehood. 

Putnam was a true Renaissance guy. Here are just a few of his attributes. Full disclosure: your author is an unabashed admirer of Putnam.
  • Was largely self educated; he scrounged money as a youngster to buy books because his step father did not allow him to attend school.
  • Multi-talented: was a farm manager, millwright, surveyor, military engineer, civil servant and leader in the early Ohio settlements.
  • Served four tours of duty in the French and Indian War and for the entire Revolutionary War. He was a breveted Brigadier General.
  • A tireless advocate for veterans, donating countless hours and lengthy travel to make sure that veterans got what was due them.
  • Leader in the settlement at Marietta in 1788, the first city under American government beyond the original thirteen states.
There is more, but this gives you an idea about this remarkable man. Learn more about him at Campus Martius Museum, an Ohio History Connection site, in Marietta. You can also read The Pioneers, a book by historian author David McCullough.

Painting in Capitol Rotunda, viewed at
Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York, 17 October 1777 metal print by John Trumbull. Rufus Putnam is seen in profile, the third person to the right of General Gage in the center.

Back to the ESPN article. I really enjoyed it, especially the light-hearted tone and the “right on” comments about Ohio State, Buckeye Nation, and Ohioans pride. Rufus Putnam was a worthy example of that pride. Thanks to Ryan McGee for reminding his readers of Ohio’s rich heritage. 

The condescending comments about the Buckeyes football team, especially the Dabo Swinney put down, had a predictable effect. It helped propel the Buckeyes to a 49-28 rout of Clemson.

Read the full article here (it may not be accessible after a certain date):

Go Bucks! OH-IO!

Sidebar notes:
  • Ryan stated that Ohio seceded from the Union in 1820. That did not happen. However, the Ohio General Assembly passed a “Nullification” law in 1820, nullifying all laws and authority of the United States in the state. It was an act of brazen rebellion against the Federal government that lasted for several years. Most of us are unaware of it because, as one historian noted, “ is a piece of buried and forgotten history.”

  • "Dabo Swinney" is not a typical name. Spell check lit up every time I keyed it in.

  • Rufus Putnam actually opposed statehood for Ohio as originally proposed. He favored a different state boundary that he thought would be better for southeast Ohio. But he was an active participant in the Ohio constitutional convention.

  • There is a football connection between OSU and Marietta, Rufus Putnam's Ohio home. The Buckeyes played the Marietta College Pioneers eight times between 1892 and 1902. The Bucks won the series 6-2. It's still impressive that Marietta won two games from Ohio State, though the game was much different then. Go Bucks! Go Pios!

  • One last poignant note: In a photo (see below) of the January 6, 2021 U. S. Capitol violence, I noticed the large painting in the background of the Capitol Rotunda. It looked familiar. It is the painting mentioned above which includes Rufus Putnam. I was not aware of its presence in the Rotunda - and relieved that it was not damaged. Putnam’s accomplishments and character make him worthy of being present and representing Ohio in the U. S Capitol.

  • Capitol Riot: Five Startling Images from the Siege BBC News
    Creator: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Saturday, December 19, 2020


Rebecca Williams was a true pioneer. Her full name, Rebecca Tomlinson Martin Williams, tells much about her. She was born in 1754 in Cumberland, MD to Joseph and Rebecca Swearingen Tomlinson. She had six brothers and two sisters. Her brother Joseph II and his son Joseph III were early Wood County WV pioneers. Rebecca married John Martin, an Indian trader, in 1770. He was killed by Shawnee Indians that same year, leaving her a widow at age 16. She married Isaac Williams in 1775; they began the community at present-day Williamstown WV (then Virginia) in 1787.

In 1771,  the Tomlinson family moved to Grave Creek on the Ohio River at present-day Moundsville WV, then the southern-most settlement on the upper Ohio River. Rebecca lived with her brothers Samuel and Joseph II, serving as their housekeeper. She was alone for weeks at at time while her brothers were out on hunting trips or scouting for the army. 

Life west of the Appalachians was difficult. Conditions were primitive. Many new arrivals felt isolated from their friends and relatives that they left behind. There was the threat of Indian hostility, disease, and criminal activity. 

Two events in 1774 illustrate Rebecca Williams’ courage and resourcefulness - at age 20, described by historian Samuel P. Hildreth:

In the spring of the year 1774, she made a visit to a sister, Mrs. Baker, then living on the Ohio river opposite to the mouth of Yellow creek. It was soon after the massacre of Logan's relatives at Baker's station. Having finished her visit, she prepared to return home in a canoe, by herself, the traveling being entirely done by water. The distance from her sister's to Grave creek was about fifty miles. She left there in the afternoon, and paddled her light canoe rapidly along until dark. Knowing that the moon would rise at a certain hour, she landed, and fastening the slender craft to the willows she leaped on shore, and lying down in a thick clump of bushes, waited the rising of the moon. As soon as it had cleared the tops of the trees, and began to shed its cheerful rays over the dark bosom of the Ohio, she prepared to embark. The water being shallow near the shore, she had to wade a few paces before getting into the canoe; when just in the act of stepping on board, her naked foot rested on the dead, cold body of an Indian, who had been killed a short time before, and which, in the gloom of the night, she had not seen in landing. Without screaming or flinching, she stepped lightly into the canoe, with the reflection that she was thankful he was not alive. Resuming the paddle, she arrived at the mouth of Grave creek without any further adventure, early the following morning.

Diagram showing Rebecca’s canoe trip - an unlikely venture for a young woman traveling alone in 1774. From Williamstown WV History Facebook page

In the summer of 1774, the year before her marriage to Isaac Williams, she was kindling a fire one morning with her back to the door. She looked around, shocked to see a tall Indian close to her side. He made a motion of silence to her. She kept her cool and showed no sign of fear. He looked around the cabin, grabbed her brother’s rifle hanging over the fireplace, and left quickly. She then left the cabin and hid herself in the cornfield until her brother Samuel came in. Her calm response likely saved Rebecca and her brother from harm. 

Rebecca faced these two situations with composure and determination. These were traits were exhibited by many pioneer women, though their stories were often overshadowed by their male counterparts. 

She had some of these character traits in common with Isaac Williams whom she met during this time period at Grave Creek. They married in 1775.  Hildreth: “Their marriage was as unostentatious and simple as the manners and habits of the parties.” It was performed by an itinerant preacher.

Isaac Williams was a fascinating character. Born in Winchester, VA, he spent much of his early life in the upper Ohio valley. He was renowned for his frontier skills as a hunter, army scout, and Indian fighter. He served in the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s War, Lord Dunmore’s War, and the Revolutionary War. Isaac made money from trapping and from making land claims then selling them later at a profit. Isaac led a group that rescued a young girl who had been kidnapped by Indians near Neal’s Station on the Little Kanawha River. In 1790 he tracked unsuccessfully a band of  Shawnee Indians, including 16 year old Tecumseh, who had massacred several men driving cattle to Fort Harmar. He and Rebecca started the Williams Station* settlement at present day Williamstown WV. Isaac Williams never slowed down; in later years he operated the Ohio River ferry service and performed civic functions.

Rebecca had a role as a pioneer woman far beyond pure domestic chores. She kept the Tomlinson brothers household during their long absences. Likewise, after marriage to Isaac she managed their modest homesteads at Grave Creek and in western Pennsylvania when he was gone. She was active in the Williams Station community. It was situated on land that belonged to her. Rebecca’s brothers Joseph and Samuel Tomlinson had established land claims there in the early 1770’s. They reserved 400 acres in Rebecca’s name for her help in keeping house for them. That land ended up in Isaac’s name because of marriage laws at the time.

She managed activities there when Isaac was away - and probably helped when he was home. There was much to do. Williams Station became a busy place (it was often referred to as a plantation), with farming, twelve tenant families, slaves and their families, a barn, tavern, grist mill, blacksmith shop, and more. A Marietta resident in 1788 observed, perhaps with envy, that the Williams Community “raised 1,000 bushels of corn last season;.....they wintered without any hay, making use of the husks and stalks and some corn, between 60 and 70 meat cattle and horses; ....and a large number of swine.” Williams Station in the 1790’s was noted as a pleasant place to visit, offering “the most generous hospitality.”

Charles Sullivan painting - imagined view ca 1787 of cabins at Williams Station looking toward Fort Harmar in Ohio, Viewed at

Pioneer women often served as nurse and physician out of necessity. Rebecca was well known for her medical skills. A local newspaper retrospective in 1884 noted that “Mrs. Williams was always kind to the sick and many were the herb teas and healing lotions which, like her namesake in the story of Ivanhoe, she gave to the sick pioneer and wounded hunter.” Samuel P. Hildreth, historian and medical doctor, talked to Rebecca about the treatments she used. He was impressed with her knowledge and skills and found some of her remedies useful. “Her principal dressings were made of slippery elm, leaves of stramonium (Jimson weed), and daily ablutions with warm water.”

One notable success occurred in 1784 near Wheeling when she and a Mrs. Zane treated Thomas Mills who had suffered multiple gunshot wounds, including a broken arm and leg. He was not expected to live, and if he did would surely have lost one or both limbs. Under their treatment and caring touch, he made a complete recovery, without loss of arm or leg.

Isaac and Rebecca Williams moved permanently to Williams Station in March, 1787. Joseph Buell, a soldier at Fort Harmar across the Ohio River, made note of their arrival in his journal on March 24, 1787: “Isaac Williams arrived with his family to settle on the opposite shore of the river. Several others have joined him, which makes our situation in the wilderness a little more agreeable.” Similarly, the residents at Williams Station were pleased to have more neighbors when the Marietta settlers arrived in April of 1788.

The Williams’ plentiful crop supply and charitable spirit prompted them to help the new Ohio settlers when a food shortage occurred in 1790. They made available their crops at a discounted price. One such episode stood out to me. The community at Belpre was facing starvation, in addition to disease and Indian threats. Belpre resident Charles Devol came up to Williamstown hoping to buy needed crops. He walked to Fort Harmar - at night to avoid Indian attacks - because the swift current in the Ohio River made canoe travel up river impossible. He was ferried across to Williams Station.

George M. Woodbridge recalled the event in his writings, stating that “Isaac gave Devol a warm welcome and Rebecca gave him a warm breakfast.” Devol was there all day. Isaac filled the Williams’ only canoe “to the gunwhales” with corn and directed Devol to set off for his home. Devol protested because he could not pay for that much corn and did not want to take their only canoe. Isaac told Devol, “return the money to the senders, this load of corn is the Lord’s; it is for the poor, the aged, the women, the children -  my command to you is to paddle out in the middle of the river....Good bye.” As Charles Devol pulled from shore, Williams shouted, “young man, have you a mother? Give her the love of Rebecca Williams.” Williams and Devol became good friends in later years.

Williams Station viewed from Ohio side with Fort Harmar in the foreground. Painting attributed to Sala Bosworth, viewed at, “David McCullough ‘The Pioneers’”Image cropped by author. The original of this painting is at Marietta College.

Rebecca’s life changed when their daughter Drusilla was born on January 28, 1788. She was the first white child born in the area, perhaps named after her sister Drucilla Tomlinson Carpenter or her aunt Drusilla Swearingen Cresap. Rebecca focused on raising Drusilla and Mary Nancy Davis, an orphan niece. A family acquaintance recalled Drusilla as a “pretty daughter.” Drusilla married John Glassford Henderson (one of three Henderson brothers who moved to Wood County from Dumphries VA in the late 1700s.) They lived near or with the Williams family at Williams Station. Sadly, two (or three?) of their children died in infancy and Drusilla herself passed away in 1810 without children. Her death left a huge void in Isaac and Rebecca’s life. 

Ephraim Cutler claims that Hamilton Kerr, “tall and handsome and fleet of foot” as the deer he hunted, was actually the father of Drusilla. Kerr was a well known frontiersman and also a friend and hunting companion of Isaac Williams. Williams was reportedly enraged to find an infant in Rebecca’s arms after he returned from a year-long hunting absence. He swore he would disown the child. She grew up “amicable and surpassingly beautiful.” His vow was soon forgotten.

Rebecca Tomlinson Williams had a strong and occasionally eccentric personality, as indicated by some anecdotes:
  • She selected hers and Drusilla’s burial sites at an open area on a rise, not far from the Ohio River. “I want to be buried here where I’ll have plenty of room....I don’t want to be jostled at the resurrection.” The site was visible from the Williams’ cabin. But for Rebecca it became a depressing reminder of Drusilla’s loss. So, Rebecca and Isaac built a new home farther away from the grave.
  • Rebecca formed definite opinions about people she met. A 1884 newspaper article that featured an interview with a Nathan Ralston: “ ‘She was a fine woman’, he said, ‘to anybody she took a liking to, a fine woman, but if she didn't take a liking’ - an expressive grimace finished the sentence.”
  • She was a woman of faith. One of her books was  A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians,...Contrasted With Real Christianity, by William Wilberforce. It challenged Christians to live their faith actively, not just go through the motions. 
  • Rebecca left a note in the Wilberforce book:  “Steal not this book, for if you do, it will cause a great deal of woe,” followed by her signature. Without context of the situation, it is difficult to tell if this was humorous or serious.

Replica of Isaac and Rebecca’s cabin built by Williamstown Women’s Club at Tomlinson Park in 1938, since demolished. Viewed at Williamstown WV History Facebook page

Isaac and Rebecca were savvy about land ownership - partly of necessity. Every one of the land claims that both of them owned were contested by others over many years. This was common in western Virginia at the time. Land was often claimed by one person, then contested by others. The process to actually confirm a claim in court was convoluted and could take years to resolve. Isaac and Rebecca deeded some land in 1818 to Rebecca’s nieces and nephew. It was a prudent, though possibly unnecessary, step to give greater assurance of clear title to the land.

Isaac Williams died on September 25, 1820. Isaac’s will bequeathed part of his estate to Rebecca. The remainder was left to various relatives and friends, including a portion of the 400 acre land claim that originally belonged to Rebecca. Rebecca took an unheard of step for a married woman at that time: she contested the Will. That land belonged to her, and she wanted it back. The process took three years; on May 21, 1824, the Circuit Superior Court decided in her favor. The 400 acres was once again hers. Heirs who had received land had to deed it back to her. Moreover, she forced several families who lived on that land to leave.  The Parkersburg Women’s Club offered an insightful comment about the will contest  in their 1976 Bicentennial paper Pioneers and Early Incidents of Wood County Virginia, “(We admire Mrs. Williams courage at a time when women were mere chattels and applaud the forward-looking court...”).

Rebecca died in 1825 and was buried in the bucolic place she selected to as to “not be jostled in the resurrection.” Her life favorably impacted the lives of many. Williamstown was named for Isaac Williams, though one historian opined that “(Rebecca) is more deserving of the honor.”

*The early settlement had several local names: - Williams Station, Williamsport, and Williams Creek. Your author chose “Williams Station.” 


Burke, Henry, “Slavery in the Ohio Valley,” Lest We Forget website:

Fruitful Valley, a history of Williamstown WV

Hildreth, Samuel P. , Biographical and Historic Memoirs of the Early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio, Cincinnati, H W Darby, 1852 viewed at 

“History of Williamstown, Wood County WV and the Kinnaird Connection,”

“Living Soldiers of the War of 1812,” Marietta Semi-Weekly Register, May 3, 1884 Viewed at:

“Pioneers and Early Incidents of Wood County,” Parkersburg WV Woman’s Club Bicentennial Committee, 1976

Tomlinson, Joseph Jr, 1745-1825

Williamstown WV History Facebook page

Woodbridge, George, “Birth of the Northwest, Number 11”, The Tallow Light, Vol. 33 #4, p 200

Williams, Rebecca Tomlinson 1754-1825

Friday, October 2, 2020

Cap and Anna Posey

Cumberland (“Cap”) and Anna Posey were a remarkable African American couple with Southeast Ohio connections. They achieved a level of success in life that was unusual for Blacks in the late 1800's and early 1900's. I found their story captivating. What was it that motivated them - from humble beginnings -  to learn, to strive, to persevere through the challenges? That is the subject of this blog post. I learned about Posey from an exhibit at the Ohio River Museum in Marietta, Ohio. There you can discover his story, along with many other aspects of steamboating and life on the river.

Cumberland Willis ("Cap") and Anna Posey
Image from Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays

Cumberland Willis Posey (“CW”) was born in 1858, the son of Alexander Posey and Elizabeth Willis Posey. They were likely freed slaves, who lived near Port Tobacco, Maryland. They worked for a white family in Charles County, Maryland. Elizabeth died when Cumberland was just seven years old. Alexander became an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. He and his children moved to Winchester, Virginia in 1867, and to Belpre, Ohio, in 1869. 

There CW found a job in Belpre working for a Mr. Payton sweeping the decks on the ferry boat MAGNOLIA. Posey was mesmerized by the mechanical operation of the steamboat. Something stirred inside him. Though just a teenager, he set his sights on becoming a licensed engineer on a riverboat. 

Angeline (“Anna”) Stevens was born born and raised in rural Athens County, Ohio, in a large African American family. Her father Acquilla was a railroad worker and stonecutter. Her mother Eliza Brackston Stevens took care of eleven children at home. Fortunately for the Stevens family, Black children were allowed to attend public schools with other white students. 

There is no record of Anna’s childhood years. The family lived in rural Athens Township. Theirs was the only non-white family on their page of the census records in 1870 and 1880. Her father worked to support the family. Census records say he was still working at age 78 as a cemetery caretaker.

Anna was said to be the first African American graduate of Athens High School.* Graduation was quite an accomplishment, considering her family’s poverty, discrimination against Blacks, and the limited resources of rural schools. The Athens Messenger article “High School Commencement” on June 6, 1879 mentioned the speech given by Anna. It was titled “The Visible and Invisible.” The theme was that invisible influences often have more impact on one’s life than the visible ones. The newspaper was complimentary of the speech: 

The originality of thought exhibited in (Anna’s) composition gives basis for large expectation of the literary efforts of her maturer years. (She) is the first colored graduate of Athens High School and deserves great credit for her achievement and for having set an example to her race of what may be attained by intelligent and persistent effort....

Mr. Payton encouraged Cumberland Posey in his quest to learn about steamboat operation. He helped CW land a job as fireman on the riverboat STRIKER**. Sources mention his work on other boats, such as the DICK HENDERSON and SALLIE J COOPER in the Belpre-Parkersburg area. Local river people recalled years later in a newspaper account that he was a fireman on the SALLIE J COOPER. 

Photo copied by author from S&D Reflector Magazine

 Cumberland Posey Sr. image in a Black History Series article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CW earned a Second Engineer license in 1877, despite facing “much opposition on account of his color,” as reported in The Pittsburgh Courier at CW’s death. He later achieved his dream to become a chief engineer in 1892. After being licensed, he was often known as “Cap” (for Captain) or “Commodore” Posey. He was the first African American to do so, according to the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society. The Langston (OK) City Herald June 15, 1893 edition reported:

C. W. Posey of Munhall, Pa., is the first Negro granted a Chief Engineer's license to run a steamboat on the Mississippi River and tributaries. He is now general manager of the Delta and Cyclone Towboat company. He is also a stockholder in that company. 

While in Belpre, in addition to working on boats, he belonged to the “colored” Odd Fellows lodge. This was noteworthy - odd, you could say, -  because CW was probably still a teenager at the time. Odd Fellows*** was (and is) a fraternal organization promoting personal development, ethical conduct, and charitable activities.

Anna Stevens earned a teaching certificate to teach in Athens County in the spring of 1879. She passed an examination and her certificate was renewed for 18 months in August of 1880. Anna attracted attention as a qualified teacher:

Progress in the march of events is, in one direction, chronicled in the fact that Miss Anna Stevens, of African lineage, is teaching the public white school west of Mr. Joseph Herrold’s suburban residence. Miss Stevens has previously taught in York township and at other points where she has uniformly been highly personally esteemed. As a teacher she possesses rare tact and efficiency and her services in this line have been in wide demand.
Athens Messenger (OH) Thursday, September 7, 1882. page 5, column 3

At some point Anna Stevens and Cumberland Posey met and fell in love. There is no record of the courtship details. They were married in Athens, Ohio, according to this court document:
Marriage license and return
Posey, C. W. and Stevens, Angeline
License issued the 9 day of May A. D. 1883 to the above-named parties: 
Wm. S. Wilson, Probate Judge

Shortly after their marriage, she stopped teaching, and they moved to Homestead PA, near Pittsburgh. There were more river-related jobs and valuable contacts in that area.

Angeline (Anna) Posey. Image from the 1910 Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory

Cap Posey went on to achieve great success in business, wealth, and civic involvement. In the 1890’s, he began building steamboats, not just working on them. He reportedly built or owned forty-one boats during his lifetime. 

His involvement with steamboats also included these with local connections: 
  • DICK HENDERSON built in 1873 at Parkersburg WV
  • SALLIE J COOPER built in 1878 at Parkersburg by Captain Ed B. Cooper
  • VOLCANO was built for Posey at Parkersburg 1905. 
  • OLIVETTE was built at Knox Ship Yard in Marietta in 1882. Posey bought it in 1896.
CW was owner, investor, or manager of numerous companies. One of them, Diamond Coal and Coke Company employed as many as 1,000 people. He profited from hauling iron ore across the Great Lakes to Pittsburgh for for Andrew Carnegie. Cap earned respect for his business success and the quality of the boats he built. Newspaper reports often used his name without mentioning he was African American. S&D Reflector magazine observed: “Captain Posey was held in very high regard for his boat design not just in Pittsburgh but up and down the river.”

Steam towboat TORNADO. This was one of three CW Posey boats with names suggesting power. VOLCANO and CYCLONE were the other two. Image copied from S&D Reflector magazine

CW was also active in several civic groups, church, and fraternal organizations. He was an investor and President of the African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier. He invested in the Homestead Grays negro baseball team. His son, Cumberland W. Posey, Jr. ("Cum") was a gifted athlete, and built the team into a powerhouse of the Negro baseball leagues in the 1930's and 1940's. Posey, Jr. became more well known than his father. His story is chronicled in James Overmyer's biography: Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays.

Cumberland Willis (“Cap”) Posey
Image from Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory 1910

Anna was a housewife, mother to their three children, and a trusted advisor to her husband. Her role in their businesses was significant and probably understated. She held title to some of the real estate investments. Her name was on a government contract for dredging operations. She also was active in social and arts organizations. Anna was gifted at painting. Her pictures decorated the walls of their tastefully decorated home. 

She was a founding member in 1894 of the Aurora Reading Club, a cultural organization of Black women in Pittsburgh. It still exists today. Anna was cultured - but gutsy, too. She wrote a spirited letter in 1901 to the editor of the white-owned Pittsburgh Daily Post advocating for the recognition of Black woman’s civic organizations on an equal basis with white organizations. Anna defended her family - literally. In 1894 she fired warning shots with a pistol to chase off two men who tried to rob her husband. A few years later, she personally apprehended a group of boys who had burgarized the Posey home and some stores. The boys were from prominent families; they agreed to make up the losses.

How did Cumberland and Anna Posey achieve such success at a time when most African Americans worked hard to make ends meet in menial jobs?

For CW, there were several factors:
  • CW possessed a rare combination of intelligence, drive, and perseverance.
  • His father was a positive influence. After emerging from slavery, he earned a responsible position with the AME church, and provided for his children. He allowed and probably encouraged CW to pursue steamboat engineering.
  • Faith, probably learned from his parents. CW was active in his church and many charitable organizations.
  • A friendly disposition: The Colored American Magazine said “In person, Mr. Posey is a man of robust features, genial habits, and never in too big a hurry to greet you with a smile.”
  • He was aggressive in business practices - some say, to a fault. He often sued and was sued and was jailed once after being convicted of fraud. He was soon pardoned, testimony to his reputation and perhaps to the influence of his white business partners. This aspect of his character is hard to assess. Was he simply holding his own as a Black operator in the "rough and tumble," mostly white-dominated river industry? Or was he ruthless in pursuing his own agenda. It was probably the former, based on the accolades of many other people.

Headlines such as these (above and below) were surprising to your author, considering Cumberland Posey’s general reputation. They are one indication that river-related business at the time could be rough. Images from

  • Good character and reputation; three examples, among many:
    • Frank Bolden, local Pittsburgh historian: “(Posey) was a pillar of African American culture and progress...He was a good citizen and a very good role model.”
    • Evan Posey Baker (CW’s great grandson): “He was never satisfied with what he accomplished; he wasn’t the type of guy who would sit on his past achievements.”
    • Way's Towboat Directory: "Captain (Cumberland) Posey was well respected on the river..."
  • Mentors. There were several of those, attracted by the skills and work ethic they saw in him.
    • Mr. Payton from Belpre helped CW find his first riverboat job and encouraged his interest in steamboats.
    • Seward Hays (Pittsburgh coal merchant William Seward Brenneman "WSB" Hays) employed CW as an engineer on several of his boats. CW named his second son “Seward” in honor of Mr. Hays.
    • Andrew Carnegie trusted CW enough to use Posey’s boats for transporting iron ore and coal.
  • Good partners. Author James Overmyer in Cum Posey observed that CW often worked with white business partners. That gave him credibility, connections, and financial support. And they gained an energetic and trusted operator.

Anna’s success attributes:
  • Intelligence and talent
  • Encouragement from her parents and mentors, probably some of her teachers.
  • Perseverance: She, and other Black children in rural Athens County, Ohio, were lucky to attend public school. Something drove her to study, excel, and achieve goals - such as teaching school in a mostly white area. Surely she faced opposition in doing this. Yet she pressed on, graduated, and earned teaching positions.
  • Reputation. Her talents as a young person were noticed by the Athens community.  Later in life, The 1910 Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory listing of “Mrs. Anna Posey” was typical of comments about Anna:
    Mrs. Posey is a prominent figure in the Ladies Federation of Clubs and takes an active interest in all movements tending to improvements in the race. She is a lady of education and refinement and has devoted much study made to the fine arts.
  • Business judgment which enabled her to advise and partner with CW in business ventures.
  • Artistic talent.
  • Social skills. A poor Black girl from rural Ohio adapted to fit in with prominent people in an bustling, urban setting.
  • Courage to take controversial positions and actions.
It's an inspiring story: two African American people achieve great success from humble beginnings in rural Ohio. A quote from the Parkersburg Sentinel in 1894 about Cap Posey applies to Anna, too: "Cumberland Posey has prospered in a way that is rare for one of his race. But it was a reward for qualities that bring (success) to any one, black or white."

*The Athens Messenger newspaper listed the student as “Anna Butler.” Was it Anna Stevens listed with the wrong last name or another student? That can’t be verified. However, the correct first name, the lack of other African American residents with the name Butler, and the likelihood that Anna Stevens received a high school education, make it likely that the “Butler” surname was listed incorrectly. Other sources list Anna Stevens as the graduate; that is your author’s assumption.

**There is no record of a steamboat with this name in boat directories. It could have had another name, or been a small private boat. Or, Cumberland Posey may have worked as a “striker,” a steamboat engine room job, and that term was incorrectly identified as a boat name. 

***The “Odd Fellows” name is apparently derived from the unusual or odd notion that common working men in 18th century England would form such a high-minded club. 

Belko, Mark, “‘Commodore Posey’ plied boats, ore trade,” Black History Month Series, Pittsburgh Post Gazette,February 21,1994. 
Burke, Henry Robert, “Cumberland Willis Posey Sr.,” copy provided by Belpre, OH Historical Society
Ewell, Thomas, The Smoky City, The Colored American Magazine, December, 1901
Hancock, Carol Wylie, a dissertation titled “Honorable Soldiers, Too: An Historical Case Study of Post-Reconstruction African American Female Teachers of the Upper Ohio River Valley,” Carol Wylie Hancock, 2008, copy provided by James E. Overmyer, author of Cum Posey., numerous articles on line found in searches for Cumberland W. Posey, Sr. 
Ohio River Museum, Marietta OH, “Cumberland Willis Posey, Sr.” exhibit.
Overmyer, James E, Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays, Jefferson NC, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2020, viewed on line at Google Books 
S&D Reflector Magazine, a publication of Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, various reports and photos on steam towboats connected to Cumberland Posey Sr. 
Southeast Ohio History Center, Athens, Ohio, documents and articles published by The Athens Messenger newspaper related to Angeline Stevens, provided by Levering Library volunteers John D. Cunningham and Cindy M. Smith
Way, Frederick, with Rutter, Joseph, Way’s Steam Towboat Directory, Athens OH, Ohio University Press, 2013, information on boats connected to Cumberland Posey Sr.
Whitaker, Mark, Smoketown, the Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance, New York, Simon and Shuster, 2018
Williams, Rachel Jones, “Cumberland Willis Posey Sr.,” Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Vol 36, No. 2, 
Wills, Rick, “Cap Posey overcame slavery to rise to success in Pittsburgh,”, July 20, 2008.