The City of Cleveland and nearly all of Northeastern Ohio once belonged to Connecticut. The land, 3.5 million acres of it, was called the Western Reserve.
It’s why a university in Cleveland is called Case Western Reserve. It’s why towns there are called Norwich, Saybrook, New London, Litchfield, Mansfield and Plymouth. And it’s why some of those towns have New England-style commons and white meetinghouses.
The story of how Connecticut pioneer Moses Cleaveland brought 50 men and women to the shores of Lake Erie in 1796 is well known to Cleveland schoolchildren (at least the ones paying attention). Less well known is how Connecticut got the land in the first place.
For a small colony, Connecticut had big ambitions to own parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and much of America’s western frontier – all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
In 1662, Connecticut’s governor John Winthrop the Younger went to England with the draft of a charter extending the colony’s lands and political rights. He intended to present it to King Charles II and ask for his approval and royal signature.
There was a little problem, though. Connecticut’s Puritans had supported Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. Cromwell deposed Charles’ father, King Charles I. A panel of 59 commissioners – ‘king killers’ – sat in judgment of Charles and signed his death warrant. He was beheaded in 1649. Eleven years later, Charles II returned to the throne and sought revenge on the men who ordered his father’s execution. He had Cromwell’s body dug up and his head cut off for display outside the palace.
Three king killers fled to America, where they found refuge in New Haven. Because of that, Winthrop knew Charles had attitude about Connecticut.
When Winthrop arrived in England, he got an audience with the King. At the start of the interview, Winthrop showed him ‘a rich, massive gold finger-ring.’ The King’s father had given it to his own father, Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop, ‘as a mark of honor for valuable political services.’ Charles was moved to tears.
Connecticut got a charter extending its north and south boundaries to the Pacific Ocean. No one really knew how much land was involved. That was the same charter that was hidden in the Charter Oak when Gov. Edmund Andros tried to seize it.
In Ohio, the Western Reserve was a 120-mile strip of land from Lake Erie to a line just south of Akron and Youngstown.
At the western end of the Reserve, 500,000 acres were set aside for people whose homes were burned by British troops during the American Revolution. The land was called the Firelands and the Sufferers’ Lands. Most of the fire victims sold their claims to land speculators. Few ever settled in the Firelands.
After the American Revolution, Connecticut gave up some of its land to the federal government in exchange for its war debt, but it hung on to the Western Reserve.
Meanwhile, prominent and wealthy men formed the Connecticut Land Company to buy the Western Reserve and divide it into lots.
Most of them came from the Town of Suffield, which was once part of Massachusetts. The speculators included:
- Peleg Sanford, the grandson of Anne Hutchinson and later governor of the Colony of Rhode Island.
- Pierpont Edwards, the son of minister Jonathan Edwards, uncle of Aaron Burr and ancestor of J. P. Morgan.
- Aaron Olmsted, a sea captain who made his fortune in the China trade.
- Moses Cleaveland, an able and energetic lawyer and surveyor who had served in the American Revolution.
Sometime around 1795, Connecticut sold the Western Reserve to the Connecticut Land Company for $1,200,000. Cleaveland was sent to survey the land into townships and negotiate with the Indians who lived there.
He brought a surveying party of 50 with him. Some traveled on horseback, some by boats. They arrived at the mouth of Conneaut Creek and Lake Erie on July 4, 1796.
- The President of the United States.
- The State of New Connecticut.
- The Connecticut Land Company.
- May the Port of Independence & the 50 sons & daughters who have entered it this day be successful & prosperous.
- May these 50 sons & daughters multiply in 16 years 16 times 50.
- May every person have his bowsprit trimmed & ready to enter every port that opens.
They then gave three cheers, drank several pails of grog and went to bed.
On July 22, Cleaveland landed at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. He climbed the bank and saw a beautiful plain that he decided was a good place for a city. He paced out a 10-acre town common that is now Public Square. His followers called the place Cleaveland.
Moses Cleaveland returned to Connecticut and died there some years later without ever returning to the Western Reserve.
There are several stories about how Cleaveland became Cleveland. One is that a newspaper editor in 1830 discovered that ‘Cleaveland’ was too long for a headline, so he left out the ‘a.’ Another is that Cleaveland’s surveyors spelled it Cleveland on the original map.
In 1800, Connecticut gave up its sovereignty over the Western Reserve. Ohio became a state in 1803.
Map: CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1290884. Photo of Cleveland: By No machine-readable author provided. Avogadro94~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1061960
This story was updated in 2019.