Guest column/Efforts of St. Clair were key to settlement of area

Until the year 1788, the western boarder of the United States ended where Pennsylvania and Virginia met the Ohio River.

Although settlement west of the Ohio was prohibited before 1788, Martin’s Ferry had already been settled as a western expansion of Wheeling, Va., by 1779.

When Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, the architect general, Rufus Putnam, began designing the territory’s first planned settlement of Marietta, which was fortified to defend against Indian raids by Campus Martius, a walled structure which also provided residences, a school and a church. Gov. Arthur St. Clair made it his territorial headquarters. He, Gen. Putnam and others lived there.

Today, few know that, as territorial governor, St. Clair established Ohio’s first nine counties and county seats. Six of these counties made up most of the west bank of the Ohio River, from Hamilton County, all the way north along the Ohio to Trumbull County, which was bordered by Lake Erie on the north and extended west to the Cuyahoga River.

The land at that vortex was most desirable and St. Clair called in another architect general, Moses Cleaveland, who designed the city, which is now Cleveland.

St. Clair named the counties and many of their county seats after those he had admired and fought alongside in the Revolutionary War. These included Washington County with Marietta its county seat, and Adams County, with Manchester as its county seat; and Cleremont with Batavia as its county seat.

He established Hamilton County, with Cincinnati as its county seat. He eventually moved his headquarters west on the Ohio to Losantville, opposite the mouth of the Licking River. He renamed it Cincinnati after the Society of Cincinnatus, which he co-founded to provide benefits for Revolutionary War veterans.

He also established Jefferson County, with Steubenville as the county seat, and Belmont County, with St. Clairsville as the county seat. It originally was named Newellstown in 1796 for its founding family, the Newells, who changed the name to St. Clairsville in 1803, in honor of their cousin’s 14 years of service as governor of the Northwest Territory.

The year 1787 was momentous for America.

The Constitutional Convention had been debated and drafted under the guidance of George Washington, its chairman.

Another important document, the Northwest Ordinance, set forth the guidelines of all future states to be established west of the Ohio River.

Having fought for and helped build the American Republic for almost 40 years, St. Clair had been in the thick of it all, first as an indian fighter and judge in Pennsylvania, then as one of Washington’s most trusted major generals, then as the congressman who helped draft the Northwest Ordinance and secure its approval by Congress and, finally, as the president to whom Washington presented the signed U.S. Constitution for review and ratification by the states.

Like John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists, St. Clair believed that slavery was wrong and inserted a provision against slavery in the Northwest Ordinance for which he then secured Congress’ approval.

While governor, St. Clair established the judicial system for the territory, appointing judges where needed. He was also very much aware that the legislature of each new state might vote to overturn the anti-slavery provision in the ordinance. Since the states were deadlocked 8-to-8 on the slavery issue, St. Clair knew that as the 17th state, Ohio would not only break the tie, it could also set a precedent for the next five states in the territory.

Vice President Jefferson’s anti-Federalist, Democratic-Republic (pro-slavery) Party in Ohio was strong and St. Clair spent much effort trying to ensure that the legislature would not overturn the anti-slavery provision in the ordinance.

After St. Clair’s passionate speech against slavery to the Ohio Legislature in 1802, President Jefferson removed St. Clair after 14 years as governor, clearing the way for his party’s candidate, Dr. Edwin Tiffin.

Surprisingly, the Ohio Legislature’s vote to overturn the provision failed by one vote, and Ohio became a “free” state in 1803, setting the precedent for the next five states in the territory — Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota to also become “free states,” thanks in no small part to St. Clair.

(Phillips, a resident of St. Clairsville, is an historian and the author of “Arthur St. Clair: The Invisible Patriot.” He can be contacted at