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History in the Hills: From nothing — everything

Our area is rich, not just in natural beauty or resources, but most importantly in the people who make it up. Different groups have called our area home since it was settled in the late 18th century by Europeans.

Native American tribes have lived in this area off an on for more than 19,000 years. Just above our communities, on the hillsides surrounding the river, the Panhandle Archaic people called the Ohio Valley home more than 4,000 years ago.

In fact, from my office window at historic Fort Steuben, I can see the East Steubenville site of the Panhandle Archaic people above state Route 2 in West Virginia, the location of a settlement dating back at least that long. I often wonder what that culture would think of what we have built here in the valley.

Our valley was founded by immigrants. What we know today and what we have here in our valley is the direct effort of someone’s hard work. These groups of people came here and built a life from nothing into something worth being proud of.

The reason people have come to this valley is the thought and the promise of a better life. As a grandson of first-generation Italian and Polish immigrants, whose parents and siblings came to this country with nothing, I am proud that the sacrifices they made to pull themselves out of poverty enabled me to live where I do, have the education I have, and the ability to pass their hard work on the my children. I am forever grateful.

Generally speaking, most of our immigrant ancestors came through Ellis Island in New York City, and they have a wonderful website anyone can use to track a family member who came through there.

As the director of Fort Steuben, we are blessed to have our own little “Ellis Island” right here in Steubenville. Our First Federal Land office served as the debarkation point of immigrants and pioneers who settled our region. Here at the fort, we have visitors all the time who are interested in tracking down a specific relative who may have passed through the land office on their way to points west.

Although we have a copy of the names and origins of people who purchased land at the land office from the time the office opened around 1800 to 1812, we can point visitors to the Bureau of Land Management land office records, which has all that information digitized from 1800 to 1840 when the Steubenville land office closed. Visitors always are amazed when they visit the little building and imagine that their ancestor may have occupied the same space at some point 200 years earlier.

A similar situation happened to my wife, Abigail, recently. Although she has Italian ancestry mostly, she also has ancestors that have been in this country for a very long time going back to at least the 17th century. Looking back at her line, we were excited to discover that her fifth, sixth and seventh great-grandfathers were residents and early pioneers of this area. Abel Johnson, a Revolutionary War veteran and his wife, Anne, were pioneers and residents of the Ohio Valley around the Colliers and Eldersville area from the late 18th century.

Abel and Anne had several children and were early members of St. John’s Episcopal Church, appearing in the register of parishioners in 1800. St. John’s Church on Eldersville Road was founded in 1793 by Pennsylvania-born missionary Joseph Doddridge and was the first Episcopal church west of the mountains. Today it is the oldest continually active Episcopal congregation in West Virginia.

Abel and his son, Isaac, purchased in 1812 the Northwest Quarter of Section 34; Township 12; in Range 6, in Harrison County, Ohio. The land patent was issued from David Hoge, the Steubenville land office registrar. Abel and Anne remained in Brooke County while their son, Isaac, settled in Harrison County. Abel passed away in 1820, and his wife, Anne, lived on until she was more than 100 years old, passing in 1850. Both are buried at St. John’s Church.

The present building was built in 1849, and I would like to think that Anne played a small part in the construction. It is neat to think that my wife, a descendant of these tough frontier folk, can visit the church her ancestors helped found and visit the land office where her folks purchased land to build something out of endless wilderness. As the strongest, most giving and caring person I know, I think she inherited part of their sprit.

That is what all of our immigrant ancestors did after all. They came to a land foreign to them, struggled, pulled themselves up and built a life from scratch, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

(Zuros is director of Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitor Center.)

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