story of the Firelands of Ohio may be unique in American history in
that in no other instance were civilian victims of a war compensated
with land. The war was the American revolution and the land is what is
now mainly Huron And Erie counties.
During the American Revolution
there was very little military activity in Connecticut, but the
citizens were busy manufacturing goods and shipping supplies and
material to the Continental Army. These actions angered the British, of
course and they sent out a series of raids from New York City to
destroy the supplies and cripple the shipping.
The raids got out of hand and
a good deal of civilian property such as private home, churches and
schools were also destroyed or damaged.
These people who lost property
had no insurance and no federal disaster grants to help them rebuild.
An example of the destruction is found in the story of Norwalk,
Connecticut. It was raided July 11, 1779 and 80 of the 86 dwellings in
the town were burned. Two churches, 87 barns, four mills and five
vessels were also lost in that raid. The other towns raided during the
war were New London, New Haven, East Haven, Greenwich, Danbury,
Fairfield, Ridgefield and Groton.
The 'sufferers' petition
Several petitions were
presented after the war to the Connecticut legislature by the citizens
who lost property. They soon became known as "Sufferers." Their 1787
appeal was referred to a legislative committee which reported back in
1792 that the Sufferers ought to be paid, but the state had only
western lands for compensation in lieu of cash. This western land was
that part of northeast Ohio now known as the Western Reserve.
Connecticut's 1662 royal charter had granted land from one ocean to the
other. When the western claims of various states were settled after the
American Revolution, Connecticut kept only a tract 120 miles long on
the south shore of Lake Erie.
A half-million acres at the
west end of the Western Reserve was given to the Fire Sufferers in
1792. The claims totaled $538,495.26 in 1792 dollars and the land was
allocated at a value just over $1 per acre. A major problem to be
overcome was paying off the Indian tribes who owned the land and then
surveying it. This took until 1808 and by then most of the Sufferers
had died or had sold their claims to land speculators. Very few of the
actual Fire Sufferers ever saw the Fire Sufferers Lands (a name soon
shortened to Fire Lands or Firelands) in Ohio.
Geographically, the Firelands
is the area which is now Huron and Erie counties as well as Danbury
Township in Ottawa County and Ruggles Township in Ashland County. None
of the Lake Erie islands was originally included although they were
later attached for judicial purposes. Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay
was a part of the half-million acres.
Even before the surveying was
completed in 1808 there were Americans "squatting" on the Firelands.
Most of them lived along the lake shore and traded with the Indians or
hunted and trapped. Frenchman John B. Flammand was operating a trading
post on the river just south of Huron when the first Americans arrived
and it was the only store on the Firelands.
Settlement slow at first
Settlement was slow before the
War of 1812 due to the remoteness of the tract and the difficulties in
reaching it. Some of the land speculators were holding out for high
prices for their land and this discouraged settlement.
When the War of 1812 broke out
there was a small militia unit stationed at Fort Avery, a stockade on
the Huron River north of Milan. These troops and local civilians fought
a contingent of Indians on the Marblehead Peninsula in September 1812.
This was the first battle of that war in Ohio and one of the few
skirmishes in the state. Almost everyone left the Firelands due to the
Indian threat and there were at least eight civilians murdered in raids
Settlement resumed quickly
after the War of 1812 due to the natural westward expansion and due
also to the Year Of No Summer in New England in 1816-17. This
phenomenon was caused by a volcanic eruption in the Far East whose
cloud of dust obliterated the sun and caused frigid conditions across
the northern U.S. and Europe.
As the roads improved and land
prices were modified, more and more settlers arrived. Most came from
New York and New England, although a few middle states residents moved
to the southern tier of townships of the Firelands. There were also
great migrations from Europe in the 19th Century, making the Firelands
a real melting pot. The architecture and physical surroundings of these
areas reflect so readily the origins of the early residents.
Huron County is formed
Ohio's Legislature organized
the Firelands as Huron County in 1809 and attached it first to portage
and Geauga counties and in 1810 to Cuyahoga. By 1815, the county's
population was sufficient to establish its own government and the
initial meeting of Huron County's commissioners took place Aug. 1,
1815, at the first county seat north of Milan near the site of Fort
Avery. In 1818 all functions of county government were moved to Norwalk
and it has been the county seat ever since. During this time the
western townships of Lorain County as well as most of Sandusky and
Seneca counties were attached to Huron County. As soon as those areas
had sufficient population they assumed their own government functions.
Erie County is formed
When the wilderness had been
tamed some people began agitating for smaller counties. In 1838 Erie
County was formed by the Legislature in the northwest quadrant of the
Firelands with the townships of Groton, Margaretta, Portland, Perkins,
Danbury and part of Oxford. In 1840, Danbury was given to Ottawa County
with Milan, Huron, Berlin, Florence and Vermilion were taken from Huron
County to make Erie County the size it is today. Ruggles Township was
removed from old Huron County in 1846 to help create Ashland County.