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Moving Forward, Looking Back / Swapping northern Ohio for a Fairfield cemetery

Published 6:40 am, Tuesday, February 12, 2013
  • Never mind the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Should Fairfield fans have been been rooting for Cleveland all these years? Photo: Dave Einsel, Associated Press / FR43584 AP
    Never mind the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Should Fairfield fans have been been rooting for Cleveland all these years? Photo: Dave Einsel, Associated Press

 

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They got Cleveland, we got a graveyard
Jan. 30: How Colonial Connecticut came to own what now is northern Ohio.
Today: Giving up "The Western Reserve" to pay a debt nets Fairfield a "school society" and a cemetery.
Page 1 of 1

Second of two parts.

In the previous column, we toured the present-day East Cemetery on the Old Post Road. But in looking at its origin in 1830 by a town body called the First Located School Society, we found ourselves wandering back to 17th-century England, when the king granted his Connecticut colony a hefty slice of North America.

We then jumped ahead a century to see Connecticut give almost all of it away to cancel Revolutionary War debts and settle a shooting war with Pennsylvania. Connecticut's consolation prize was an isolated fragment of its former colonial real estate holdings, more than five hundred miles west of Hartford.

You've probably heard of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, but you probably didn't know that it's named after the above-noted remnant of Connecticut's legacy from Charles II, which became known as the Western Reserve. Three million acres all told, it extended south to the 41st parallel from the shores of Lake Erie and west from the newly drawn western border of Pennsylvania. You know it today as northern Ohio.

Yep, Connecticut lost a bunch of land but still owned a big piece of Ohio. Impressive! But what about the First Located School Society and the East Cemetery? Bear with me.

After the Revolutionary War, a few Connecticut settlers tried to make a go of it in the Western Reserve, but severe weather, lack of supply and agricultural routes, and less-than-welcoming Indians made things very difficult. Connecticut, perhaps for lack of a better idea for the Western Reserve, decided to sell it. In 1795, a group of private investors picked it up for $1.2 million, or about 40 cents an acre. The investors sent a guy named Moses Cleaveland to survey the area, and he got to have the city, with a slight spelling change, named after him. Connecticut relinquished its legal authority over the Western Reserve a few years later, and it was absorbed into the Northwest Territory. Hey, we could have owned Cleveland!

This is where the First Located School Society comes in. But first, let me explain why there's one county and several townships in Ohio named after Fairfield.

As the 19th century approached, the Indian threat passed, and supply routes improved. More and more Connecticut families emigrated to the Western Reserve to get cheap, fertile land and live alongside like-minded New Englanders. The settlers naturally named their new towns after their old ones, so Fairfield and other Connecticut towns are well represented in Ohio. The westernmost 500,000 acres of the Western Reserve, known as the Firelands, had long ago been set aside for residents of eight Connecticut towns, including Fairfield, who suffered the loss of their homes to the British in the Revolutionary War. Affected families were to receive individual land grants, but bureaucracy, Indians, and the War of 1812 killed the well-intentioned project.

Finally, we can finish the story of the East Cemetery. What did Connecticut do with that $1.2 million windfall from the 1795 sale of the Western Reserve? The legislature nobly created a Perpetual School Fund, to be administered by the towns through civil authorities called school societies, now extinct as public education evolved.

The inaugural meeting of the First Located School Society of Fairfield took place on Oct. 27, 1796, "In order to form and Organize themselves in a School Society according to one Statute Law of this State." The Society immediately laid out six school districts. Here is how the first district was described, exactly as recorded in the original record book:

"Voted and Agreed that the first District for a School in this Society -- to begin at Black Rock a little Easterly of John Wheeler's house, and to run Northwardly of David Wheeler's house -- and from thence to run down to the River Eastward to Grovers hill point -- and from thence running up the Harbour as far as to the place first Set out, -- all the Inhabitants contained within said Limits to be one District for a School in said Society, and to be called by the name of the Black Rock District."

Five more districts were similarly defined, with boundaries that worked well for 1796 Fairfielders, but might be a little shaky these days.

In 1830, in concert with other Connecticut school societies, the First Located School Society took on the task of establishing a burial ground, for the "better accommodation of the Inhabitants ..." It seems that this was an obligation legislated by the state, but why cemeteries would fall to the school societies is a mystery.

A committee identified a plot of land in the center of town owned by Mrs. Sarah Taylor, bought it for $600, dubbed it the East Cemetery, and launched itself into the cemetery business. Business must have been good. Within the year, the School Society opened the West Cemetery on the Post Road, complete with sections for "Strangers" and "Colored People."

So, it all comes together: King Charles II made Connecticut a very big North American landholder. But then, Revolutionary War debt and the Yankee-Pennamite Wars took most of it away but begat the Western Reserve, which begat the Perpetual School Fund, which begat the First Located School Society of Fairfield, which begat the East Cemetery on the Old Post Road.

Any questions?

Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at rblumen2@gmail.com.