BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK
On the 14th of February, 1811, a worn traveler, six
weeks out from Cincinnati, arrived in Washington on a lame horse.
In the rude new city just emerging from the Maryland forest he
splashed through mud and alder swamps and drew up at the cluster
of boarding houses around the half-built Capitol. There he found the
two Ohio senators, Alexander Campbell and Thomas Worthington.
He introduced himself--the Reverend John W. Browne, native of Bristol, England, preacher to the Paddy's Run congregation in Butler County, Ohio, more recently editor of the weekly Liberty Hall in Cincinnati. Now he was beginning a tour of the East to raise a building fund for the Miami University.
The senators were aware of the Miami University; its foundation and location had been repeatedly discussed in the Ohio General Assembly. To the fund they donated twenty dollars each, and they were joined on the subscription list by other Western congressmen.
Cheered by this beginning, Browne took his tired horse to a livery stable and went to call on President James Madison. Senator Campbell led him over the stone footway bordering the muddy gash of Pennsylvania Avenue, with wood and coal carts lurching past , to the new sandstone executive mansion. In the President's Office the University agent was presented to frail, pale, precise James Madison.
Madison heard the appeal but his dark eyes were restless. Troubled by touchy relationships with England and France, the noisy Warhawks in the new Congress, and dissensions within his cabinet, he had little mind for an unbuilt college in the western wilderness. When Browne presented the subscription list, the President pursed his stubborn mouth, shook his white-wigged head, and went back to the vexing problems of foreign commerce.
Still hopeful, Browne approached the Secretary of War, William Eustis, and the Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin. He was refused by both. Then he called on Vice-President George Clinton. The crusty old New Yorker, whose nephew would build the Erie Canal, took time to ask a question: What was this Miami University, and where did it come from?
It was a tangled question which would take a long time to answer, even if the financial agent knew. There were no college buildings, no faculty, no students--only a township of wild land (the Reverend Mr. Browne was ready to sell lots, on his own speculation) whose revenues would support the prospective institution. There was a Board of Trustees; Browne had their names along with a plat of college lands among his papers.
One of the trustees was Daniel Symmes, a nephew of Judge John Cleves Symmes who was now living in illness, debt, and despair on a great bend above the Ohio River.. Early in this year, 1811, enemies had set fire to Judge Symmes' house at North Bend and burned his jumbled land records. He was a scorned man on the frontier; settlers called him "the greatest land-grubber on the face of the earth" and the government considered him a trespasser on the public domain.
Yet Judge Symmes had come West of the brave year in 1788 with high hopes and generous aspirations. A big, buoyant man who had been chief justice of New Jersey and a member of the Continental Congress, he was as near a founder as Miami University had; hi s contract with Congress for the purchase of the land between the two Miami rivers entailed the granting of a township to endow a college. An Act of Congress, on May 5, 1792, signed by George Washington, declared that the granted township should be located with the approval of the Governor of the Territory northwest of the Ohio River and forever held in trust to erect and support an academy.
The most valuable land in the Symmes Purchase was the thirty miles of frontage on the Ohio River, and the most valuable of that was the land across from where the Licking leads south into Kentucky. Give Symmes credit for a generous intention: he first proposed to reserve a college township as nearly opposite the mouth of the Licking as an entire township could be formed. This Township 3 of the First Entire Range was withheld from sale and was marked on Symmes' map as the college township; it now embraces the northern suburbs, from Mount Airy to Glendale, of modern Cincinnati. But when Symmes asked Congress to reduce his proposed purchase from two million to one million acres, he seems to have assumed that he relinquished the grant of a college township. So he erased the entry and promptly sold the choice township. When the Territorial Legislature convened in 1799 Symmes was asked about the college tract. He then offered to reserve Township 2 of the Second Fractional Range (the ranges are irregular because of the curving Ohio River), which embraces the western suburbs of Cincinnati. But Governor Arthur St. Clair found conflicting claims on this township; Symmes had forgotten that he had sold half of it to his colleague Elias Boudinot back in 1788. So the college township was still a promise only.
Finally, on March 3, 1803, two days after Ohio attained statehood, Congress granted one complete township to be located in the District of Cincinnati under direction of the Ohio Legislature; if no township within the Symmes Purchase were offered in five years, then a township from federal lands was granted the State of Ohio to be held in trust for the establishment of a college. Now township was offered, since no unentered township remained between the two Miami rivers.
On April 15, 1803, the Ohio Assembly passed an act to provide for the locating of a college township and appointed three commissioners to choose the land. That summer Jeremiah Morrow and William Ludlow splashed through creeks of Butler County and selected a wild township on Four Mile Creek; it was not yet called Oxford Township. For five years, deer and foxes roamed the college lands. At the end of that waiting period the 23,000 acres became the possession of the State of Ohio, in accordance with the Act of Congress of March 3, 1803, to be held in trust to support a college.
So, in 1809, with its land grant finally and irrevocably made, the college could be legally created. On February 17th, with "An Act to Establish the Miami University," the Ohio General Assembly gave a name and a charter to the institution. The Legislature appointed a board of fourteen trustees and delegated three commissioners to select a college site. In that summer of 1809 two of them met at Lebanon in Warren County and chose a campus of forty-one acres, offered to the future college by Ichabod Corwin, at the western end of the town of Lebanon. On the trunk of a witness tree they slashed M.U.V. to mark the location of the first college building.
That forty-one acres of rolling woodland was never crossed by campus paths; it became the Lebanon cemetery. For many years the white oak with its slowly healing initials shaded the grave of eloquent Tom Corwin, Ohio governor and senator and United States minister to Mexico.
Lebanon, a prosperous and attractive frontier town, seemed a good location for a college. But because one of the commissioners was absent when the site was chosen, the Legislature rejected the choice. Lebanon wanted the college; so did Cincinnati, Dayton, Hamilton, and Yellow Springs. Probably as a compromise the Ohio General Assembly on February 6, 1810, directed the trustees to lay off a town to be called Oxford in the college grant and to select a campus site within the college lands. So the wild college township, without a road leading into it, with a few pioneer settlers and a score of squatters living on the creek banks, took an ancient academic name, and surveyors hacked their way into the forest.
The Board of Trustees, now enlarged to twenty members, met on March 26th in Hamilton (population 260) and appointed a committee of five to select a tract one mile square for the college town. On March 29th, after tramping for two days through the woods a long Four Mile Creek, which was also known by the musical Indian name Tallawanda, the committee chose the site of Oxford, 640 acres of forest on a rounded hill crest. With auspicious foresight they reserved forty-six acres at its eastern end for the "University Square" and forty acres in the northeast corner for "Botanical Gardens." In May, in Hamilton, came the first land sale, eleven in-lots going for an average of twenty dollars, and eight four-acre out-lots at five dollars an acre. Bidders on the township land paid no purchase price but took a perpetual lease to their land, paying an annual rent of six per cent of the auction price to the University treasurer. The Board of Trustees had a trickle of money coming in.
The trustees were young men; more than half were in their thirties. A college was a new order to them. Just two had diplomas, James Shields from the University of Glasgow and Daniel Symmes from Princeton. One other, the Reverend Joshua Wilson, had attended Transylvania College in Kentucky. The rest were little informed on academic matters but strenuously experienced in Indian fighting, surveying, landseeking, town-planning, frontier legislation, and commerce. Around the bare table was concentrated a formidable body of pioneer character and experience.
At the head of the board sat John Bigger, a native of Pennsylvania who had settled on wild lands in Warren County. A shrewd, practical, weather-burned man, he was twenty-times elected to the Ohio General Assembly; he was defeated for the governorship of Ohio in 1826, but one of his sons became the governor of Indiana. Taking the secretary's notes in his firm clear hand was James McBride, a robust and versatile young man of twenty-three. He had little schooling but a wide-ranging mind and lively sense of history. As a pioneer merchant he rode the trails of Miami country, trading merchandise and measuring Indian mounds and earthworks.
Lean, lined Benjamin Whiteman was a veteran of the border wars. He had crouched in the canebrakes with Daniel Boone, fighting off Shawnee raids on the Kentucky stations; he had scouted with Simon Kenton, marched to defeat in Harmer's campaign and then to victor with General Wayne at Fallen Timbers. He became a brigadier general in the War of 1812. D.H. Morris, a native of New Jersey, was one of the first white men ever to see the dark woods and bright prairies of western Ohio. He had been a soldier and hunter in Harmer's expedition; after the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, along with two other young bachelors he took a homestead on Freeman's Prairie in the wilds of Miami County. John Reily, of Virginia, had taught the first school in western Ohio; between terms he fought Indians in the Mill Creek Valley, ran a pack-horse trade to Fort Hamilton, and helped to bury the dead after St. Clair's de feat in 1791. James Shields, born in North of Ireland, educated at Glasgow University, had cleared a farm in the depths of Butler County and reared twelve children there; after nineteen years in the Ohio Legislature he became a member of Congress. Dr. Stephen Wood, a neighbor of John Cleves Symmes at North Bend on the Ohio, was a physician, farmer, and justice of the peace; for a time he had been treasurer of the Northwest Territory. In his log house above the river, in 1795, he had married Symmes' daughter Anna to lean young Captain William Henry Harrison. Colonel William Ward, in white linen and black broadcloth, was a big land-owner from Greenbriar County, Virginia; long-striding Simon Kenton had guided him to western Ohio where the shrewd colonel laid out the town of Urbana in the rich land above King's Creek. General James Findlay, pioneer soldier, settler and merchant, had opened the first store in Cincinnati; now, in 1810, he was Cincinnati's mayor.
This body of frontier men, with their horses stamping at the hitching rack, were establishing a university. In time the township lands would be settled and the college fund would grow. But they were not content to wait. Already they had adopted a seal "figuratively representing the sun of literature and science rising over the mountains of ignorance and superstition." Meeting in Cincinnati in June, 1810, they employed the Reverened John W. Browne as college "missionary," to solicit contributions. He was to have a salary of fifty dollars a month and expenses, out of the donations received. The trustees hoped that his success would entitle him to be called "the friend and father of our institution."
In the national capital Missionary Browne got no money from Vice-President Clifton, but he did get some more questions. "What have your own Ohio neighbors done? Have the trustees themselves, and the inhabitants of the State, shown no examples of generosity?" The trustees had pledged a total of $800 in loans for college "apparatus," but Mr. Browne did not know it. He must have been glad to get away.
Browne's next prospect was Senator John Pope of Kentucky. This sympathetic Westerner did not find it convenient to contribute cash, but he offered books--a five-volume set of Plowden's History of Ireland. Likewise Joel Barlow, impressive poet and patriot, just appointed minister to France, suggested that many men who would not be disposed to give money might be persuaded to give books. Here began a new turn in Browne's campaign. The application for both books and money, he reported to the trustees, "would promote each," and either response would answer a valuable purpose for the university. Barlow examined his own library and handed down ten big volumes.
So, with "a new spring to my mind," as he reported, Browne pushed on to Baltimore, where he collected a trunk full of books and a little cash. In Baltimore, tempted by some educational equipment, he spent $57 from his cash contributions for more books along with "a neat small pair of Globes." Delaware proved to be poor territory; the take from two weeks' solicitation amounted to $22 and thirty-five assorted volumes.
It was high summer when Browne jogged into New Jersey. This was Judge Symmes' state, where he had first publicized the Miami lands, and Browne kept a watch for speculators or prospective settlers; he had bid in, without any payment, sixteen lots in Oxford Township. But he was even less successful for himself than for the college. He found no takers and all his leases were finally forfeited.
In this summer the Ohio Valley lay slumberous, rich and green. A great silence hung over it, as in time unmeasured. But at a few points there rose a purposeful din. Under the hills of Pittsburgh the first steamboat of the West was building, with a creaking of ropes and a clatter of hammers on the trampled riverfront. In Cincinnati wagons rumbled on the landing, trees crashed down on upper Broadway, herdsmen drove hogs and cattle through the streets. Thirty miles north in the deep woods of Oxford Township sounded the steady thud of ax and mallet. One hundred fifty dollars had been appropriated from the college funds and a log schoolhouse was building.; it rose in a ragged clearing where Brice Scientific Hall now stands. Surveyors were lining out the streets that would bound the campus. The first log houses were spreading along the stump-dotted High Street. In the "University Grove" stood a broad low Indian mound, covered with foot-thick maple trees. Once this campus had been a ceremonial place, seed gourds rattling, voices rising and falling, dark faces gleaming in the firelight. Now a school was growing there.
Mr. Browne had that solid schoolhouse to refer to as he went on through New Jersey. In Trenton, where in 1787 John Cleves Symmes had issued a glowing circular inviting purchases of Miami Valley land, he collected some seventy dollars and a hundred books. At Princeton, President Samuel Stanhope Smith received him politely and donated five dollars. Somewhere in New Jersey there were investors in Symmes' Purchase. Browne wrote that he meant to "find out such persons... and ply them pretty closely." But nothing came of that.
In October he sailed up the Hudson in a new steamboat. Albany, he
learned, had a town ordinance prohibiting all solicitation, but he
went ahead, explaining, "I came to bet, and beg I must." Collections
were small. Then in hard winter weather he pushed
on to New England. In Salem he competed with a campaign for
missionaries on the Island of Borneo; appeals to three congregations
yielded three hundred dollars and some books. In Boston he hoped
for a thousand dollars, but the Bostonians showed little interest in an
unborn western college. He called on Governor Caleb Strong, a large
land-owner in Ohio, but got nothing. Out at Quincy old President
John Adams gave him two books and a ten dollar bill. A final appeal
at New Haven, where he was pleasantly received by President
Dwight of Yale, yielded $161.50.
With this, Browne closed his subscription list. Sending a wagon-load of books to Cincinnati, he traveled west by stages. He reached Cincinnati "after a very fatiguing journey" on the 3rd of August, 1812.
A few weeks later, while on a preaching mission in Clermont County, Missionary Browne guided his horse to a fording place in the Little Miami River. The water was high and he missed the crossing. Alone in the woods on a summer day the tired, far-traveled Englishman was drowned.
His report to the University trustees had not been made, and it was twelve years before the final accounting. Meanwhile some of the books he had acquired were selected for the college library. The rest were sold at auction in Cincinnati. With the books was found a barrel of "Spanish whiting" (whitewash) which the trustees pondered over and finally sold. During his travels Browne had sent to the trustees some seven hundred dollars, and the sale of books netted another three hundred. A sum of $217.62 was due from Browne's estate, but it seemed undesirable to press that claim. Mr. Browne's mission had not made him the "father of the institution" as the trustees had hoped.
One March day in 1937 a visitor to the University called at the office of President Alfred H. Upham in Benton Hall. He was Samuel L. Stokes of Bethesda, Maryland, a grandson of the Reverend John W. Browne. The visitor presented to President Upham an envelope containing Mr. Browne's long-delayed report on his mission, his credentials and account book. He had found his grandfather's papers in an attic trunk where they had rested for more than a hundred years. Mr. Stokes had married a Miami graduate, Mare Hirst of the class of 1904.
During the summer of 1812 axes were thudding in the college forest. The Indian mound on the site of present Stoddard Hall was leveled and two acres were cleared for a university campus. But there was no building fund. By 1815 the costs of surveying, a set of office books, and the building of a log schoolhouse had used up all the college funds except $143.35. James McBride calculated that the 23,000 acres of college land, most of it yet unleased, was worth $56,000, which at the sex per cent rental would bring an annual income of about $3,400. It was years before the land rents reached that revenue.
Meanwhile the trustees were scattered. During Browne's return journey from the East war had been declared with England. Two weeks after his arrival in Cincinnati, Detroit was surrendered to the British and the whole Northwestern frontier seemed threaten ed. Land sales ceased--in the college township as elsewhere. Some of the University trustees went into the regular army; others served in the militia. Secretary James McBride built a flatboat in Hamilton, loaded it with flour, whisky and apples, and began a trading trip to New Orleans. In Oxford brush and brambles crept over the two acre clearing in the college square.
Quite naturally the Oxford settlers began to doubt that they would ever have a university. In 1814, James McBride, having returned from a profitable journey to New Orleans, prepared "An address to the Inhabitants of the Miami College lands," assuring them t hat the site of the Miami University had been permanently established, "and on the banks of the Four Mile has been planted the stake where the Miami University will stand immovable till time shall be no longer."
More than that, he gave a glowing account of the University's prospects: "The present arrangement which has been made for the disposition of the lands belonging to the Miami University is such, that when the lands are all disposed of it must afford a greater income to the University than any other seminary of learning in the United States is at present endowed with, and I trust the time is fast approaching, and now not far distant, when we shall behold a splendid college, whose stately spires tip the clouds and whose surrounding country bespeaks the industry and happiness of its inhabitants, where but a few years since the bark covered hut of the savage was the only mark of human improvement. And where, late the howling of the beasts of prey and the war whoop of the Indian were the only sounds which broke upon the ear of the wandering traveler, I trust we shall meet with the most polished of society. And on that same spot shall we meet with the youth assembled from various quarters of the world, to learn the arts and become acquainted with rhetoric and belles lettres. Astonishing change! But it is a change which every circumstance warrants us in expecting. And now, Oh! ye friends of literature and science, now is the time to extend your fostering hand to cherish and protect this institution of learning, which is to give a character and feature to your sons and your grandsons to the fortieth generation..."
To this prophecy he added the practical reminder that in the college township an honest citizen "can procure himself a farm and settle himself comfortably without advancing one cent; he can have the use of money forever by paying the interest--true, this small sum of interest will have to be paid yearly, and for a few years until his cabin is comfortably enclosed and his land improved he may meet with some inconveniences: but some inconveniences we must expect to surmount in all situations in life. Recollect that in a few years these lofty poplars and walnuts which at present cover the face of the township will disappear or be converted into houses and inclosures for your fields; land which is now valued at three dollars per acre will sell for forty or fifty. The lot for which you pay fifteen or eighteen dollars per annum you can rent for an hundred. Such is the way you will be enabled to settle yourselves so as to live comfortably and happy, and in this way you will be enabled to acquire wealth with out advancing any capital."
He concluded his "long address--which was published in Hamilton in July, 1814--with the earnest trust that "the almighty being who rules the destiny of mortals here below would protect with his guardian power this infant institution."
As yet there was nothing but the primeval forest to protect. When peace came in 1815 Miami University was in the sixth year of its corporate existence, and still it had no college building, no faculty, no students. One of its newly-appointed trustees, Dr. Daniel Drake of Cincinnati declared: "That it will attain to the rank of a second-rate college... where it is now fixed, no well-informed person has the courage to predict." Over the campus hung the forest silence, with wild turkeys roosting in the trees and fox-eyes gleaming in the dark.