Left: the Reverend Cutting L. Marsh, a Presbyterian missionary who resided along the banks of the Maumee in 1829-30.
Northwest Ohio was one of the last regions settled in the vast swath of land known as the Old Northwest, which encompassed territory that would later become the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The primary reason for the area’s slow development was the presence of an enormous wetlands region, commonly referred to as the Great Black Swamp.
This swampy area was the remnants of a body of water known to geologists as Lake Maumee, the waves of which last lapped against a sandy shore 14,000 years ago. Approximately 120 miles long and, at points, as much as 40 miles wide, the Swamp posed a geographical, logistical, and epidemiological barrier to trans-Appalachian white settlement. Consequently, while much of Ohio experienced a population boom in the 1820s and 1830s from neo-European settlement, Northwest Ohio remained much the same as it was in the previous centuries – a land of dense swamp interspersed with a few villages of indigenous peoples.
Traders, soldiers, and missionaries were the first whites to enter the region; French fur agents made forays through the Swamp as early as the late 17th century. A small French trading outpost existed near the mouth of the Maumee River in the mid-18th century, and the British occupied this site after the peace agreement in 1763. Known as Fort Miamis, the site served as an anchor for future white settlement. The British continued to use the post as a means to trade with Native Americans, and the fort was a source of consternation to the fledgling United States.
Purported British agitation among and arms supplying to Native groups were principal reasons for the War of 1812, and the region hosted a number of pivotal battles at Fort Meigs and Fort Stevenson. On the heels of the military personnel were the Christian missionaries, who sought to convert the remaining native groups to a variety of Protestant flavors of Christianity. Chief among the earliest of these groups were the Moravians, the Methodists and the Presbyterians, the latter of whom founded a missionary station in 1821 on the banks of the Maumee near present-day Waterville. Clark Waggoner, in his History of Toledo and Lucas County, described the station:
The distinctive work of the Mission was the instruction of the young of the tribe in the English language, rather than reaching adults through their own language. The pupils for the first Winter, averaged about 30. The adults were not neglected, the Missionaries preaching to them as best they could through interpreters. At first, they were shy and distrustful ; but soon became more confiding. Some 30 were believed to have been converted. The work might have been more successful, but for the opposition made to it by neighboring Indian traders, whose traffic was most profitable when they were left to deal with the Indians without interference such as Missionary work inevitably caused. The Indians are spoken of as kindly in their intercourse and specially grateful for favors shown them. Among the Mission buildings was a two-story frame house, which yet remained in 1873, when the property belonged to George and Thomas Yunt.
It was to this station that a young Connecticut missionary named Cutting Marsh arrived – fresh from divinity school - in November 1829. The Reverend kept a diary throughout his life, and during the six months he was stationed in the Swamp he made a number of observations about indigenous groups, environmental conditions, and flora and fauna in the region. Marsh’s writings traveled with him to Wisconsin, where he spent the rest of his life working as a missionary among the Stockbridge Indians. His observations on Northwest Ohio remained in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society for over 100 years, away from the eyes of researchers interested in the history of the Swamp.
The Marsh diary contains many valuable nuggets of historical, sociological, and ethnographical information on life in the Swamp. Marsh, unlike many early visitors and settlers to the region, seemed genuinely fascinated with the culture of the indigenous peoples he encountered. While he occasionally exhibited a judgmental streak toward practices outside the moral constructs of his neo-European mindset, he nonetheless reported events with a decidedly detached eye for detail.
The cultural differences between whites – especially Protestant missionaries from New England – and indigenous peoples such as the Potawatomi stand out in this passage. Marsh was taken aback by the manner in which the Potawatomi dressed, and found odd the idea that humans could cohabitate with domesticated animals. Neo-European notions of cultural superiority seep through in Marsh’s writings, despite his obvious concern for the welfare of Native Americans. His solution was much in keeping with that of most colonial whites: groups like the Potawatomi needed to adopt white culture in order to become “civilized.”
Marsh, as a Christian missionary, believed that the Gospel was the path by which civilization could best be attained, while many in the American government believed that Indians needed to take up the agricultural lifestyle espoused by the Jeffersonians to achieve white ideals of civilization. Neither view, of course, entertains the idea that Native American groups already possessed a form of civilization with which they were satisfied, or that peaceful coexistence with groups like the Potawatomi was a possibility.
This essay is a excerpt of an academic article that I am finishing; I hope to have it published in early 2006.