The Belpre Farmers’ Library: First in the Northwest Territory
By Marilyn Logue
After the Revolutionary War, New England
veterans seeking western lands as payment for their military service formed the
Ohio Company of Associates on March 1, 1786 at Boston’s Bunch of Grapes Tavern.Many of these were former officers, highly
educated and cultured individuals. Manasseh Cutler (1742-1823) of Ipswich, Massachusetts, a Yale graduate, Congregational preacher, and Ohio Company member,
played a vital role in lobbying the Confederation Congress to adopt the
Northwest Ordinance of 1787, thereby positioning the Ohio Company to secure a
land grant that would eventually include 1,781,760 acres in the western
Brig. Gen. Rufus Putnam (1738-1824), Cutler’s fellow organizer of the
Ohio Company, led the group of forty-eight pioneers to create the first
permanent white settlement in the Northwest Territory at the confluence of the
Ohio and Muskingum Rivers on April 7, 1788; this settlement, at first named
Adelphia, which means “brotherhood,” soon was called Marietta to honor the
French Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) for her assistance during the
American Revolution. On July 27, 1788, the Ohio Company’s settlement would become
part of WashingtonCounty, which was named after George Washington and
included much of eastern Ohio.
More settlers, including Colonel Israel Putnam
(1739-1812), soon joined Marietta’s original pioneers.
Colonel Putnam was a son of General Israel Putnam (1718-1790), “Old
Put” of Revolutionary War fame, and a third cousin of Rufus Putnam. Colonel
Putnam and two of his sons arrived in 1788 after crossing the mountains with a
wagonload of farming utensils pulled by two yokes of oxen. The next spring
Israel and about forty of the Ohio Company associates located their farms on
the rich Ohio River bottomlands just a few miles downriver from Marietta; they
named their settlement Belle Prairie or “beautiful meadow” (now called Belpre).
Then, in the fall of 1790, Israel Putnam returned to Pomfret, Connecticut to fetch his wife and
children. The colonel’s father, General Israel Putnam, had died that spring,
and Colonel Putnam inherited a portion of the Putnam family library.
Unfortunately, the return trip to WashingtonCounty had to be postponed because the Indian War
in the Ohio Country had broken out in January of 1791. In June 1795, when peace
was said to be near (the Treaty of Greenville was signed on August 3, 1795),
the family prepared to leave Connecticut; Putnam and his adult children loaded
the books from the Putnam family library into the wagons, hoping to use them to
help fill the need for education and culture on the Ohio frontier. Ephraim
Cutler (1767-1853) of nearby Killingly, Connecticut and his wife and four children joined the
Putnams on the journey.Cutler, also an
Ohio Company associate, was a son of the aforementioned Manasseh Cutler; he and
his family were making the trip to the Ohio Country for the first time. (Cutler
would later become one of the founders and the first librarian of the famous
“Coonskin Library” in AmesTownship, then also in WashingtonCounty.) The trip turned out to be a very difficult
one. On the way, there was much sickness; Mrs. Putnam bore a premature baby and
had to be carried on a makeshift bier over the mountains. While on the river,
the “fever” claimed the lives of the Cutlers’ oldest daughter and youngest son;
the children were buried in the wilderness along the banks of the Ohio. The families finally arrived in Marietta by flatboat on September 15, 1795, the trip from Connecticut having taken three months.
Cutler and his family were so ill when they landed at Marietta that they had to stay in a blockhouse for several
months before they were well enough to travel up the Muskingum River to the settlement at Waterford. Colonel Israel Putnam, meanwhile, was able to go
directly to his home on the Ohio
River at Belpre because his
son, Aaron Waldo Putnam, had stayed there during the Indian War tending the
farm. There, Colonel Putnam began sharing the books that he had brought from Connecticut with family, neighbors, and friends. In 1796, the
community formally organized a subscription library using Putnam’s books as the
nucleus of the collection, thus creating the first circulating library in Ohio and the Northwest Territory.
It is said that the librarian, Isaac Pierce, kept the books at his house in a
basket under the bed. Subscribers could take out books equal to the value of
the stock that they had purchased. Shares cost ten dollars each, which was very
expensive, but this money provided funds to add new books to the collection
over the years.
Even this expense
did not stop Amos Dunham, who, in 1804 or 1805, gave the following account:
“The long winter evenings were rather tedious, and in order to make them pass
more smoothly, by great exertion I purchased a share in the Belpre Library, six
miles distant. From this I promised myself much entertainment, but another
obstacle presented itself—I had no candles; however, the woods afforded plenty
of pineknots—with these I made torches by which I could read, though I nearly
spoiled my eyes. Many a night have I passed in this manner till twelve or reading to my wife, while she was
hatchelling, carding or spinning.”
Descendants of Amos Dunham have said that “he could always find time to
attend the Belpre Library meeting, regardless of hurrying work.” Colonel John
Stone also remembered attending the meetings for withdrawing books; he was
present when the library was dissolved about 1815 or 1816 by mutual consent of
the shareholders; this was after over twenty years of service to the community.
(It was also about this time that Isaac Pierce, the librarian, sold his house
and moved to Dayton.) The Belpre Library books were divided
among the subscribers, whose descendants proudly exhibited some of them at the
centennial celebration in Marietta in 1888 and at the great Centennial Exposition at Cincinnati in the summer of that same year.
In 1879 Dr. Israel W. Andrews, President of Marietta College, went to
the homes of the remaining known owners and wrote down titles of existing
books; Laura Curtis Preston made a similar inventory in 1915. It is not known
how many books were eventually in the library, but one of the books had “Belpre
Library #80” on it, so it is assumed there were at least that many books. Most
of the original books from the Putnam family library were identifiable because
it could be seen where previous inscriptions had been erased or marked out. For
example, “Putnam Family Library #45” was changed to “Belpre Library #36.” (Some
of the books were also inscribed “Belpre Farmers’ Library.”) Some located items
included practical books, such as A
Treatise on Cattle(1795) and
John Spurrier’s The Practical Farmer (1793),
dedicated to Thomas Jefferson in 1792; history books, including David Hume’s
six-volume History of England (1754),
Samuel Williams’ Natural and Civil
History of Vermont (1794), and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1783); scientific books, such
as Oliver Goldsmith’s Animated Nature
(1773) and Thaddeus Mason Harris’ The
Natural History of the Bible (1793). A travel book in the collection was
Jonathan Carver’s Three Years Travel
Through the Interior Parts of North America (1789). In the area of
philosophy, there was a 1793 edition of John Locke’s Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Later additions to
the library included an 1811 printing of Samuel Johnson’s three-volume Lives of the English Poets (1779),
Bassett’s four-volume 1810 edition of History
of England (this must have been a rather obscure set of books; I have found
no record of Mr. Bassett or his writings anywhere), and William Robertson’s
two-volume History of Scotland (1811).
The year after his inventory of the Belpre Library books, Marietta’s Dr. Andrews received a welcome letter from
the Honorable John Eaton, United States Commissioner of Education, dated March
23, 1880. A group of
Ohio literary scholars, appointed by the commissioner, had been charged with
deciding among three competing communities (Cincinnati; Ames Township, Athens
County; and Belpre, Washington County) as to the priority of the “establishment
of social libraries (or public as distinguished from private) in the Northwest
Territory.” Hon. John Eaton was writing to tell Dr. Andrews that his commission
had found that Belpre should be recognized as having the first library because
it antedated “by a number of years, the other claims.” The proof lay in the WashingtonCounty probate records; an entry for October
26, 1796 reads,
“Received of Jonathan Stone, by the hand of Benjamin Mills, ten dollars for his
share in the Putnam Family Library.W.P.
Putnam, Clerk” Captain Jonathan Stone (1752-1801), a charter member of the
library, was the father of Colonel John Stone ((1795-1884), who was present
when the library was dissolved. The younger Colonel Stone eventually became an
abolitionist who operated along the Ohio River
during the days of slavery.)
And what became of Colonel Israel Putnam, whose books formed the
nucleus of this pioneer library? Israel was fifty-six years old when he finally was
able to bring his family to Ohio in 1795. During the rest of his life, he was
an important agriculturalist, introducing choice fruits and an improved stock
of cattle into the Ohio Country. His son, Dr. William Pitt Putnam was a pioneer
physician in Marietta, but died at the age of thirty, and son
David Putnam, a Yale graduate, was a lawyer in town.Two of David’s sons, Douglas and David, Jr.,
were well known abolitionists, and David, Jr.’s house was Marietta’s main station on the Underground Railroad.
And, bringing the genealogy down to today, Nancy Putnam Hollister, Col. Israel
Putnam’s direct descendant, served as the Mayor of Marietta and as the Lt.
Governor of Ohio under George Voinovich.
Today, the Belpre Branch of the Washington County Public Library serves
this rural community on the Ohio River; this library is a direct descendant of
the Belpre Farmers’ Library formed so long ago by the pioneers. The early
settlers were willing to sacrifice in order to purchase memberships in the
library, even though they sometimes couldn’t afford to buy candles with which
to read the books.
and Times of Ephraim Cutler.Cincinnati: Robert Clarke and Co., 1890.
Hildreth, Samuel Prescott.Biographical
and Historical Memoirs of the Early Pioneers of Ohio.Cincinnati: H.W. Derby, 1852.
Hill, Melinda F.,
in the Nation: The First Two Hundred Years of Ohio
Libraries.Wooster, Ohio: The Wooster Book Company, 2003.
Preston, Laura Curtis.“The Putnam Family Library or The Belpre
Farmers’ Library”(Copy of paper read
before the Woman’s Centennial Association, Marietta, January 18, 1915).
Venable, W. H.Beginnings
of Literary Culture In the OhioValley:
Historical and Biographical Sketches.Cincinnati: Robert Clarke and Co., 1891.
Wright, Louis B. Culture on the Moving Frontier.Bloomington:IndianaUniversity Press, 1955.