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 country.

 

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 Washington County, 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 Washington County 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 Ames Township, then also in Washington County.) 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.

 

Ephraim 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 one o’clock 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 Washington County 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.

 

Sources:

 

Cutler, Julia P.  Life 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., ed.  Best 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 Ohio Valley: Historical and Biographical Sketches.  Cincinnati: Robert Clarke and Co., 1891.

 

Wright, Louis B. Culture on the Moving Frontier.  Bloomington:   Indiana University Press, 1955.