Episode 1: The Greenville Treaty of 1795 is not the beginning

It must have seemed commonsense to her, in a Gramscian sort of way.

“Can you tell me what I should read to study the history of this place?” I asked.

“What time frame are you looking for?” The librarian said.

She was delightful and genuinely tried to help. She gave me several recommendations.

And so I began. My wife hates it when I do this. I like to think out-loud, and I like to think with people. So I often turn what seems like a simple question that requires a simple answer into a complicated series of what sounds like verbal nonsense. I mumbled some things about what I knew about growing up in Kentucky, “I know a little of that history.” I explained that I have a general picture in my head of United States history from what I learned in high school, college, and graduate school. I have an intimate, though not exactly academic, understanding of the way this has shaped the material well-being and the quality of life of everyday people. “I do not always remember the details,” I said, “but I do know some of the basics.”

She was still listening, but I didn’t want to be awkward. I thought I should stop. She smiled like she might be interested in what I was talking about. I’m always eager to find people who care about the world we live in and how things ended up being the way they are. I always think that these might be people who want to participate in transforming the spaces we inhabit into beloved communities.

“I assume most people begin with industry. I get the need to want to begin that way,” I continued. “Industrialization was a season of rapid growth and development. A lot of that growth was in the form of industrial capital made on the backs of everyday people. Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Caragie, Edison, J. P. Morgan, Ford. I can remember something about Akron being a site of a massive workers’ strike in the 1930s. I have some broad sense of how cities began to be developed, from the New Deal and after World War II. I know about how cities were planned to store and protect residential capital. I’ve been studying a little about the history of city planning, gentrification, and housing justice. I understand the temptation to begin here with the history of Akron. But I need to begin before the colonial expansion and the birth of industry. Before the industrial expansion and massive social investments and disinvestments. What was there before the people and land were traded for profit?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Where you looking for something? Do you have a timeframe in mind?” She didn’t seem at all bothered by the short moment I took to reflect. She seemed to understand how seriously I took her question. “What time-frame did you want to read about?” she asked.

“In the beginning,” I said. “That is where all good stories start.”

“Ah, yes! The beginning. Hmm…” She looked up a series of books and wrote down the call numbers. We walked down the aisle as she reached over and ran her fingers along the books on the shelf. The first book she handed me was brown, with a picture of a boat docked as people are getting on and off.

I opened to the first chapter: “In the Beginning.” [The book was from 2008, published by Kent State University Press, and written by Terry K. Woods, Ohio’s Grand Canal: A Brief History of the Ohio & Erie Canal.] In the beginning, I guessed the story would go, we settled this place and built a canal. The first paragraph tells about the importance of the canals of Ohio.

The canals of Ohio, once the mainstay of the state’s transportation system, shunted Ohio products out of the state and necessities for the good life. In just a little more than twenty-five years, these artificial waterways—and the men and women who lived and worked on or near them—transformed the state of Ohio from an isolated frontier, where farmers were unable to afford to ship their harvests to market, into a prosperous and influential agricultural and industrial power. (1)

Is this where the history of this place begins? Is this our “In the beginning” moment?

The author continues:

As per the Greenville Treaty of 1795, the western boundary of the United States was drawn south from Lake Erie along the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas Rivers before veering to the west. The Treaty of Fort Industry in 1805 pushed that boundary even farther west into Ohio. Now, floods of settlers rushed into the “new west,” which included western Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and beyond.

The first thing these new settlers did upon arriving in Ohio was clear a tract of land, build a cabin, and plant crops… (1)

Is this the beginning? The story of the Grand Canal, if you take this account as it is written, looks like it begins with the arrival of the settlers who appear to be the first people to the newfound area. The clues to the truth underlying this “in the beginning” moment are actually in the first sentences of the story. What was it that opened the magic door of opportunity so that these new settlers could suddenly come in and build communities here? It was the Greenville Treaty of 1795 and then the Treaty of Fort Industry in 1805 that “pushed the boundary” so that “floods of settlers rushed” in.

I came back to the librarian. She smiled in a way that made me think that she was sharing in my excitement. “Did you find something?” She asked.

“What do you have on the Greenville Treaty of 1795? What do you have on the story of the Great Lakes before the Greenville Treaty?”

For the first time, she reminded me of her role. “I’m only a librarian. I don’t really know the history too well. Do you know how to use our card catalogue?”