The Ohio Firelands
When I moved back to Ohio after an absence of several decades, I ended up in a part of the state previously unexplored by me, despite having spent the first twenty-two years of my life in Ohio. One of the things I noticed was the constant reference to the Firelands. On nearly every corner in my newly adopted part of the state, there are schools, medical centers, churches, credit unions, a cattle company, grocery stores, retirement centers—all with the Firelands name. I asked people every chance I got what the Firelands was in reference to, but no one had a good explanation.
So, being the historian that I am, I decided to find out. What I didn’t expect was to find was the origin of the name had its roots in Connecticut, nor did I suspect the roots would go back as far as the Revolutionary War. After all, at the time of the Revolution, only the thirteen original colonies were populated and Ohio was considered “the west.”
New London, CT at the time of the Revolution was an excellent deep water harbor town. To avoid the increased taxes the British placed on all goods coming to the colonies, New London became a haven for smuggling. Items being smuggled, or pirated, included military supplies which would be used to further the efforts of the revolutionary cause. New London’s warehouses were brimming with equipment and supplies to fight the British. Privateering became big business in New London, as heavily armed ships prowled the merchant ships coming in from England. Once these ships were determined to not be well armed, the merchant ship was taken over and its contents then sold at auction.
Connecticut was also a major source of manufacturing. Badly needed supplies and materials were shipped to the Continental Army, which inflamed the British, who burned most of the manufacturing plants to destroy this supply line. The raids got out of hand and much civilian property was lost or damaged.
Benedict Arnold played a major role in the further destruction of New London. Arnold began his military career loyal to the revolutionary cause, helping Boston in its fight against occupation by the British. He was brilliant at tactical warfare, but found himself overlooked more often than not. While others took credit for what Arnold perceived as his ideas, he became more and more disgruntled with the Revolution.
Arnold was given command of the city of Philadelphia by George Washington in 1778. By then, Arnold was recently widowed and immersed himself in the social scene, ultimately wooing and winning the hand of 18-year-old Peggy Shippen. Peggy’s loyalty to the crown, and the new household’s insistence on an extravagant lifestyle eventually led to Arnold’s defection from the Revolutionary cause. By 1780, he struck a deal with the British that he’d deliver West Point to them in exchange for 20,000 pounds. This plot was discovered before it happened. Arnold escaped, but the courier who carried the detailed plans between Arnold and General Clinton, the British commander, was hanged.
That failed plot was not the end of Benedict Arnold, however. He remained loyal to the British and, in the summer of 1781, was in charge of a diversionary tactic. The British were about to attack Virginia, but wanted to divert attention from their efforts as long as possible. Clinton placed Arnold in charge of a raid on New London, Connecticut. More than 140 buildings, consisting of houses, shops and warehouses were burned, along with ships docked in the port. Some of the ships carried gunpowder, which increased the devastation in the town.
Fort Griswold, on the other side of the Thames River from New London, in the town of Groton, was the site of a fierce battle between an outmanned force of Confederates and the British. After a brief, fierce battle, the Americans laid down their weapons. Both New London and Groton were almost entirely destroyed.
One month later, with the cry of “Remember New London,” the final battle of the Revolution took place and Cornwallis surrendered. He, Arnold, and many other British officers were sent back to England.
After the war, these “fire-sufferers” petitioned the state for compensation for their losses. In 1792, the legislature agreed to pay 1,870 citizens by giving them land from the 500,000 acres set aside from the Connecticut Western Reserve. This represents a unique event in the history of America, since at no time before or since have civilian victims of a war given payment for their sacrifice with land. The land had to be surveyed and divided into tracts, which took four years, from 1808 to 1812, since the land was densely forested and rugged. Each tract was assigned a number and, depending on the amount of loss suffered by each resident, they were allowed to draw one or more numbers. However, those who were eligible for more than one tract could not guarantee the tracts would be adjacent, as the drawing was random, making settling of the land difficult.
By the time all the petitioners’ complaints were reviewed, the land surveyed and an equitable solution to distribution figured out, many of the original “sufferers” were either dead or too old to resettle in this rugged land. Claims were sold to relatives, other settlers or speculators. It took forty days of hard travel to get from towns in Connecticut to the Ohio Firelands. Population and the formation of towns in northwest Ohio began in 1808. The War of 1812 further impeded development. Settlement of the land was very slow, due to its remoteness and the dense woods.
Towns in the Firelands district today are named after their Connecticut counterparts–Danbury, Fairfield, Greenwich, Groton, New Haven, New London, Norwalk and Ridgefield.
The Firelands Pioneer, published by the Firelands Historical Society, Norwalk, OH