Time to Remember Two Forgotten First Settlers of Knox County – February 20

A sermon based on Luke 6:27-38

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 20, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Imagine if mega-churches and televangelists and other prominent Christian writers and leaders promoted doing what Jesus commands in our reading.  What a wonderful world it would be if those commandments were just taken to heart by Christians.

It’s not that I haven’t seen or heard sections of today’s selection from “The Sermon on the Plain” quoted now and then, but I cannot recall them being raised in the mass media by the church leaders that I’ve heard mercilessly admonishing others with words from the Bible that Jesus never said.  Jesus’ commandments to love our enemies and turn the other cheek seem to garner little concern with Christians who command attention in the media.  When beggars ask for help, when poverty leads to the poor taking goods, Jesus’ commandments to give to everyone who begs and do not ask about taken goods, are rarely, if ever, brought up. And perhaps the most glaring absence of a commandment from our reading being brought to bear on our culture, is the Golden Rule,  “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

The Golden Rule ought to be a guiding principle in our lives and in our culture. It ought  to be one that those claiming we’ve always been a Christian nation admonish all of us to scrupulously follow. Sadly, it’s not. It never has been. Even back in the early days of this nation and this state, when folks imagine we started off as a Christian nation, the Golden Rule was not a primary concern. It certainly was not applied by most of the nation’s secular and religious leaders to Americans with darker skin color.

Simply put, White Americans did not do to non-White Americans what they wanted done to themselves.  No White American wanted to be enslaved, or treated like three-fifths of a person or subjected to racist laws and customs. But White Americans did that to Black Americans at the start of this nation and its ripple effects have continued on.  This includes our nation, as a rule,  hiding, discounting, and even altering  history to both exclude Black American accomplishments and White created horrors and impediments imposed on People of Color. Rather than mourn, regret, rectify or face up to it, to this day many  bristle, lash out, excuse or deny the White centered ginning-up of history.

This morning, here in the midst of Black History Month, I thought I’d make an effort to begin to remedy that in one small, small way by dusting off a somewhat hidden bit of local history I recently found buried in a history book written in 1862.  The book, The History of Knox County, Ohio by A. Banning Norton indicates that two Black American settlers were in this area at the same time as Andrew Craig, who has long been claimed as Mount Vernon’s first White settler, along with his White wife Catherine. 1. Those two Black Americans were here at least when the Craigs were here and before other White settlers arrived – and it is even possible the two men were here before the Craigs! It is long past due  that we recognize those two Black men were among our first U.S. settlers!

Sadly, we don’t have many details because those chronicling our history looked down on Black Americans. At the time, as I said, many White Americans claimed to own Black Americans and the nation as a whole legally considered them as less human and treated them terribly as both enslaved and free Americans. And historians for much of America’s existence have mostly only been interested in recording and emphasizing White men’s activities and crediting them with settlements. The White author of the history book I mentioned even pointed out he was recording his race’s arrival and settlement. 2.

The Black Americans settlers I am referring to were sadly only mentioned in Norton’s book because of a tragic incident laced with ugly and horrific racism.  The fact that most of us have probably not heard the story before – even though a historic marker sits near the spot– is evidence of the continuing ripple effects of racism. There is, though, a glimmer of hope offered by the Golden Rule in play at the start of the story,  and we can play a role in the promise of hope in the future offered by our following the Golden Rule. Here’s a summary of the story I found: Within a few years either side of the turn of the nineteenth century, two Black Americans took up residence and lived in this area. The two had escaped enslavement by White Americans in Virginia. We do not know the names of the two Black American settlers– a common violation of the Golden Rule since White American male settlers’ names are usually carefully preserved. What we do know is the two Black Americans resided here,  and visited and possibly shared the same small settlement as Andrew and Catherine Craig, the White Americans remembered and credited as being the first U.S. settlers in these parts. 3.   First settlers are defined as “someone who settles in a new region.” 4.  They settle by establishing residence or furnishing an area with inhabitants. 5. The two Black Americans fit the meaning of first settlers of this area.

The hope at the start of the story that I mentioned is, that despite rampant racism in early America, the two Black men and their Native American spouses and the White couple managed to share lives together in our county’s first U.S. community.  6. Those early settlers appear to have lived in harmony and lived close enough to stop in and visit each other’s homes– which suggests the Golden Rule was employed to outweigh the racism rampant at the time. Those early U.S. settlers visited with each other at, if not daily shared, a settlement near Little Indian Fields, located by the confluence of the Kokosing River and Center Run.

Today an historic marker for Little Indian Fields stands at the head of the Kokosing Bike Trail.  The words on that marker note what it calls “the site of the first White settlement of Knox County” and lists the first White inhabitants as Andrew and Catherine Craig, and then two other Whites who came later than the Craigs and later than the two Black Americans. Because of the “White settler” perspective to our history there are no words on the marker about the two Black American settlers who were among the very first from the United States, or maybe even the first, to settle Knox County. 7 The hope in the future that I mentioned is that the Golden Rule be applied and steps be taken to remember our non-White American settlers equally with our White American settlers.  In other words, one hope our generation can offer is that all the Americans – White and Black Americans and their Native American spouses– who served as the first catalyst for U.S. settlement of Knox County be  remembered and mentioned on a new historic marker. We don’t know how long the two Black American settlers lived in the area, like I suggested they may have been first and Andrew and Catherine Craig joined them,  or vice versa.  We may not know their names or the names of their Native American wives, but we do know Whites, Blacks and Native Americans lived in the earliest United States settlements known in the county and appear to have gotten along. That’s an impressive lesson.

There’s another lesson, how sad and tragic racism is and has always been.  See racism from outside eventually reared its ugly head and ended the harmony of the early settlement and ended the two Black Americans settlers’ presence in Knox County. It’s a terrifying story.  Somehow word that Black men resided in the area got out. And three armed men, including the son of the person from Virginia who claimed to own the two Americans, found them visiting the Craig’s hut on a bluff above Little Indian Fields. 8.

Thankfully one of the Black American settlers escaped and lived to tell the story. The other Black American tried to also escape. He ran off the bluff and down into the Kokosing.  But he was not as lucky as the first. The outsiders followed him into the river and grabbed him as he fought for his freedom. During the fight the son of the man who enslaved both men was killed. Sadly, that first U.S. settler, that Black American,  was captured and tragically tied up and murdered the next day by the remaining captors.  Those two deaths appear to be the first of our countrymen killed in this area.

Racism likely spilled the first American blood among our early settlement.  And racism, over the long term denied us the actual story of the origins of Knox County. And it did not just obscure the terrible killing and the chasing away of our Black American settlers, but has hidden even their existence as first settlers.

Also hidden was the incredible and  beautiful truth that Whites and Blacks and Native Americans settled Knox County together, and lived for a while in apparent harmony. All of this is something most people nowadays would like to know.  It is something we should know.  We especially like stories of people doing to others what they want done to themselves, what we want done to ourselves.

There is a deep and tragic sadness in the story of our first settlers. But there is also the hope that the Golden Rule was a part of the start of this county. There is deep and tragic sadness that racism still exists, but there is hope that most of us want the Golden Rule to be a part of this county and this country now. If we listen to what Jesus commands in our lesson, we need to do more than hope and want others to be treated as we want to be treated. We must actually, affirmatively,  treat others as we want to be treated– which means we must end racism and work to repair the damage. We must play a part in the hope being fulfilled.  May we do just that! AMEN!

ENDNOTES:

  1. Norton, Banning, A History of Knox County, Ohio: From 1779 to 1862, Inclusive; Comprising Biographicval Sketches, Anecdotes (1862). The story of the first settlers that included two Black American settlers and their Native American spouses is found on pages 52-53.
  2. Ibid., p 50.
  3. Ibid., p 8.
  4. Webster’s Online Dictionary, (“Settler”).
  5. Ibid., (“Settle”).
  6. The historical marker at Little Indian Fields lists the female companion of Andrew Craig as his wife and lists her name as Catherine. But Norton’s book, apparently the first and only primary source of information on the first settlement describes the first White female settler as married to another man when she ran off with Craig. Norton also fails tolist her name. Norton at 8, 50-51.
  7. Just a note to point out that John Stilley another early White settler of Mount Vernon was assisted in settling his family here in 1807 by a Black American named Benjamin Tressler. Politics and Peril, Mount Vernon, Ohio in the Nineteenth Century, by Lorle Porter, p 19.  By that time,  another Black American, Enoch “Knuck “ Harris was also in town settling up business and investing in local land. Ibid., at 21, 23; Sebastian, Mark,  “Knuck Harris, Mount Vernon’s Forgotten Founding Father,” KnoxPages Dec 7, 2019, https://www.knoxpages.com/history/knuck-harris-mount-vernons-forgotten-founding-father/article_c0458908-18e6-11ea-9f69-6fd68ab50e4e.html
  8. The slaveholder’s family name was Tumlinson.

 

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED