Manasseh Cutler, a Congregationalist minister, in 1788 left his home in Ipswich, Mass., to help build the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. While there, he founded Ohio University – and then he came home.
In addition to making the trek himself, Cutler helped start the Great Westward Migration. He had lobbied the Congress of the Confederation to make it possible by passing the Ordinance of 1787. The ordinance created the Northwest Territory, a vast area including Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. Some historians claim Cutler wrote the section banning slavery north of the Ohio River.
Cutler, Gen. Rufus Putnam and their partners formed a land company called the Ohio Company. They tried to persuade the new Congress to make impoverished Revolutionary War veterans whole by letting them by cheap land. He made a deal with Congress that they could buy 1.5 million acres with the debt certificates received in payment for their services during the war, or about eight cents an acre. Cutler smoothed the way by making members of Congress partners in the land company.
On Dec. 3, 1787, 48 men gathered at Manasseh Cutler’s house, shot off a volley and embarked on their journey. They carried their supplies in a wagon with lettering on the side that read, “Ohio, for Marietta on the Muskingum.” They crossed the mountains on foot and stopped in West Newton, Pa., on the Youghiogheny River. There they built flatboats and canoes and floated down the river to Pittsburgh, where they finished out the winter. In the spring they continued on, traveling down the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, where they stopped and began building Marietta.
Cutler, then 36, followed their path that summer with a second group. They left on July 21, 1788, arriving on August 19 that year. He left his wife behind, and traveled mostly in a sulky — a two-wheeled cart behind a horse. It rained during much of the journey, and usually his highest praise for the taverns they stopped at was that it was “tolerable.”
During the two years he spent in Ohio, he helped found Ohio University.
Manasseh Cutler’s own journey to that point had been circuitous. Born in Killingly, Conn., on May 13, 1742, he graduated from Yale College and then tried his hand as a merchant, a schoolteacher and a lawyer in Edgartown and Dedham, Mass. Finally he turned to the ministry, and from 1771 until his death in 1823 he served as pastor of the Third Church of Ipswich in what is now Hamilton, Mass. He served as a chaplain during the Revolutionary War, after which he trained in medicine and established a boarding school.
When he returned from Ohio in 1789, he ran for Congress as a Federalist and won, serving two terms. He also pursued scientific inquiry, conducting meteorological and astronomical investigations. Before his trip out west, he had led the first scientific expedition to the summit of Mt. Washington.
Cutler’s study of medicine led him to a passionate interest in botany. He belonged to an international network of the learned elite, and he shared with them his horticultural discoveries. He wrote detailed descriptions of 350 plants of New England, the first to do so. Cutler was one of the first members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Manasseh Cutler died July 28, 1823. One of his descendants, Charles Dawes, served as vice-president of the United States.
We are indebted to the Ipswich Historical Commission for this story about Manasseh Cutler, and to Gordon Harris for bringing its website to our attention. This story was updated in 2022.
Image: First Congregational Church By Elizabeth B. Thomsen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48083533.