John C. Symmes

From Ohio History Central

John Cleves Symmes was a political leader, businessman, and real estate entrepreneur in the years after the American Revolution.

Born on July 21, 1742, John Cleves Symmes grew up in New York, the son of a minister. Prior to the American Revolution, he served as a schoolteacher. He married Anna Tuthill in 1760; one of their two daughters, Anna, would go on to marry William Henry Harrison. In 1770, he moved to the colony of New Jersey. Symmes held a number of important political positions both during and after the Revolutionary War, including chairman of Sussex County's Committee of Correspondence and colonel of the local militia. He was justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court, a member of the state's constitutional convention, and a delegate to Congress.

While serving in Congress in the 1780s, Cleves became interested in western expansion into the Ohio Country. He created a company with several of his friends to buy land in the Northwest Territory between the Great Miami and Little Miami Rivers. In 1788, Symmes and his associates requested one million acres of land from Congress, but in the end, they were permitted to purchase about 330,000 acres. President George Washington approved the land patent in 1794. Symmes and his partners paid approximately sixty-seven cents per acre. They were required to follow the same basic rules as the Ohio Company of Associates. Land had to be set aside for a school, for religion, and for the government's use. In addition, a large piece of land was to be set aside for a university. Symmes ignored this requirement.

The Symmes Purchase was also known as the Miami Purchase. Although the population in the region grew rapidly, Symmes and his associates had some problems. The investors chose not to follow the government survey system. This resulted in confusion over property boundaries and land ownership. In the case of the town of Dayton, not all of the land sold by Symmes and his partners was actually part of the land grant authorized by Congress. Numerous settlers in the Symmes Purchase had to pay for their property more than once. They initially purchased it from Symmes, and then, they had to buy it from the actual owner. The failure of Symmes to honor the United States Congress's provisions resulted in the federal government refusing to sell such large parcels of land to other private real estate speculators. Instead, the government surveyed the land and arranged the sale of the property directly to potential settlers.

In 1788, Symmes became a judge in the Northwest Territory and moved to the Ohio Country, eventually settling in North Bend, just south of Cincinnati. As a judge, he often disagreed with the policies of the territorial governor, General Arthur St. Clair. He and the other territorial judges, Samuel Parsons and James Varnum, felt that St. Clair had exceeded his power as governor. In particular, they disagreed with the governor about what laws should be adopted for the newly organized territory. Symmes contributed to the creation of Maxwell's Code, the series of laws put in effect in the Northwest Territory in 1795. The judge also sided with other members of the Democratic-Republican Party against St. Clair on the issue of Ohio statehood.

Symmes died on February 26, 1814.

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