Moses Finds The Promised Land

Plain Dealer article that ran on July 9, 1995 and written by Bob Rich.


Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, July 9, 1995

Author: BOB RICH

July 5th, 1796, after a merry (and liquid) Fourth of July the night before, Moses Cleaveland and his 50-man surveying crew from the Connecticut Land Co. set out from Conneaut to find the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, where they would lay out a new capital for their Promised Land.


Cleaveland was a burly, powerful-looking man with a swarthy complexion that may have fooled Indians into thinking he was one of them. He was a Yale graduate with experience in the Revolutionary War and had practiced law for 30 years in his hometown of Canterbury, Conn.


He was appointed general of militia by the state. Cleaveland was the logical man to head the survey of the company’s newly acquired 3 million acres east of the Cuyahoga River; plus, his own money was at stake.


Real estate speculation was the way to get rich (or get swindled) in those early days of the American republic. The Connecticut investors had paid 40 cents an acre for their Western Reserve holdings, and the chances of getting rich looked very good. New England was filled with landless, unemployed men who would be able to lay down a little cash for their own lot.


And so Cleaveland’s surveying party of axmen, chainmen, rodmen and compassmen hacked its way through a trackless forest, laying out 5-mile square townships, sometimes eating boiled rattlesnake and berries when hunters came back empty-handed. With a broiling sun, mosquitoes, swamps and rainstorms, most of the party suffered from dysentery, cramps and fevers – and they had 55 miles to go from the Pennsylvania border to the Cuyahoga.


Somewhere along the line, Moses Cleaveland and some of his men got into a boat and coasted along Lake Erie until July 22, 1796, when they headed into the mouth of the sand-choked Cuyahoga – “crooked river,” in the Iroquois language.


Now they met the real enemy: swarms of malarial mosquitoes that rose to attack the sweaty bargemen. Above the eastern bank of the river, the heights were covered with chestnut, oak, walnut and maple trees, but down in the valley, they could smell the swamps and the decay; because the river had so many sandbars, a large sailing vessel would never make it from the lake into the river.


But no matter – the sandbars could be dredged. Here was a river from the interior of Ohio feeding into a freshwater lake, a river that would carry product out and finished goods in. This was the place to establish the capital of New Connecticut.


So the Cleaveland party landed at the foot of today’s St. Clair Ave., climbed up the hill and set to work surveying town lots. The men took 10 acres in the center of the plateau to establish a New England village-style Public Square; pushed a north-south street that they called Ontario through the center, and an even wider path from east-to-west called Superior.


After three months of surveying, Cleaveland took his crew back home to Connecticut.


Cleaveland never came back, but his surveying crew had complimented him by naming the settlement after him. Years later he said, “While I was in New Connecticut I laid out a town on the bank of Lake Erie, which was called by my name, and I believe the child is now born who may live to see that place as large as Old Windham.” Since Old Windham’s population was 2,200, eventually, he was proved right.


Only three people from the Cleaveland party chose to stay: Job Stiles, his wife, Tabitha, and Joseph Landon, and they shared a log cabin put up by the surveyors on what is now W. 6th St. and Superior. Their only company was a little group of Seneca Indians nearby. To the east and south was unbroken wilderness filled with wild game – turkey, bear, deer and timber wolves; west was the river and millions of trees; north was drinking-water pure Lake Erie.


Landon got one blast of winter winds whistling off the lake, and Cleaveland’s population dropped by one-third.


It got right back up there when Edward Paine arrived and began to trade with the Chippewa and Ottawa Indians. He would pull up stakes several years later and found Painesville.


That winter, the Indians befriended their white neighbors in the cabin on the hill, supplying them with game. Eventually, they would lose their ancestral lands to these same neighbors for a little money and a lot of whiskey.


Whoever nastily nicknamed Cleveland “The Mistake on the Lake” must have been there that first year when a few pioneers straggled in in the spring, in time to catch the ague (malaria) with chills and fever. When they recovered, they left for higher ground 6 miles southeast in what became Newburg, or east to Doan’s Corners (now E. 105th and Euclid).


By 1800, the total population was one family. You wouldn’t have wanted to bet on Cleveland’s survival much less its growth to the size of Old Windham, Conn. – unless, that is, you knew that one family in that one cabin belonged to Lorenzo Carter.


Teaching Cleveland Digital is a repository of writing, pictures and videos to support the teaching of Cleveland, Northeast Ohio and Ohio @

Teaching Cleveland Digital