Autobiography of Thomas Ewing

Thomas Ewing, son of the last named, was born in Ohio county, West Virginia, December 28th, 1789. The following autobiographical sketch, kindly furnished for these pages by this now great and venerable man, will be read with especial interest:

My father settled in what is now Ames township, Athens county, early in April, 5798. He removed from the mouth of Olive Green creek, on the Muskingum river, and the nearest neighbor with whom he had association, was, in that direction, distant about eighteen miles. There were a few families settled, about the same time, on or near the present site of the town of Athens, but no road or even pathway led to them; the distance was about twelve miles. There was also an old pioneer hunter encamped at the mouth of Federal creek, distant about ten miles. This, as far as I know; comprised the population statistics of what is now Athens county. I do not know the date of the settlement in what was called No. 5-Cooley’s settlement-it was early.

At the time of my father’s removal, I was with my aunt, Mrs. Morgan, near West Liberty, Virginia, going to school. I was a few months in my ninth year. Early in the year 1798, I think in May, my uncle brought me home. We descended the Ohio river in a flat boat to the mouth of Little Hocking, and crossed a bottom and a pine hill along a dim foot path, some ten or fifteen miles, and took quarters for the night at Dailey’s camp. I was tired and slept well on the bear-skin bed which the rough old dame spread for me, and in the morning my uncle engaged a son of our host, a boy of eighteen, who had seen my father’s cabin, to pilot us.

I was now at home, and fairly an inceptive citizen of the future Athens county. The young savage, cur pilot, was much struck with some of the rude implements of civilization which he saw my brother using, especially the auger, and expressed the opinion that with an axe and an auger a man could make everything he wanted except a gun and bullet molds. My brother was engaged in making some bedsteads. He had already finished a table, in the manufacture of which he had used also an adze to smooth the plank, which he split in good width from straight grained trees. Transportation was exceedingly difficult, and our furniture, of the rudest kind, composed of articles of the first necessity. Our kitchen utensils were “the big kettle,” “the little kettle,” the bake oven, frying pan, and pot; the latter had a small hole in the bottom which was mended with a button, keyed with a nail through the eye on the outside of the pot. We had no table furniture that would break-little of any kind. Our meat-bear meat, or raccoon, with venison or turkey, cooked together and seasoned to the taste (a most savory dish)-was cut up in morsels and placed in the centre of the table, and the younger members of the family, armed with sharpened sticks, helped themselves about as well as with fourtined forks; great care was taken in selecting wholesome sticks, as sassafras, spice-bush, hazel, or hickory. Sometimes the children were allowed, by way of pic-nic, to cut with the butcherknife from the fresh bear meat and venison their slices and stick them, alternately, on a sharpened spit and roast before a fine hickory fire; this made a most royal dish. Bears, deer, and raccoons remained in abundance, until replaced by herds of swine. The great west would have settled slowly without corn and logs. A bushel of seed wheat will produce, at the end of ten months, ‘fifteen or twenty bushels; a bushel of corn, at the end of five months, four hundred bushels, and it is used to much advantage for the last two months. Our horned cattle do not double in a year; hogs, in the same time, increase twenty fold. It was deemed almost sacrilege to kill a sheep, and I remember well the first beef I tasted. I thought it coarse and stringy compared with venison. We had wild fruits of several varieties, very abundant, and some of them exceedingly fine. There was a sharp ridge quite near my father’s house, on which I had selected four or five service or juneberry bushes, that I could easily climb, and kept an eye on them till they should get fully ripe. At the proper time, I went with one of my sisters to gather them, but a bear had been in advance of me. The limbs of all the bushes were brought down to the trunk like a folded umbrella, and the berries all gone; there were plenty still in the woods for children and bears, but few so choice or easy of access as these. We had a great variety of wild plums, some exceedingly fine-better, to my taste, than the best tame varieties. I have not seen any of the choice varieties within the last thirty years.

We, of course, had no mills. The nearest was on Wolf creek, about fourteen miles distant’; from this we brought our first summer’s supply of breadstuffs. After we gathered our first crop of corn my father instituted a hand mill which, as a kind of common property, supplied the neighborhood, after we had neighbors, for several years, until Christopher Herrold set up a horse mill on the ridge, and Henry Barrows a water mill near the mouth of Federal creek.

For the first year I was a lonely boy. My brother George, eleven years older than I, was too much a man to be my companion, and my sisters could not be with me, generally, in the woods and among the rocks and caves; but a small spaniel dog, almost as intelligent as a boy, was always with me. I was the reader of the family, but we had few books. I remember but but one beside “Watts’ Psalms and Hymns” that a child could read-” The Vicar of Wakefield,” which was almost committed to memory-the poetry which it contained, entirely.

Our first neighbor was Capt. Benjamin Brown, who had been an officer in the Revolutionary war. He was a man of strong intellect, without much culture. He told me many anecdotes of the war which interested me, and, among other things that I remember, gave me an account of Doctor Jenner’s then recent discovery of the kine pox as a preventive of the small pox, better than I have ever yet read in any written treatise, and I remember it better than any account which I have since read. He lent me a book–one number of a periodical called the ” Athenian Oracle”-something like our modern ” Notes and Queries,” from which, however, I learned but little. I found, too, a companion in his son, John, four years my senior, still enjoying sound health in his ripe old age.

In 1801, some one of my father’s family being ill, Dr. Baker, who lived at Waterford, eighteen miles distant, was called in. He took notice of me as a reading boy, and told me he had a book he would lend me if I would come for it. I got leave of my father and went, the little spaniel being my traveling companion. The book was a translation of Virgil, the Bucolics and Georgics torn out, but the AEneid perfect. I have not happened to meet with the translation since, and do not know whose it was. The opening lines, as I remember them, were

“Arms and the man I sing who first from Troy, Came to the Italian and Lavinian shores, Exiled by fate, much tossed by land and sea,

By power divine and cruel Juno’s rage; Much, too, in war, he suffered, till he reared A city, and to Latium brought his godsHence sprung his Latin progeny, the kings Of Alba, and the walls of towering Rome.”

When I returned home with my book, and for some weeks after, my father had hands employed in clearing a new field. On Sundays, and at leisure hours I read to them, and never had a more attentive audience. At that point in the narrative, where AEneas discloses to Dido his purpose of leaving her, and tells her of the vision of Mercury bearing the mandate of Jove, one of the men sprang to his feet, declared he did not believe a word of that-he had got tired of her, and it was all a made up story as an excuse to be off-and it was a d-d shame after what she had done for him. So the reputation of AEneas suffered by that day’s reading.

Our next neighbors were Ephraim Cutler, Silvanus Ames, William Brown, a married son of the Captain; and, four or five miles distant, Nathan Woodbury, George Wolf, and Christopher Herrold-and about the same time, or a little later, Silas Dean, a rich old bachelor, Martin Boyles, and John and Samuel McCune. Mr. Cutler and my father purchased � Morse’s Geography,” the first edition, about 1800, for his oldest son, Charles, and myself-it in effect became my book, as Charles never used it, and I studied it most intently. By this, with such explanations as my father gave me, I acquired quite a competent knowledge of geography, and something of general history.

About this time the neighbors in our and the surrounding settlements, met and agreed to purchase books and to make a common library. They were all poor, and subscriptions small, but they raised in all about one hundred dollars. All my accumulated wealth, ten coon-skins, went into the fund, and Squire Sam. Brown, of Sunday creek, who was going to Boston, was charged with the purchase. After an absence of many weeks, he brought the books to Capt. Ben. Brown’s in a sack on a pack horse. I was present at the untying of the sack and pouring out of the treasure. There were about sixty volumes, I think, and well selected; the library of the Vatican was nothing to it, and there never was a library better read. This, with occasional additions, furnished me with reading while I remained at home.

We were quite fortunate in our schools. Moses Everett, a graduate of Yale, but an intemperate young man, who had been banished by his friends, was our first teacher; after him, Charles Cutler, a brother of Ephraim, and also a graduate of Yale. They were learned young men and faithful to their vocation. They boarded alternate weeks with their scholars, and made the winter evenings pleasant and instructive. After Barrows’ mill was built at the mouth of Federal creek, I being the mill boy, used to take my two-horse loads of grain in the evening, have my grist ground, and take it home in the morning. There was an eccentric person living near the mill whose name was Jones (we called him Doctor); he was always dressed in deer-skin, his principal vocation being hunting, and I always found him in the evening, in cool weather, lying with his feet to the fire. He was a scholar, banished no doubt for intemperance; he had books, and finding my fancy for them, had me read to him, while he lay drying his feet. He was fond of poetry, and did something to correct my pronunciation and prosody. Thus, the excessive use of alcohol was the indirect means of furnishing me with school teachers.

My father entertained the impression that I would one day be a scholar, though quite unable to lend me any pecuniary aid. I grew up with the same impression until, in my nineteenth year, I almost abandoned hope. On reflection, however, I determined to make one effort to earn the means to procure an education. Having got the summer’s work well disposed of, I asked of my father leave to go for a few months and try my fortune. He consented, and I set out on foot next morning, made my way through the woods to the Ohio river, got on a keel boat as a hand at small wages, and in about a week landed at Kanawha salines. I engaged and went to work at once, and in three months satisfied myself that I could earn money slowly but surely, and on my return home in December, 1809, I went to Athens and spent three months there as a student, by way of testing my capacity. I left the academy in the spring with a sufficiently high opinion of myself, and returned to Kanawha to earn money to complete my education. This year I was successful, paid off some debts which troubled my father, and returned home and spent the winter with the new books which had accumulated in the library, which, with my father’s aid, I read to much advantage. I went to Kanawha the third year, and after a severe summer’s labor I returned home with about six hundred dollars in money, but sick and exhausted. Instead, however, of sending for a physician, I got Don Quixote, a recent purchase, from the library, and laughed myself well in about ten days. I then went to Athens, entered as a regular student, and continued my studies there till the spring of 1815, when I left, a pretty good though an irregular scholar. During my academic term I went to Gallipolis and taught school a quarter and studied French.* I found my funds likely to fall short, and went a fourth time to Kanawha, where, in six weeks, I earned one hundred and fifty dollars, which I thought would suffice, and returned to my studies; after two years’ rest the severe labor in the salines this time went hard with me.

After finishing my studies at Athens, I read Blackstone’s Commentaries at home, and in July, 1815, went to Lancaster to study law. A. B. Walker, then a boy of about fifteen years, accompanied me to Lancaster to bring back my horse, and I remained and studied law with Gen. Beecher. I was admitted to the bar in August, 1816, after fourteen months’ very diligent study-the first six months about sixteen hours a day.

“July 17th, 1815. County of Athens to Thomas Ewing, Dr. To surveying and protracting the above road, including chain carriers, axemen, &c. $4 10”

Mr. Ewing says he was, an leaving college, “a pretty good, though an irregular scholar.” The extent of his education is somewhat shown by the following extract from the records of the Ohio university:

“May 3d, 1815. The committee appointed by the board of trustees to examine Thomas Ewing and John Hunter, candidates far a degree of bachelor of arts and sciences, beg leave to report:

That they have examined the applicants aforesaid in the different branches of literature, viz; in grammar, rhetoric, the languages, natural and moral philosophy, logic, astronomy, geography, and the various branches of mathematics, and that they have witnessed with much gratification the proficiency made by the before named students. They therefore report the following resolutions:

1. Resolved, That the said Thomas Ewing and John Hunter merit the approbation of the board of trustees, and that they are each entitled to a degree of bachelor of arts and sciences.

2. That the president be authorized and required to inform the said Thomas Ewing and John Hunter that they are each so entitled to such degree in this seminary, and your committee recommend that the same be conferred.

3. That the secretary of the board deliver to the said Thomas Ewing and John Hunter each a copy of these resolutions.


Report accepted.”

I made my first speech at Circleville, the November following. Gen. Beecher first gave me slander case to study and prepare. I spent much time with it, but time wasted, as the cause was continued the first day of the court. He then gave me a case of contract, chiefly in depositions, which I studied diligently, but that also was continued; a few minutes afterward a case was called, and Gen. Beecher told me that was ready-the jury was sworn, witnesses called, and the cause went on. In the examination of one of the witnesses, I thought I discovered an important fact not noticed by either counsel, and I asked leave to cross-examine further. I elicited the fact which was decisive of the case. This gave me confidence. I argued the cause closely and well, and was abundantly congratulated by the members of the bar who were present.

My next attempt was in Lancaster. Mr. Sherman, father of the general, asked me to argue a cause of his, which gave room for some discussion. I had short notice, but was quite successful, and, the cause being appealed, Mr. Sherman sent his client to employ me with him. I had as yet got no fees, and my funds were very low. This November I attended the Athens court. I had nothing to do there, but met an old neighbor, Elisha Alderman, who wanted me to go to Marietta, to defend his brother, a boy, who was to be tried for larceny. It was out of my intended beat, but I wanted business and fees, and agreed to go for $25, of which I received $10 in hand. I have had several fees since of $10,000 and upwards, but never one of which I felt the value, or in truth as valuable to me as this. I went, tried my boy, and he was convicted, but the court granted a new trial. On my way to Marietta at the next term I thought of a ground of excluding the evidence, which had escaped me on the first trial. It was not obvious, but sound. I took it, excluded the evidence and acquitted my client. This caused a sensation. I was employed at once in twelve penitentiary cases, under indictment at that term, for making and passing counterfeit money, horse stealing and perjury. As a professional man my fortune was thus briefly made.

While pursuing his studies, Mr. Ewing was also occasionally employed by the commissioners of Athens county as a surveyor, to run country roads, and such entries as the following appear in the records of that period

“March 7th, 1814. A petition signed by George Ewing and others, praying for a road, beginning at the Thirty-One mile tree in Ames township, on the state road; thence passing through the west part of Amos Linscott’s improvement, to the mouth of Ewing’s run; thence to intersect the Lancaster road near Abel Glazier’s. Read in open meeting. Order issued.”

“March 8th. The commissioners appoint Thomas Ewing surveyor, and jehiel Gregory, Jr., John White, and Stephen Pilcher viewers of said road, to meet at the house of jno. Brown, Esq., in Ames township, on Monday, March 21, at 10 o’clock, A. M.”

“June 8th, 1814. County of Athens to Thomas Ewing, Dr. To surveying, protracting, etc., the above road, 11 days, at $1 50 per day. (Paid.)”

“June 6th, 1815. The Board appointed George Walker, John Brown 2d, and Ezra Green viewers, and Thomas Ewing surveyor of the road petitioned for by Elisha Alderman and others, in Ames township.”

Back to: Ames, Athens County, Ohio History

Back to: Athens County, Ohio

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