John May.

The western journals of John May, Ohio Company agent and business adventurer online

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Edited by




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The Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio was founded in Columbus in
1831, and removed to Cincinnati in 1849, there uniting with the Cincinnati His-
torical Society. It is privately sustained and controlled.

The Society is devoted to the early history of the Western Waters, the Old
Northwest Territory, and the State of Ohio; the comprehensive history, early
and recent, of the region lying within a hundred-mile radius of Cincinnati.




CIoi.oNEi. John May

Oil porlrail on canvas. Executed by Chrislian (.'nlla.^ei. 178'J. Coiirlc.'.y.
Anwrican Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.




Ohio Company Agent

Business Adventurer


Edited and with an Introduction



Professor of History
Miami University

Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio

Copyright 1961 by the

Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio,

Cincinnati, Ohio







John May, a prominent merchant of Boston and a patriot of the
American Revolution, became interested in the opening of the Ohio
country after the war. A group of like-minded veterans organized
the Ohio Company of Associates, purchased a tract of land from
Congress, and planted the first official permanent American settle-
ment in the Northwest Territory, established by the Ordinance of

To further his own interests as well as those of the company,
May made two journeys to the West. He kept detailed day by day
journals of both the 1788 and 1789 trips. These valuable pieces of
Americana have been published previously; but one is a rare book,
and neither is readily accessible.

This is not a new edition or a reprint. In both cases the jour-
nals published were not the original manuscripts themselves. The
1788 journal as it appeared was a twice-edited version of an edited
copy of the original manuscript. Given the editorial whims and
standards of former days, the uneven resemblance of the published
version to the original journal itself is not surprising. A similar situ-
ation prevails in the case of the 1789 journal. The footnotes for the
1788 document, inadequate and too few, were themselves twice-
edited versions of the originals that were initially prepared by an-
other person. In the publication of the 1789 journal, footnotes of
any sort were virtually non-existent.

Such circumstances render the printed journals unreliable for
serious use as historical documents or for pleasurable reading. His-
torical detective work has uncovered evidence and proof of the
details of what has happened. It is obligatory to present, adequately
explained and edited, either the original texts or as near to the
original texts as it is possible to obtain. That is the purpose of this

A few years ago the Historical and Philosophical Society of
Ohio at Cincinnati acquired manuscripts represented as the John
May journals of 1788 and 1789. Were these the originals or copies?
This and other questions were posed by Mr. Lee Shepard and Mr.


Virginius Hall, the late editor and the late director of the Society,
respectively. The memory of their insatiable interest in the project
has been a constant source of inspiration. Mrs. Alice Hook, libra-
rian, has gone to great pains to make the full research facilities of
the Society available for my use, as well as the services of Mrs.
Juanita Nelson and Mr. Robert Herron who laboriously transcribed
the manuscripts in the initial stage of the project.

Research grants from Miami University and from the Ameri-
can Philosophical Society have been of very material aid.

Through the helpful cooperation of the following staff mem-
bers, the research facilities of their institutions, especially access to
manuscript sources, were made available for my use: Mr. Clifford
Shipton of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massa-
chusetts; Miss Harriet Swift of the Rare Books Department, Boston
Public Library; Mrs. Edith S. Reiter of Campus Martins Museum,
Marietta, Ohio; Mr. Richard Waddle of Marietta College Library;
Mr. Leo Flaherty of the Archives Division, Commonwealth of
Massachusetts, Boston; Mr. Stephen T. Riley of the Massachusetts
Historical Society, Boston; Mrs. Elizabeth R. Martin, Mr. John
Weatherford (presently of Miami University), and Mr. Henry
Caren of the Ohio Historical Society, Columbus; Mr. Donald H.
Kent and Mr. William Hunter of the Pennsylvania Historical and
Museum Commission, Harrisburg; Mr. Clarkson A. Collins, 3rd, of
the Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence; the staff of the
Archives of the Supreme Judicial Court of Suffolk County, Boston ;
and Mrs. Alene Lowe White of the Western Reserve Historical
Society, Cleveland, Ohio.

Staffs of the following libraries offered helpful suggestions and
made their general reference facilities available : John Carter Brown
Library, Brown University; Columbia University Library; Library
of Congress; Miami University Library; New England Genealogi-
cal and Historical Library, Boston; New York Public Library; The
Ohio State University Library; and the town library of Reading,

Mr. Orton Loring Clark of Amherst, Massachusetts, Mr.
Edward L. Edes of North Amherst, Massachusetts, Mrs. Annie E.
Gardner of New Harbor, Maine, and Miss Margaret Roys of
Woodbury, Connecticut, who are descendents of May or related to


descendents by marriage, made family papers accessible and offered
many suggestions.

Miss Gerrie Ann Robinson has painstakingly typed the final
draft of my manuscript for publication. My role has been immeas-
urably more pleasant because my wife, Jane D. Smith, has shared
in the drudgery of the meticulous collating and proofreading neces-
sary in dealing with manuscripts of the sort that make up the prin-
cipal part of this volume.

Oxford, Ohio Dwight L. Smith





PART one: The Journal of 1788

I The Journey West, 1788 25

II Marietta Pioneer and Ohio Company Official 48

III Return to the East, 1788 70

PART two: The Journal of 1789

IV The Journey West, 1789 85

V Freight Difficulties and Reconnaissance 101

VI Merchant in the West 131

VII Return to the East, 1789 157





CoLONEL John May piece

Oil portrait on canvas. Executed by Christian Gul-
lager, 1789. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society,
Worcester, Massachusetts.

"A Map of the Northern and Middle States" 53

Map belonging to John May which he may have car-
ried on his journeys. Mounted on canvas in two rows
of four sections each. Reproduced here are the two
center sections of the bottom row. Courtesy, Rare
Book Department, Boston Public Library.

Manuscript Journal Entry for May 22, 1789 101

This includes one of several paragraphs that May
puts into code.

Campus Martius 149

House of John May in extreme left foreground. From
Samuel P. Hildreth, Pioneer History (Cincinnati,
1848). Courtesy, Campus Martius Museum, Mari-
etta, Ohio.



During the American Revolution, offering bounties of land for
enlistment and service was a rather common practice. This was not
strange since money was scarce and unsettled land existed in abund-
ance. These bounty lands belonged to some of the colony-states by
virtue of their charters from the English government, and generally
lay between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

With some exceptions, the trans- Appalachian country was sur-
rendered to the United States when a new government was created
during the war under the Articles of Confederation. The area was
to be encouraged to grow and develop into new states. Two of the
exceptions to the claims that were surrendered have bearing on the
subject at hand. Connecticut kept a 120-mile strip between Lake
Erie and the forty-first parallel in present northeastern Ohio which
came to be known as the Western Reserve. Virginia retained the
land title to present south central Ohio between the Scioto and Lit-
de Aliami rivers to use in case she did not have enough to satisfy
her own bounty-land commitments elsewhere. Therefore, the land
west of the mountains and north of the Ohio River most immedi-
ately available for distribution lay east of the Scioto River, and
south of the Western Reserve. This area was more attractive be-
cause the deeper one went into the western wilderness the more
pronounced was Indian opposition to white encroachment and the
more evident was the English retention of military posts and con-
trol of the fur trade.

Another complication had to be reckoned with. Even before
the Revolution, colonists began to cross the mountains in defiance
of the Indians, and to settle along the streams of the upper Ohio
Valley. Indeed, in the mid-eighteenth ccntur)-, a Virginia Ohio com-
pany had been chartered to foster development of the region at the
forks of the Ohio River and below (westward) . Most of the intrepid
pioneers, however, were not sponsored by any formal company, but
were motivated by their own desires and circumstances. These
squatters, as they were sometimes designated, began to move down


the Ohio River, Their illegal settlements become so numerous and
extensive, a situation to be repeated on each successive American
frontier, that the government felt impelled to check them with
force. There is some evidence that a statehood movement was afoot
in 1785. Fort Pitt-based military expeditions only removed some of
the squatters temporarily. To stem the tide and better control the
situation an army post was placed in the heart of the squatter coun-
try. Fort Harmar was erected in 1785 at the mouth of the Mus-
kingum River. Squatter settlement made it difficult for systematic
development and deprived the government of land sales sorely
needed as a source of revenue. It also increased the friction with the
Indians who resented encroachment on lands they regarded as in-
violably theirs. The squatter situation made it urgent for the gov-
ernment to evolve a working arrangement for orderly opening and
growth of its new national domain. The patterns for this were
established in the Ordinance of 1785 and the Ordinance of 1787.
Of considerable consequence to later developments was the
so-called Newburgh petition of 1783, signed by nearly three hun-
dred army officers, and presented, through George Washington, to
the Congress.^ Based on congressional resolutions of 1776 and after
to give land bounties for enlistments, it requested Congress to set
aside a tract suitable for statehood development, and purchasable
by bounty certificate holders. Specifically, it suggested the area of
present southeastern Ohio. In a letter of transmittal. Brigadier Gen-
eral Rufus Putnam of Massachusetts elaborated on the ideas con-
tained in the petition.^ He asked for provision to permit similarly
inclined soldiers to band together in groups or associations for the
purchase of tracts of land. This is an early expression of an idea
later put into tangible form by the Ohio Company of Associates.
Putnam continued to act as the chief lobbyist of the Newburgh

^The document is in Archer Butler Hulbert (ed.), The Records of the Origi-
nal Proceedings of the Ohio Company (2 vols., Marietta, 1917), I, xxvi-xxviii.
Hulbert's introduction to these volumes is the most extensive and satisfactory
history of the Ohio Company of Associates. Hereafter cited as Hulbert, Ohio

^Putnam to Washington, June 16, 1783, in Archer Butler Hulbert (ed.), Ohio
in the Time of the Confederation (Marietta, 1918), 56-64. This volume also
contains many other relevant documents.


petition before the members of Congress. Meanwhile, when survey
in the Ohio countr\' began under the Ordinance of 1785, Putnam,
a professional surveyor, was appointed the Massachusetts represen-
tative on the survey party. When assigned to another project by his
state, he was replaced by a friend and like-minded person. Briga-
dier General Benjamin Tupper. Both had the opportunity to make
careful estimate of the West as to possibiUties and desirability for

In early 1786, Putnam and Tupper compared notes and the
Ohio Company idea began to take shape in their minds. A formal
announcement appeared in the newspapers of January and Febru-
ary.* After a brief favorable comment on the Ohio country it in-
vited interested veterans of the Revolution to pool their resources to
form an association for the purpose of purchasing land in that
region. In consequence of this announcement the now famous
March 1, 1786, meeting was held at the Bunch of Grapes Tavern
in Boston.^ A formal organization, styled the Ohio Company of
Associates, was effected.

To better understand John May's role in this venture, it is
necessary to explain some of the details of the structure and activi-
ties of the company. Its capital was subscribed through the sale of
one thousand dollar shares with five shares as the maximum any one
person could buy. This was to apply to the purchase of lands in the
Ohio country under the general provisions of the Ordinance of 1785
and to promote a settlement there. Subscribers to twenty shares
constituted a "grand division" of the company. Each division
appointed an agent who was responsible for the transaction of busi-
ness for the subscribers in the division. Collectively the agents chose
the directors, treasurer, and secretary of the company." Thus the
agent was an important functionary.

On October 27, 1787, the Ohio Company of Associates re-
ceived a formal contract from Congress for several million acres of

^See letter, Putnam to Congress, June 11, 1785. in ibid., 110-111. See also 111-

113, note 64.

^Printed in Hulbcrt, Ohio Company, I, 1-4.

^Proceedings, ibid., I, 4-6.

^Articles of agreement, ibid., I, 6-1 1.


land along the Ohio River west of the seventh and east of the
seventeenth ranges of townships to be surveyed under the Ordi-
nance of 1785.^ That winter advance parties left Massachusetts
and Connecticut for the West. In western Pennsylvania they joined
forces, built boats, and went down the Ohio. At the mouth of the
Muskingum, opposite Fort Harmar, the Ohio Company of Asso-
ciates established a settlement later known as Marietta.

John May was one of the agents of the company. The origi-
nal party arrived at its destination in the Ohio country a week be-
fore May left Boston, and it was not until May 26 that he reached
the place. His name appears in the company records as early as
November 21, 1787.^ From this mention as an agent and from
other references in later records, it can be assumed that he was one
of the movers in the venture from almost the beginning.

John May, of English ancestry, was born in Pomfret, Connec-
ticut, on November 24, 1748, and died in Boston on July 16, 1812.®
According to family tradition he served an apprenticeship with a
relative in Boston, and subsequently went into business for himself.
He married and lived, except for a few years in Portland, Maine,^°
in Boston.

Evidence is abundant that May was prominent in civic affairs.
He served as a fire warden for Boston, 1785-1805, and as a select-
man, 1804-1812. The Boston town records and those of the select-

^Contract, ibid., I, 29-37.

^List of agents, ibid., I, 22,

^For details of the May family history, see Samuel May, John W. May, and
John J. May, A Genealogy of the Descendants of John May Who Came from
England to Roxbury in America, 1640 (Boston, 1878). See especially pp. 4,
10-11, and 51.

A biographical sketch of May is in Bayard Tuckerman, Notes on the
Tucker man Family of Massachusetts and Some Allied Families (Boston, 1914) ,
56-57. See also Richard S. Edes, "Letters and Journal of Col. John May, of
Boston," New England Historical and Genealogical Register and Antiquarian
Journal, XXVII (1873), 14-15. Brief obituaries may be found in Columbian
Centinel. Massachusetts Federalist (Boston), July 18, 1812; Independent
Chronicle (Boston), July 20, 1812; and Boston Gazette, July 20, 1812.

^°For example, evidence given in deed, John May to Joseph May, Portland,
May 25, 1792, MS in Winthrop Sargent papers, Massachusetts Historical
Society. Portland documents also occur in the John May papers, Western
Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland.


men contain literally scores of references to his many civic and
military activities. He was a man of affluence, a merchant and
shipper who owned considerable property, including a wharf
known as May's Wharf or Union Wharf.^^

There is ample proof of his patriotic activities. Just how early
he began to participate in such things is difficult to ascertain; but
his name is listed as one of the Sons of Liberty who dined at Liberty
Tree in Dorchester on August 14, 1769. He was also in the band of
patriots who relegated Boston's consignment of East India Com-
pany tea to the depths of Boston harbor the night of December 16,

When the hated British redcoats returned to Boston following
the clashes with the colonists at Lexington and Concord in mid-
April 1775, patriots came from miles around to bottle them up in
the city. With the aid of a friendly British naval officer whom he
knew, Alay escaped with his family from the besieged city by boat
and under cover of darkness. He moved his family back to his
native town of Pomfret, Connecticut, where they lived until the

"Richard S. Edes (comp.), "Colonel John May: Journal Kept by Him dur-
ing a Tour to the Ohio Country in 1788," 9. This unpublished MS is discussed
in detail elsewhere.

The town records for 1778-1783 were published by the Boston Record
Commissioners (Boston, 1895); and for 1784- 1796 and 1796-1813 by the Boston
Registry' Department (Boston, 1903 and 1905). The selectmen's minutes for
1776-1786 and 1787-1798 were published by the Boston Record Commission-
ers (Boston, 1894 and 1896); and for 1799-1810 and 181 1-1818 by the Boston
Registr)' Department (Boston, 1904 and 1908). See passim in each of these
seven volumes.

Other evidence is found in the legal records in the Court Files, Archives
of the Supreme Judicial Court of SufTolk County, Massachusetts; business
papers in the Caleb Davis papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; hundreds
of business papers in the John May papers, Western Reserve Historical Society.
In the latter is the "Inventory and Appraisement" of his estate, August 14,
1812, which contains detailed lists including the contents of his library.

^•ProcecdinQS of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1st series, XI (1869-
1870), 141"; 1st series, XIII (1873-1875), 185-186; Francis S. Drake, Tea
Leaves: Being a Collection of Letters and Documents Relating to the . . .
Boston Tea Party (Boston, 1884), cxxviii.

The Drake reference contains a version of a family tradition that still has
currency. S. A. M. Fdes, "Compiled by S. A. M. Edes for Marv ^Varren
Chapter D. [A.] R. Read March 8, 1899," (unpublished MS), 4. Typescript in
possession of Marparet Roys, Woodbur)-, Connecticut. Also letters to the editor
from members of the family.


redcoats evacuated Boston about a year later.^^

He became active in the military at least as early as March
1777, when his name appears in an army roster. In the autumn of
1778 he was commissioned as adjutant with the rank of captain in
a Boston militia regiment. He rose in rank and achieved full colo-
nelcy in 1787. Within this time he saw service under the French
Comte de Rochambeau in Rhode Island and received special com-
mendation in a letter from Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin
to General Washington.^'*

After the Revolution, May continued as a prominent business
man and civic leader in Boston. When a group of New England
veterans promoted the Ohio Company of Associates venture, he

^^Richard S. Edes, Journal and Letters of Col. John May, of Boston, Relative
to Two Journeys to the Ohio Country in 1788 and '89 (Cincinnati, 1873), 12.

^^"A Return of Men Inlisted into the Continental Army [1777]," MS in the
William Heath papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

The "Colo John Mays Orderly Book," as it is labeled, has many pages
missing. (Richard S. Edes noted the missing pages when he was copying
items from this book. See Edes, Hh Excerpts. Copybook owned by Edward
L. Edes, North Amherst, Massachusetts.) But it still contains two pages of 1776
orders. These shreds of evidence are not sufficient to determine if and what
his military position was at the time. This will be referred to hereafter as John
May, "Orderly Book." MS in the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio,

One biographical sketch (Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography,
IV, 272-273) claims that May "commanded his regiment" during Shays'
Rebellion which broke out in 1786. The manuscript records of the Rebellion in
the Massachusettes Archives make no mention of May. In Boston Record
Commissioners, A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston,
Containing the Selectmen's Minutes from 1787 through 1798 (Boston, 1896),
12, however, it is stated that May requested the selectmen in 1787 to make
provisions for "90 Men detailed from the Boston Regiment to join the Forces
under the Command of Major General Lincoln." Since May was an officer in
the Boston Regiment and Lincoln put down the Rebellion, perhaps May par-

Letters received from his family while he was in service in Rhode
Island as well as miscellaneous military records are in the John May papers,
Western Reserve Historical Society. See also Edes, "Letters and Journal of
Col. John May, of Boston," 15; May, Genealogy, lOn.; and Proceedings of the
Massachusetts Historical Society, 1st series, XIII, 185-186. Other details of his
military career are in the Tuckerman papers in possession of Orton Loring
Clark, Amherst, Massachusetts; Massachusetts, Secretary of the Common-
wealth, Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War (17
vols., Boston, 1896-1908) , X, 378.


became actively engaged as a stockholder, agent, and landholder."
To further his own as well as the Ohio Company's fortunes, he
journeyed west in 1788 and again in 1789. Although he erected
the first frame house in Marietta, cultivated a garden there, parti-
cipated in the organization of the settlement, and carried on a con-
siderable merchandising business, he never settled there. Opposition
from his wife and family is given as the principal reason."' It Ls
probable, though, after two attempts to establish a successful busi-
ness in the West, he concluded that the advantages of the new
country for a merchant did not outweigh those of Boston. At any
rate, his interest in the Ohio venture continued for several years
after this decision and he still owned land there at the time of his
death in 1812.^'

May kept meticulously detailed journals on both the 1788
and 1789 journeys from Boston to Marietta and return. Although
they have appeared before, in neither case was the original manu-
script itself the one published. Each journal was successively edited
through version after version until the one finally printed was a
garbled variation of the original. This was not because of any mali-
cious intent of those involved; but it is understandable. Considering
the purpose, the circumstances, the canons of nineteenth centur)'
editing, and the limitations of the editors themselves, it is not at all
surprising that scrutiny and close examination reveal discrepancies.
Involved are not only minor changes of capitalization, spelling, and
punctuation, but also serious variances such as omission, substitu-
tion, and rearrangement of words and phrases and clauses, omis-
sion and addition of sentences and even paragraphs, and errors in

'^In addition to lots which he held in the immediate Marietta area, May was
also the original proprietor of Sections 23 and 30, Township 2, Range 13, and
Sections 2 and 3, Township 9, Range 16 in the Ohio Company purchase. Ohio
Company Land Plats MS in the Campus Martius Museum, Marietta, Ohio.

i«S. A. M. Edes, "Compiled," 9.

^^Manuscripts of one sort or another which pertain to May's continued interest
and participation arc found, for example, in the Ohio Company records in the

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Online LibraryJohn MayThe western journals of John May, Ohio Company agent and business adventurer → online text (page 1 of 17)