On the Old Bay Road going toward Ipswich, Massachusetts, now 1A North of Boston, a roadside marker identifies the site where the first covered wagon set off from Massachusetts to the West. The marker came courtesy of the Massachusetts Tercentenary Commission. In 1930, upon the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Bay Colony, and with leadership of renown Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, the commission erected plaques to commemorate the deeds of Puritan settlers. Some tercentenary signs bear obvious relation to the site where they are posted: a meetinghouse stood here, an Indian attack occurred there. This one is not obvious. Why celebrate going West in so Eastern a place, a town with Atlantic-coast beach and clam-shack bona fides, a town founded by John Winthrop Jr., and renamed “Hamilton” in the 1790s in honor of the Federalist Treasury Secretary? Furthermore, what is the marker doing right in front of a New England church, white steeple and all?
The church has everything to do with those wagons going west. Setting those wagons forth was Manasseh Cutler (1742-1843), a Congregational minister educated at Yale, who served for decades at this church in Ipswich (turned Hamilton) Massachusetts. One of those do-all men in the generation of the American Revolution, he was a chaplain in the war, ran a school, supplemented his ministry with law and medicine, served in the Congress of the early United States, and made observations in astronomy and botany that earned him appointment to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In the 1780s Cutler and his Ohio Company of Associates, veterans of the Revolution, negotiated with Congress for a tract of land in the Northwest Territory. Deciding how to organize that territory was one of the signal achievements of the Articles of Confederation government. The Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance (1787) established a process to bring territories to statehood in an orderly fashion, and to settle these midwestern lands with public education and without slavery.
Behold, the significance of the New England clergyman in the frontier history of America. In December 1787 the first of those Ohio Associates’ wagonloads assembled in front of Cutler’s church and set off. They made their way to the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers in April 1788, where they would found the town of Marietta, named after France’s Marie Antionette.
Just so, some who drive by the roadside marker in front of the Hamilton Congregational church might miss its magnitude. Driving across America presents many of these, claims to significance by places that might appear insignificant now, at least to casual passersby. But driving across America can drive home a key point of history 101 boilerplate, that America is not one lump but composed of states whose origin, settlement, chronology, and geography powerfully shape them and their relations to their neighbors.
Drivers, don’t fall asleep at the wheel.