Tiffin's Early History

On November 18th, 1817, Erastus Bowe arrived at Fort Ball, located on the left bank of the Sandusky River in what is now Tiffin. Bowe brought with him two other hired men. Together they erected a double log cabin - the first permanent log house within Seneca County. This building, the Pan Yan, stood in what is now the middle of North Washington Street. As a tavern and hotel, the Pan Yan offered respite to weary travelers. Thus began the settlement of what later became known as Tiffin and Seneca County.

Bowe had chosen the location for his venture while serving in the military during the War of 1812. When visiting the stockade of Fort Ball, the native Virginian recognized the potential of locating a stop-over point for travelers using the newly built military road between Upper and Lower Sandusky. Here was a perfect location for an inn, being one day’s travel from either location.

Not The First

Bowe was by no means the first white man to traverse the Sandusky area. As early as 1689-90 the French missionary, Father Pere Rasles, passed through the area. Rasles, a devout man and a scholar, spent his time converting and ministering to the Indians, eventually publishing a dictionary of the Abenaquis Indian language. He returned east and was killed during an attack upon the Indians by a British force in 1724 in New England.

The river’s name may well have been derived from one of the earlier visitors to the area. Many scholars believe that “Sandusky” is an Indian word (possibly meaning “cold water”). However, Jacob J. Greene writing on February 28, 1842 to the American Historical lournal suggested that “Sandusky” was not an Indian name but, rather, “... a Polish trader, by the name of Sandusky, or more properly spelt [sie] Sanduski [who] established himself near the present site of Lower Sandusky [Fremont], at the foot of the rapids of the river:”

According to the account, Sanduski fled the Sandusky valley after a violent quarrel with the Indians. A number of them hotly pursued him all the way back to Virginia and killed him.

In November, 1776, an Irish Tory, Capt. Matthew Elliott was forced by his loyalist convictions to move west, behind British lines. He was encamped along the Muskingum River with his Indian squaw wife and another man named John Leith. The three were surprised and overcome by a half dozen Indians who confiscated Elliott’s supplies. Luckily, he escaped and made his way through the Sandusky territory to Detroit. Elliott and another notorious figure of the Northwest Territory, Alexander McKee, were commissioned by the British as spies. There is little doubt that both men were present at the torture and burning of Colonel Crawford near Upper Sandusky a few years later.

In June, 1782, Col. William Crawford led a combined force of Virginians and Pennsylvanians northwest in an ill-fated campaign against the Wyandot stronghold at Upper Sandusky. John Leith (previously mentioned) was living with the Wyandots at that time. He packed his valuables and fled north away from Upper Sandusky so as to avoid the army. Leith was known to have camped along the Sandusky River fourteen miles above Upper Sandusky - perhaps the first white man to remain within Seneca County for any period of time. After the Revolutionary War, he returned to Pittsburgh, but a few years prior to his death in 1832, he again returned to Seneca County.

Between the Revolutionary War and the end of the War of 1812, many who traveled through the area were traders or in the military, most of whom never returned to settle. However, there was another group of white Americans who were important to the settling of this Sandusky River Valley, the captives. The treaty of the Miami of the Lake, negotiated in September, 1817 gives information of interest to county historians, for within the provisions of the document are the names of the Indian captives who were to be freed. Many of them had intermarried with the Indians and, rather than return east, became among the first citizens of Seneca County.

The Beginning

It was two months after this treaty was signed that Erastus Bowe built his cabin at the edge of the Sandusky River. When it was complete, Bowe went back to Delaware County, Ohio, to gather his family and possessions. In June, 1818, he returned to the Pan Yan with his wife and newborn son, Erastus G. Bowe. The settlement began to grow.
In 1819, Paul D. Butler erected the first saw-mill in the county -- just a few hundred yards south of Bowe’s tavern, near the intersection of what is now Miami Street and Frost Parkway.

In 1819, Joseph Vance surveyed a town nearby the Pan Yan Tavern on land that had been granted to Robert Armstrong, a former captive of the Wyandot Indians. Armstrong had served as an interpreter for the United States army during the War of 1812, and was rewarded for his valuable service with six hundred and forty acres of land along the west bank of the Sandusky River. This became known as the Armstrong Reservation. Both the Pan Yan Tavern and the newly conceived town of Oakley were situated on the reservation.

Oakley, itself, was very small, extending from approximately where the railroad bridge now stands, south just beyond North Monroe Street and west from the river’s edge about 150 yards. Oakley changed hands in October, 1823. Four hundred and four acres and the one or two cabins became the property of Jesse Spencer for a grand total of $3,000. The deed from Armstrong to Spencer was approved and signed by President James Monroe, himself.

Tiffin Appears On The Map

Technically, the history of Tiffin does not date from 1817. Erastus Bowe’s home, Fort Ball and Butler’s mill were all located on the left bank of the river. The right side of the river did not see the first permanent cabin until about four years after Bowe’s Pan Yan. In 1821, the first cabin was built in what later became Tiffin. But, by that time Oakley was all absorbed by Fort Ball.

In 1822, Josiah Hedges built the first frame house and saw mill on the Tiffin side of the river near the juncture of Rock (“Rocky”) Creek. He named his settlement after his good friend and Ohio’s first governor, Edward Tiffin. Bitter feelings soon surfaced between the two communities on the opposing banks of the river. Tiffin, at this time, had very little to offer as compared to Oakley-Fort Ball. Hedges practically had to give land away to induce settlement. The elite settled in Fort Ball, while Tiffin just barely survived.

Hedges, not wanting to fail, soon managed to have Tiffin declared the county seat. Some charged that it was through bribery of the county commissioners that Hedges succeeded. Whatever the circumstances, the rivalry became very heated with Spencer and his village of Fort Ball geographically and politically opposing Hedges and Tiffin on the other side of the river.

Among one of the points of contention was a brush dam built by Spencer to hold back the river water for his saw mill. Hedges claimed that the east end of the dam was anchored to his property. In 1823, Hedges hired a crew with picks and shovels to dig a channel circumventingl the Tiffin end of the dam. The channel worked, as the pent-up river water flowed around the end of the dam, destroying its usefulness. Late in the year, Hedges was served a summons accusing him of willful damage to Spencer’s saw mill. After much wrangling, the lawsuit was settled with the court finding for Spencer and awarding him $8.00 damages plus court costs of $26.75.

Even the purchase of Fort Ball by Hedges a few years later failed to allay the sentiment. But the early feelings of ill will between the two communities were nothing compared to the fever-heat that erupted in 1829.

Upon the purchase of Fort Ball, Hedges immediately relocated the post office from the Miami Street area to the Tiffin side of the Sandusky. Jacob Plane, a friend of Hedges, was named the new postmaster. A great howl arose from the citizens of Fort Ball. All kinds of charges and curses were leveled against Hedges, but to no avail. The post office was to remain permanently in Tiffin, ensuring its survival.

As of 1833, the population of Tiffin barely numbered 400 souls. By 1840 it had reached 728, and twenty years later there numbered 2,718 residents in Tiffin - quite an astounding population for this part of the country at that time.

For more than fifteen years there was no bridge to span the river between the two communities. The only way to cross was by ferry. In 1833, Hedges, seeing new opportunities, contracted with a local carpenter, Reuben Williams, to build a wooden bridge. So it was that the first toll bridge appeared the following year at the site of the present Washington Street bridge.

Later that fall, a heavy rain flooded the Sandusky. The swollen river carried with it a large number of trees and a part of another bridge located a few miles upstream. Hedges bridge could not stand under the onslaught of the flood and was soon swept away. Hedges, not to be undone, replaced the destroyed structure with a stronger bridge the following summer.

Although the toll bridge was a great convenience, towns-people chaffed at the idea of having to pay to cross. A public subscription of $2,200 was raised, and on February 18, 1837, the first free bridge opened, spanning the river at Market Street. Being a covered structure, the new bridge was quite dark at night. After numerous protests by the ladies of the community, who refused to cross it after dusk, lanterns were soon placed at either end. Hedges, finding toll collections had been cut to nothing, soon quit charging for the use of his Washington Street bridge.

Not only did Tiffin begin to outstrip Fort Ball in population in the 1830’s, but most businesses soon clustered around the public square along Washington Street. The town of Tiffin was officially incorporated on March 7, 1835 by an act of the state. The incorporating act provided, among other things, for the limits of taxation, for the use by the town of the county jail, for the building of streets and sidewalks, and for the purchase of fire apparatus. Little interest was shown in self-government, however, and the first elections were not held until June, 1836 when Dr. H. Kuhn was chosen as the first mayor of the town.

The community got a big boost when the first railroad reached Tiffin in 1841. A spur of the Mad River Railroad, it was one of many lines that eventually ran through the city, including, among others, the Cincinnati, Sandusky and Cleveland Railroad; the Tiffin, Toledo and Eastern Railroad; the Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Chicago Railroad; the Lake Erie and Louisville Line; and The Pomeroy Road.

Meanwhile, Fort Ball grew very little. As late as 1848, Fort Ball had no government of its own. Finally, on March 13, 1849, the state legislature passed a resolution allowing for the election of town officers and fixing the boundary of the village. Jacob Flaugher was elected Fort Ball’s first and only mayor. His term was short-lived. Fort Ball ceased to exist in 1850 with its inclusion in the incorporation of the City of Tiffin on March 23 of that year. William Lang became the first mayor of the united towns. Tiffin was on its way.

. Photographs from
Tiffin's 1913 Flood

C. 1999, Boroff Publication Services, Tiffin, Ohio 44883-1644