Perhaps I should have asked a third-grader to write this column, as they study Jonathan Alder and local history every year, and when the Madison County Historical Society makes its annual visits to their classrooms. I am always amazed at how much they know.
But for the rest of us, I’ll do my best.
Jonathan Alder was born in Gloucester, New Jersey, just a few miles south of Philadelphia, on Sept. 17, 1773. His parents were Bartholomew and Hannah Worthington Alder. In 1775 the family moved to Wythe County, Virginia, on the western frontier. Bartholomew died in 1779, leaving his wife and five sons. John, the oldest, was a half-brother from his father’s first marriage. Then came David, Jonathan, Mark and Paul.
In March of 1782, David, then 16, and Jonathan, who was 9, went out to look for a mare and colt that were missing. They found the animals at about the same time a group of Indians from Ohio found them. David ran, shouting to his little brother to do the same, but Jonathan was so frightened he could not move, and one of the Indians grabbed him. David was struck in the back by a spear and later scalped.
After a week of traveling by foot, they reached the Big Sandy River, where the Indians made canoes that carried them down that river to the Ohio. Once across the Ohio, the Indians built a camp where the group rested for two weeks before moving further into the Ohio territory. Heading for their home village near what is now Upper Sandusky, they followed the trail that we call Plain City-Georgesville Road and Chillicothe Street. The Indians spent several weeks hunting on the Darby Plains, a favorite hunting ground for all the tribes in the territory.
They eventually traveled to a village of the Mingo tribe on the Mad River, in or near what is now Logan County. Here Alder was made to run a gauntlet, and was later adopted into the tribe. His father was a man named Succohanes, his mother Whinecheoh. They had three daughters, Hannah, Sally and Mary. Their son had died, and so they had asked to be allowed to adopt Jonathan in place of him.
Succohanes was of the Mingo tribe, and Whinecheoh was Shawnee, so Jonathan learned both languages in his new home. As there were a number of Delawares in the village, he also learned that language. Despite being very well treated by his new family and the others in the village, Jonathan never forgot his family in Virginia, and every day from the first year of his captivity he managed to spend some time alone to mourn for them.
Jonathan Alder lived with the Indians until 1795, the year that the Treaty of Greenville was signed. He married an Indian woman named Barshaw, who was a sister of the chief Big Turtle. They settled along the Big Darby a little south of Plain City’s present location. They later moved north along the creek, and were living there when Benjamin Springer and his family moved to the area in 1796. In 1798, James and Joshua Ewing and their families arrived, and more settlers followed.
Barshaw did not like living so close to the settlers, and eventually they decided to separate. She went to live in Upper Sandusky.
Because of his ability to speak both English and the Indian languages, Alder was often called upon to settle disputes between the two groups. Joshua Ewing had brought the first sheep into the area, and one day an Indian passing by was gazing at these strange creatures when his dog attacked and killed one. Mr. Ewing shot the dog, and both came to Alder demanding that the other pay for their loss. As translator, Alder knew that he could not tell either man exactly what the other was saying, and managed to smooth things over by convincing both that the animals were of equal value and they were even.
In the early 1800s Alder met a man named John Moore and they became partners in hunting. Moore asked Alder what he could remember of his family and home in Virginia, and made inquiries when he went to Virginia himself. He learned nothing, and Alder decided that it was no use searching any further. About six months later, Alder received a letter from his brother Paul, saying that all of his brothers and his mother were still alive. In November 1805 Alder and Moore set out for Virginia, and arrived at Paul Alder’s home in early January 1806. Jonathan Alder did not reveal his identity at first, but when he did, he received a warm and joyous welcome. His mother, when she could speak, said, “Jonathan, how you have grown!”
While in Virginia, Alder met and married Mary Blount, and late in August they and several members of his family journeyed back to central Ohio. On their return, they built a new cabin near the Foster Chapel along Big Darby. The cabin is now on display at the Madison County Historical Society in London.
Jonathan and Mary Blount Alder had 12 children, and he remained a much respected member of the community for the rest of his life. He died on Jan. 30, 1849, at the age of 75 and is buried at the Foster Chapel Cemetery.
In Alder’s later years, his children persuaded him to write an account of his life. The original was lost, but his son Henry was able to recreate much of it from memory. In 2002, Larry L. Nelson published “A history of Jonathan Alder: His captivity and life with the Indians” (University of Akron Press), based on Henry’s account, which ought to be required reading for every citizen of Plain City.
Rosemary Anderson is the vice president of the Plain City Historical Society.