Meet Worthington’s Settlers in Murals, Manuscripts and Gravestones

Wandering around Worthington, I’ve discovered works of art that commemorate my community’s history. 

Inside the Old Worthington Library, a six-by-forty-foot mural depicts the founding of Worthington. Three separate panels provide a panoramic view of Worthington’s development, with portraits of early community leaders shown on the separating columns. The panel on the east wall shows Worthington’s settlers clearing land, building log cabins and planting crops. One panel on the west wall commemorates President James Monroe’s visit to Worthington in 1817, while the other panel on the west wall provides an idea of what life was like in Worthington in 1842. Created by Louis P. Szanto and Andrew B. Karoly circa 1963, the murals originally hung in Bank One’s Worthington office.

More early Worthington history is artistically depicted inside the Worthington Post Office. “Scioto Company Settler,” a terra cotta relief showing a pioneer with an ox and buckeye branches, is the creation of Works Progress Administration artist Vernon Carlock.

Processing a manuscript collection at the Ohio Historical Society prompted my latest expedition to the village square to find more artistic representations of Worthington’s history.

The documents in MSS 1501 AV are a series of letters and other papers pertaining to the early history of Worthington. The items belonged to the families of James Kilbourn, the founder of Worthington, and Ezra Griswold, its first settler.

James Kilbourn (1770-1850) set out on his own at 16, accepted an apprenticeship at a weaving mill in Granby, Connecticut, and was tutored by his employer’s son. After three years, he became the mill’s manager and rose to prominence in the community. In 1800, Kilbourn became interested in forming a company to settle on land west of the Allegheny Mountains. He and seven others decided to explore the part of the country now known as Ohio, and, if they decided it would be beneficial to do so, to purchase land for 40 families to settle there. In the spring of 1802, Kilbourn left Connecticut and began his first expedition to Ohio, traveling 1,000 miles on foot through the wilderness. He returned to Connecticut the following autumn. Together with 40 members from Connecticut and Massachusetts, known as the Scioto Company, Kilbourn closed the contract for a township of 16,000 acres. On September 15, 1803, Kilbourn started for the West again, accompanied by other members of the group and their families. The village of “Worthington” consisted of 8,000 acres, surveyed into town lots for homes and businesses and surrounded by farm lots. The village was incorporated by the Ohio legislature on March 9, 1835. Kilbourn was elected its first mayor.

In addition to founding Worthington, Kilbourn established the Ohio cities of Bucyrus, Norton, Lockbourne and Sandusky. He served in the U.S. Congress during 1812 and 1814; was elected to the Ohio legislature in 1823, and again in 1838. He was also commissioned by the governor of Ohio to select the lands granted by Congress to the Ohio canal.

Kilbourn’s first wife, Lucy Fitch, died in 1807. In 1808, he married Cynthia Goodale. He had 11 children: Hector; Lucy; Harriet; Laura; Orrel and Byron (all from his first marriage); twins, Eliza and Cynthia; Lincoln; Charlotte; and James (all from his second marriage). Byron became a civil engineer, was instrumental in founding Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was a member of the legislature of that state. Kilbourn’s nephew, John, published the Ohio Gazetteer, a handbook for people in eastern states who wanted to migrate west. First published in Chillicothe in 1816, the Ohio Gazetteer provided information about the state’s topography and areas suitable for agriculture and settlement.

Ezra Griswold was Worthington’s first settler. Leaving Simsbury, Connecticut on September 15, 1803, Griswold, his wife Ruth, and their six children arrived in Worthington on October 26, 1803. Soon after his arrival, he opened the first public house in Worthington. His tavern, the Griswold Inn, was built in 1811. Located on the northeast corner of the village square (near the present-day intersection of Granville Road (Rt. 161) and High Street (Rt. 23)), the inn was the center of village social life and was a popular stopping place for travelers until it was razed in 1964.

Griswold also served as Worthington’s Justice of the Peace almost continuously from 1808 to 1821. As a justice, Griswold had the authority to perform marriages, write deeds, settle debtor claims, and administer oaths of office.

The Ohio Historical Society’s collection includes four examples of scrip notes, or “shinplasters,” signed by Ezra Griswold and dated between 1816 and 1819, for redemption at his tavern. Since cash was scarce on the frontier, local banks and businessmen like Griswold issued their own paper currency in small denominations to facilitate commerce. I’m partial to the printed property labels belonging to Mila Thompson, who married George Harlow Griswold, the son of Ezra and Ruth Griswold, in 1820, that can also be found in the collection. 

The collection also includes some documents pertaining to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington. The church was founded on February 6, 1804 and became the first Episcopal church established in the Northwest Territory. James Kilbourn was also an Episcopal minister, so he served as the church’s first deacon. The When two Scioto Company members, Abner Pinney and Levi Buttles, died within months of their arrival in Worthington, the graveyard at St. John’s Episcopal Church was established. The burial ground served as the community burial ground during the early 19th century.

Working on this collection prompted me to wander up to the Village Green and visit the cemetery located behind St. John’s present Gothic Revival-style church, which was dedicated in 1831. Walking among the headstones, I picked out several familiar names of Worthington settlers, including Levi Buttles; Ezra Griswold; Byron Kilbourn’s wife, Mary; and their daughter, Lucy. According to church staff, James Kilbourn has a marker in the cemetery, but is not buried there.

The cemetery also offers fine examples of gravestone epitaphs, inscriptions and symbols. Gravestone inscriptions can be categorized either as epitaphs or as inscriptions. Epitaphs offer biographical information about the deceased, while inscriptions often feature Biblical quotes or expressions of bereavement that tend to follow fashions in changing attitudes towards death.

Many of the gravestones are decorated with motifs that were popular during the early 19th century. Weeping willow trees suggest not only grief and sorrow, but also immortality, since the tree will flourish no matter how many branches are cut off. Masonic symbols include the all-seeing eye with rays of light and a square and compass with the letter “G.” The broken column symbolizes the end of life and life cut short.

For more information on the settling of Worthington, read New Englanders on the Ohio Frontier: The Migration and Settlement of Worthington, Ohio, by Virginia E. McCormick and Robert W. McCormick (The Kent State University Press, 1998), a resource that made for invaluable reading as I completed the finding aid for the Kilbourn/Griswold collection. Also explore Worthington Memory, a digital library of images of historic artifacts, documents and photographs; searchable databases of cemeteries and newspapers; and oral histories.

To learn more about gravestone symbolism, see Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, by Douglas Keister (Gibbs Smith, 2004). The website of the Association for Gravestone Studies, an international organization dedicated to furthering the study and preservation of historic gravemarkers, is another interesting resource. Finally, Beth Santore has collected photographs she has taken at cemeteries, haunted places, abandoned buildings and historical parks on her website, Grave Addiction. The site includes a section on gravestone symbolism, where you can determine the meanings of many common symbols found on gravestones and learn how these symbols provide information about the deceased, especially when dates and epitaphs are no longer legible.

This entry was posted in Art, Books, Columbus, History, Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society). Bookmark the permalink.

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