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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Dr. Samuel Hildreth - Part I

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dr. Samuel Hildreth was born in Methuen, Mass. in 1783 just as the U.S. was emerging from the American Revolution and starting life as a new nation.


His father was also a doctor, and had served as a physician for a regiment of volunteers during the Revolution.


The younger Hildreth began medical studies under his father, completing his education under Dr. Kittredge before being approved by the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1805.


In September 1806, he satisfied his desire to see and experience the Ohio country by setting out on horseback on a two-month journey to relocate to the “lands to the West.”


Dr. Hildreth was one of few men of science and medicine to locate in the Ohio country in those days.  His 60 years in Ohio included time as a State Representative, tax collector, and countless journal articles of science and geology.


He is best known for his 1848 “Pioneer History” of Ohio and his 1852 “Biographical and Historical Memoirs of the Early Settlers of Ohio.”


I enjoy his descriptions of travel in the Ohio country, particularly his stories of the 1806 horseback ride from New England to Ohio.


He departed Sept. 9; he started a journey to “the western wilderness” gathering up $ 120 that he had collected as the “fruits of his labors” in medicine.


He had “his clothes and a fine horse” for the trip westward, and paid 86 cents for two books to read on the way, in addition to his Journal to record the activities of each day.


After 10 days of travel, the land became mountainous and a “beastly dampness invaded the night,” where he first heard the sound of a katydid.


By Sept. 17, it was so hot that his “shirt, waist coat, pantaloons and the back of my woolen coat were wet with sweat.”  Even his “poor horse dripped with sweat.”


His horse threw a shoe in Pennsylvania, and a “bungling blacksmith overcharged him and gave him wrong directions.”


He noted that “English was spoken only slightly,” and he was “ill-impressed” with the ox-neck soup served for breakfast.


The autumn days brought an encounter with enormous bugs, causing the weary traveler to not sleep all night.


He was shocked to see a woman riding a horse astride, but the stable boy reported that you are “likely to see anything west of the Susquehanna River.”


Dr. Hildreth took a different route to the Ohio country by following overland trails, while others followed streams to the western rivers.


He reached the Ohio River around Wheeling, and met a family headed for Kentucky who allowed him to join them and give his horse a rest.


In 1806, there were few places to overnight, Hildreth hoped for a cabin with a floor to spread his blanket for the night.


The Ohio country in those days was covered with a thick forest, with vines and undergrowth extending right to the river’s edge.  A few trails provided a mere pathway for his horse.


As settlers arrived, some of the flat river bottom lands were slowly being cleared for crops.  Streams joining the Ohio River were sometimes too large to ford, so settlers earned some income by taking travelers across the water on flatboats.


Many times Hildreth would see a flatboat on the Ohio River filled with settlers headed downriver.  He often felt envious of their “easy journey” by water in a boat they would dismantle to make their cabin at the end of their journey.


His on-land trip had the advantage of allowing him to examine the flora and fauna of the Ohio country, which would later be the subject of his writings.


Next week – Hildreth’s life in Ohio.