February 8: Defending the West from the Worst


A descendant of the Puritan Joseph Wadsworth who protected his colony’s charter by hiding it in the legendary Charter Oak, Elijah Wadsworth would also be tasked with saving his people’s government. Not from a takeover, however, but from a British invasion. And not in Connecticut, but in in the part of Ohio once owned by this state and known as Connecticut’s Western Reserve.

A blacksmith by trade, Wadsworth relocated to Litchfield from Hartford as a young man. During the American Revolution, he served as a lieutenant in Benjamin Tallmadge’s troop of the Second Continental Light Dragoons – a fast-attack, mounted infantry unit – where he rose to the rank of captain. Wadsworth was one of the men assigned to guard the British spy John André after the spy was captured participating in Benedict Arnold’s plot to take control of West Point and execute General Washington.

02-08 trumbull t y seymour yale art gallery
John Trumbull, “Thomas Y. Seymour, Second Continental Light Dragoons” (Yale University Art Gallery)

After the war, Wadsworth was an early investor in the Connecticut Land Company – the group that purchased Connecticut’s land claims in the Western Reserve. In 1802, he and his family moved to Canfield, Ohio, where Elijah had secured appointment as postmaster. There, he is credited with establishing the first regular mail route into the Western Reserve from Pittsburgh.

On February 8, 1803, Wadsworth became the sheriff of Trumbull County, an area that extended from the Pennsylvania border halfway across the northern Ohio frontier. This office, coupled with his military experience and reputation, led to his appointment as major general of Ohio’s 4th Division a year later, tasked with organizing a militia to defend this even larger section of the infant state. Wadsworth, a capable commander, held this post for the next decade.

When, during the War of 1812, another native-born Connectican, Brigadier General William Hull, surrendered the American army at Detroit to a smaller British and Native American force without so much as firing a single shot (an act for which Hull was later court-martialed, convicted of cowardice, and sentenced to be shot), Major General Wadsworth faced the daunting task of defending an extended Ohio frontier suddenly wide open to attack.

Marker, Canfield Ohio: “On August 23, 1812, General Wadsworth and the Canfield Dragoons left the Canfield Green heading for Cleveland to defend the United States and the Western Reserve from attacks by the British and their Native American allies.”

Acting decisively, Wadsworth ordered blockhouses built at strategic points around the state to protect civilian settlers and the construction of roads connecting each blockhouse to all the others. He also raised a 1,500-man militia to join the northwestern army of William Henry Harrison. To facilitate the speedy accomplishment of these goals, Wadsworth personally assumed $26,551 in debt for supplies and payments to his men. Wadsworth’s tireless and self-sacrificing efforts on behalf of his adopted state helped protect the new nation’s wild western frontier – land it had seized from native Americans less than twenty years earlier – at one of the most crucial moment’s in its early history.

The burden of providing for Ohio’s defense, however, took its toll on the 67-year-old general, and after he suffered a collapse that left him paralyzed, Elijah Wadsworth resigned his commission in November 1814. Congress discharged his war debts posthumously in 1825. The town of Wadsworth, Ohio, founded in 1814, was named in his honor.

Further Reading

Biography of Elijah Wadsworth,” OhioLINK Finding Aid Repository

Elijah Wadsworth is Born,” Today in Masonic History