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Local History

by Eleanor Cannon

[originally published in fall 2020]


“All politics are local” — is one of the most recognizable phrases in American political rhetoric. Of course, the most important concerns would be those which are closest to home. This is why I am so interested in local history; particularly in small cities and rural communities— and why you should be too. The burden of local historical preservation is typically entirely shouldered by retirees or actual professional historians; but this does NOT have to be the case! Other grandmotherly pursuits are becoming quite trendy: knitting, embroidering, wearing clogs, not going outside. Maybe, we can add local historical research to the list!

After all, local history is the realm of the committed, and perhaps eccentric, amateur, according to Joseph A. Amato, author of Rethinking Home: A Case for Writing Local History. Amato says thatthe local historian hugs the less sublime ground of anecdote.” Local history gathering is inherently unconventional because local history and rumor thrive in relative symbiosis. The practice of spreading local lore is always more significant than conventional reminders of what has come before. Instead of plaques, small museums, and commemorative statues— there exists an ephemeral, verbal historical record. This is why purely local historians are practically non-existent in colleges and universities. They write for an ever-shrinking audience and disregard theoretical conventions dictating historical research—even disciplined work is not governed by established conventions of academic information-gathering. There isn’t even a national organization devoted to the sanctity or craft of gathering local historical information. Instead, this record consists of inconsequential small-town gossip, the memories of elders, and inexplicably specific locally published history books that look like this:

There is much more room to move freely in this realm; since the local historian is not making an argument, but telling a story. There is more freedom to honor the oral historical traditions of indigenous people, and make more room for lived experiences within historical writing. These stories are important to preserve, particularly in rural places which have been subsumed to national agencies and ideologies; as a result losing much of the cultural independence and autonomy they once had. We are residents of one such rural place, and many of our dear readers may be from similar communities as well. I hope that The Grape’s foray into local historical preservation can resurrect a sense of commitment to our shared home. No matter if your time here is brief, or you have been here all your life. There are always new things to learn, and there is no better way to start a story than at the beginning.

The book Living in the Vermilion River Watershed (by Oberlin professors Jan Cooper and Mary Catherine Garvin) provides a great quantitative take. Although popular knowledge and most online history resources place the town of Oberlin on what was once Erie Nation territory, there is no evidence to suggest that the Erie ever permanently resided here. Northern Ohio was abandoned by its inhabitants even prior to indirect contact with Europeans. All inhabitants were gone by 400 years ago, having been pushed out by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) expansion during the Beaver Wars of the late 1600s. The Beaver Wars, sometimes known as the French and Indian Wars, were fought for hegemony in the sale of beaver pelts to European settlers. As more and more territory was seized by Western neighbors (the Haudenosaunee and the Wyandot) to hunt more and more beavers, the population indigenous to Northwest Ohio fled to elsewhere.

Due to seizure of territory and military aggression from the Haudenosaunee, the Wyandot migrated southward. The Wyandot (better known as the Huron), who were originally from the Northern shores of lake Ontario, moved to Upper Sandusky, Ohio, which was the last place the Wyandotte Nation resided in Ohio before removal. The Wyandot moved into Ohio longside other nations like the Shawnee, the Miami and the Ottawa. In 1842, with the promise of 148,000 acres of land from a treaty made with the U.S. government, the Wyandots left Sandusky for Cincinnati. They climbed aboard steamships bound for Kansas City, anticipating an eventual return to their own land in Sandusky.

The Wyandots were the last tribe to be forcibly removed from Ohio. Today there are no Indian reservations in Ohio, and there are no federally recognized Indian tribes here at all. There are several contemporary Wyandot nations, all of which have populations well under 5,000. Although these are indigenous lands, their original inhabitants have been relocated and dispossessed. Most of them are not living here any longer. Sometimes groups of Wyandot leave Kansas or Quebec and make a pilgrimage back to Ohio, where they visit the graves of those who were left behind.

If you want to learn more about the nations that used to live here I highly recommend the following sources:

Living in the Vermilion River Watershed Pgs. 96-101, by Jan Cooper and Mary Catherine Garvin

The website of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas

The website of the Wyandot Nation of Oklahoma

Ohio Historical Society Mini-Book on American Indians in Ohio

Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you learned as much from reading this as I did writing it. Look for my article next week with the details on Oberlin’s groovy and scandalous transition to co-ed dormitories in 1970!

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