“a Paradise something like it might be made”

There are many reasons to move from one place to another: adventure; new job opportunities; fleeing a hostile environment; joining relatives to make a fresh start; marriage. These certainly accounted for many who made the trek westward after Congress passed a series of ordinances to survey, divide, and offer at public auction any lands ceded to the Confederation.

It was a proposal of marriage that determined SUSAN LIVINGSTON’s move from the East Coast to a spot on the Miami River in Ohio. The eldest daughter of thirteen children born to Susannah French and William Livingston, the first elected governor of New Jersey, Susan (“Sukey”) was well-educated by her parents, witty, courageous, and politically astute. She had sometimes assisted her father as his secretary; had undertaken the education of her young nephew Peter Augustus Jay while his parents, John and Sarah Jay, were in Europe during the Revolutionary War; had taken care of her parents at the end of their lives (1790); and after, had moved in with her widowed sister Kitty Ridley (Catharine Livingston) and her family in Baltimore.

It must have been quite a surprise to her relatives when she suddenly married John Cleves Symmes in September 1794. Accompanied by her 6-year old niece Susan Anne Ridley, Susan Livingston Symmes and her husband John set out for Ohio. How Susan coped with the move is hinted at in a letter to her sister Sarah Jay and her niece Maria Jay, a year and a half later.

March 3d 1796 N.BendMy dear Sister
I had the pleasure of a letter from you last Novr. it ought to have been attended to long before this, but having nothing material to write, I delayed from time to time until I feel very much ashamed of myself. We have no news here. We lie snug beyond the tempests of Politicks & the gay Circle of pleasure. Each one is engaged in cultivating his Plantation. At present the whole Country is busy in making Sugar from the maple Tree . . . we have too much business on hands to make any ourselves. . . .

Our house would probably have been nearly finished could we have pleased ourselves with a Site, we have a beautiful one on the Ohio, but too many conveniences must have been sacrificed to perspectives. The Miami is a contemptible stream compared with the Ohio, yet we have concluded to build on it 3 quarters of a mile from the Ohio, the Village occupies this space; we have the Miami river in front on a western view, to the North we have a mile of beautiful level bottom land, along the east bank of the Miami about 200 Acres; this bottom is skirted along the east by a range of hills covered with timber, & from which 3 rivulets descend & cross the bottom; between the house & the Miami are about 10 acres perfectly level, on the left or rather South of which is a wood divided by a never failing small stream of water which passes by the east end of our house, at the distance of 40 feet with the addition of a very fine Spring, about 10 feet beyond the brook, or 50 feet from the house, this brook as it divides the wood on its way leaves about 3 acres of the grove a perfect level, next to the intended Garden & Courtyard; this small wood, & the brook terminating in the Miami. You will from this description think it a Paradise something like it I assure you might be made. I only wish we were on the spot which I do not expect to be until late in the autumn. . . .

. . . . I have a good house building 4 rooms below & 4 abo[ve] with a kitchen adjoined to it by a Linto 30 feet long, stone Cellars under the whole, the house is 44 by 40 feet, the Passage only half way thro the house so that the 44 feet is divided into 2 rooms, it’s a plan of my own I do not know how it will answer; I have suffered much from the want of a good house in this Country, it was a great transition from your Papa’s house [the Jays’ house in New York City] to Cabbins. . . .

John C. Symmes (1742-1814) was a justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and had been a member of that state’s constitutional convention as well as a member of the Continental Congress. In 1788, Symmes had been named a judge in the Northwest Territory, settling in North Bend, Ohio. That year, he and some friends created a company and purchased over 311,000 acres from Congress. President Washington signed the patent on October 30, 1794 conveying the land, known as Symmes Purchase, for $225,000. There was much controversy over this purchase at the time as well as afterwards.

Susan and John Symmes had serious financial disagreements about her right to control her money even before their marriage. No doubt his financial difficulties and speculating irregularities played a large role in her decision to leave him for good in 1807. The house burned in 1810.

For more on Susan Livingston Symmes see posts HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

This letter is at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.


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