MARIETTA, MUSKINGUM

HISTORY OF THE
EARTHWORKS AND THE TOWN

Here, where the Muskingum River joins the Ohio, stood the easternmost of Ohio’s monumental, ancient earthwork complexes. Its unusual plan included a ringed burial mound, two large rectangular enclosures, a set of platform mounds, and a wide graded way down to the river.

This broad terrace above the river confluence was equally attractive 17 centuries later, when Marietta became the first permanent U.S. settlement in the Ohio Country.

After the Revolutionary War, the new American Congress was in financial straits, and unable to pay all the soldiers. A few enterprising New Englanders suggested that cheap land in the West would be a good substitute for cash, and they persuaded Congress to let them form “The Ohio Company of Associates” to broker the deal. Led by Rufus Putnam and Benjamin Tupper, two Brigadier Generals from Massachusetts, and the Reverend Manasseh Cutler, the Company bought a huge tract of land along the Ohio River at a bargain price, then advertised the lots. Enthusiasm for the project ran high among veteran officers; even George Washington, though unable to go, wrote, “No colony in America was ever settled under such favorable auspices.”

In 1788, Putnam himself led the first 48 men down the Ohio River to its confluence with the Muskingum, where U.S. Fort Harmar already stood. The local Delaware and Wyandot Indians were eager to trade, but incursions on their homelands suggested conflict to come. Putnam and the others quickly built the Campus Martius, just outside the ancient enclosure walls, to provide safety for all residents in case of attack. In a nod to their Revolutionary War allies, they named their town “Marietta” in honor of the French queen, Marie Antoinette.

Putnam and his colleagues planned the settlement carefully in relation to the earthworks, and gave them respectful Latinate names: the mound and ring they named “Conus” and around it they developed their own cemetery. One rectangular platform mound became the “Capitolium” and a second, larger one, the “Quadranaou.” The broad ramp down to the river they called the “Sacra Via” – this Sacred Way still suggests solemn processions. Today, a brick monument at the head of the Sacra Via remembers the descendants of those first deed holders, some still in Marietta.

The Marietta settlers established the earliest preservation law west of the Appalachians. To ensure that the earthworks would be kept for public benefit, they appointed a committee to determine, in their words, “the mode of improvement for ornament, and in what manner the ancient works shall be preserved.” While inroads were made on the earthworks over the years, the town’s vigilance has kept some of its main features as stars in its historic crown.

Marietta, Muskingum

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