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founder of the first permanent white settlement in Ohio
Rufus Putnam was born at Sutton, Massachusetts, on April 9, 1738, the son of Elisha and Susan (Fuller) Putnam. His father died when he was seven, and his mother subsequently apprenticed him to a millwright. At the age of 19, he enlisted as a Private in the Provincial British Army and served in the French and Indian War. After the war ended in 1759, he bought a farm at New Braintree, Massachusetts, where he studied practical surveying when not busy with the farm. He married Elizabeth Ayers in 1761, but both she and their infant child died within a year. He married again in 1765, this time to Persis Rice; six daughter and two sons were born to this union.
After the French and Indian War, Putnam was one of many provincial soldiers who tried to get the British government to award them land grants along the Mississippi River. Not wishing to provoke hostilities between its colonies and Native Americans, however, the British instead issued the Proclamation of 1763, banning colonists from settling west of the Appalachians. In 1773, he, along with cousin Israel Putnam and two others, surveyed lands in West Florida, again hoping for grants to veterans; this hope was also quashed by the British government.
Putnam enlisted in the Continental Army on April 19, 1775, and was soon after commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel and given the task of building fortifications about Boston, Charlestown, West Point, Newport, and other important ports and forts. In 1776, General George Washington charged him with driving the British out of Boston, a task he performed successfully. Promoted to Colonel and made Chief Engineer of the Army that same year, he spent most of the war supervising erection of fortifications, but did serve with distinction at Saratoga in 1777 and as part of Major General Anthony Wayne's army after the capture of Stony Point in 1779. Congress promoted him to Brigadier General in 1782. He resigned his commission and returned to his farm soon after the war ended in 1783.
After the Revolutionary War ended the Continental Congress found itself deeply in debt and unable to pay Continental soldiers what they were due. Putnam and others offered to take their back pay in the form of land grants instead of cash, but Congress initially refused their offer. In 1786 several Revolutionary War officers, including Putnam, formed the Ohio Company of Associates for the express purpose of purchasing land in the Northwest Territory and selling it to veterans at a price they could easily afford. Thanks to the efforts of Manasseh Cutler, the company was able to get Congress to sell it 1,500,000 acres. That agreement allowed the company to pay $500,000 up front and another $500,000 after the land had been surveyed; it also allowed the company to pay part of that money in military warrants (promises for back pay). On April 17, 1788, Putnam led a group of settlers to the mouth of the Muskingum River, where they established what is now Marietta, Ohio, the first permanent American settlement in the Northwest Territory.
Putnam spent the rest of his life serving the inhabitants of what is now Ohio. He served as a federal judge in the region from 1790 to 1796, as a Brigadier General with the authority to negotiate with Native Americans from 1792 to 1793, as Surveyor-Gneral of the United States from 1796 to 1803, and as a delegate to the Ohio Constitutional Convention of 1802. In the latter capacity, he lobbied successfully to have slavery outlawed in Ohio. He also worked to preserve the many Native American ceremonial mounds in the region. He died in Marietta on May 4, 1824, and is buried in that city's Mound Cemetery.
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This page was last updated on May 20, 2017.