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Switzerland County: A Tale of Boundaries

By Robert W. Scott


The area that is now Switzerland County, which has been under six different county governments, began as an unorganized area of the Territory Northwest of the Ohio River, whose government began keeping records on July 9, 1788. There were earlier counties, but none covered this territory until on June 20, 1790, the governor created Knox County, which encompassed modern Indiana, along with the area that became Michigan. The boundaries extended East to what was to become the Indian-Ohio boundary, but which bordered then on Hamilton County, which was created on Jan 1, 1790.

At this point, any European visitors to Switzerland County would have been traders or trappers, or perhaps adventurous farmers, planting crops on the north side of the river, but living south of it. Because the land east of the treaty line still belonged to the Indians until 1795, and since Jefferson County and that part of Switzerland County west of the Greenville Treaty line were not acquired until 1805, any European settlers prior to that time were technically violating the law. No official government could exist until the federal government acquired the land. This occurred in Aug. 3, 1795, with the declaration of the Greenville Treaty line, to extend from Fort Recovery to the Ohio River opposite the mouth of the Kentucky River, the area now known as Lamb. However, a survey was not created until Israel Ludlow began running the line at its northern end in June 1797.

There is a hint of settlement in Switzerland County at this time. On Nov. 28, 1795, the Kentucky legislature authorized the creation of the town of Preston (modern Prestonville) on the south side of the Kentucky River at its meeting with the Ohio in what was then Shelby County, Ky., and also authorized ferries across the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers. No one was licensed for either ferry, but the act suggests some settlement had occurred, or perhaps hunters and farmers were crossing the river.

The treaty, however, did not change the county boundaries and with the Knox County seat at Vincennes, the lack of law enforcement gave the area a bad reputation and created a call to attach the eastern part of the area to Hamilton County, whose seat was much closer Cincinnati.

According to an entry made by Winthrop Sargent, the territorial secretary on Jan. 8, 1798, “Immediately over the great miami (In Knox County) report makes them nearly two hundred Families, amongst whom are many that have fled from this County merely to defraud their Creditors--their very remote situation from many of the magistrates of the County of Knox effects such purpose--and I forbear to commission any amongst them to the administration of Justice, or to annex them to Hamilton County lest it might be construed to imply an Encouragement of the Settlement.” This came as the government was making strenuous efforts to discourage hunting, trapping, and actual settlement. However, the area immediately over the Great Miami would have been around Lawrenceburg.

The cry would not be stilled and on June 22, 1798, the territorial government approved an alteration of the boundary that pushed the western boundary of Hamilton County to the Greenville Treaty line. That put most of Switzerland County in Hamilton County, with about half of modern Pleasant Township and a third of modern Craig Township still in Knox County. But because there were county governments does not mean there were sufficient settlements to require governmental services. Almost all the appointments in Knox County in these first few years involved the settlement around Vincennes or Clarksville. In fact, other than Clarksville, most early appointments came in the French settlements at Detroit, Kaskaskia, and Cahokia.

The first record that can be connected with someone known to have lived in the area comes with the appointment of Jonathan McCarty as a Justice of the Peace for Hamilton County on Aug. 6, 1799. Jonathan's daughter Lydia married Gershom Lee on December 3, 1800 in Gallatin Co., Ky. Because the Lees can be proved to have lived at the mouth of the Kentucky River from 1790 on, the conclusion is that Jonathan probably lived in the Lamb area when he was appointed. But no other appointments, either justices or militia officers, can be found before 1800 that can be pegged to this area.

Indiana became a territory, whose government commenced operation on July 4, 1800. At this point, the area east of the treaty line remained in Hamilton County, Northwest Territory, while the small part to the west of it was in Knox County, Indiana Territory. On Feb. 3, 1801, the governor divided Knox County to form Clark, which ran to the Greenville Treaty boundary, thus taking in the western portions of modern Pleasant and Craig Twp. He also stipulated that all previous territorial appointees maintained their positions (presumably people like McCarty). With the creation of Indiana Territory, the triangle of land between the treaty line and the modern Indian-Ohio treaty became what was known as the Gore. This was eventually solved with the creation of the modern state boundary. (The last entry in the Executive Journal of Northwest Territory came on Jan. 15, 1803.)

On Jan. 24, 1803, the land between the treaty line and the Ohio border became part of Clark County, Indiana Territory. But that was a temporary situation as Dearborn County was created on March 7, 1803, with Lawrenceburg named as the county seat. (The History of Switzerland County, which was reissued by the Switzerland County Historical Society, says that the county was formed in 1801. This volume is one part of what was originally the History of Dearborn, Ohio, and Switzerland Counties, which largely copied Perret Dufour's writing, and apparently simply copied its mistake regarding the year.) On Aug. 30, 1803, Jonathan McCarty was appointed a justice for Dearborn. (McCarty is not to be confused with his nephew of the same name, general and Congressman Jonathan McCarty, who was born in 1795) Jefferson County was created on Nov. 23, 1810 with its eastern border extending to Log Lick Creek, leaving the eastern part of the modern county, most of Posey and part of York Townships as part or Dearborn Counties. The county government formally organized at Madison on Jan. 11, 1811.
On Sept. 7, 1814, Switzerland County was created. The “horn” that extends on the western end of Pleasant Township northward, extended six miles further north into what is now Ripley County. It apparently reached just south of Cross Plains. That horn, then part of Ross Township, was attached to Ripley County, with the southern part of Ross becoming part of Pleasant Township.

Most of Switzerland County was originally part of Jefferson Township, one of three townships created when Jefferson County began functioning on Feb. 11, 1811. The other two townships, Madison and Washington, were largely within modern Jefferson County. Madison Township extended to the Indian (Greenville Treaty line) boundary on the east and to the county boundary on the north, including portions of Switzerland County, and all of what is now Ripley County. However, the Jefferson Township line was soon extended west to the line separating range 12 and 11, incorporating a tier of townships that are now in Shelby and Milton Townships in Jefferson County. The date at which the townships were returned to their original boundaries (the modern county line) has not been discovered.

Unfortunately, for genealogists, knowing these changes does little good in terms of finding records. Dearborn County records burned in 1826. But this may not have been as severe a loss as it would seem for most of Switzerland County, since most of the county was part of Clark from 1809 on. Judging from the surviving Clark records, few entries (no deeds and wills, and few marriages) involve to residents of Switzerland and Jefferson Counties. They simply were not recorded or perhaps, on the case of marriages, many were recorded in Kentucky. Records lost in the fire probably affected the Lawrenceburg area the most.
Original patents that were issued by the Cincinnati and later Jeffersonville land offices survive and have been published. Records of the Indiana Territory exist, giving us some justice of the peace and militia appointments.

Some marriage records were certainly lost, but many residents simply crossed the river to Kentucky for ceremonies, rather than travel to Vincennes, Clarksville, or Cincinnati. Perret Dufour made this point in his writings during the mid-1800s, although he did not point to specific marriages. However, those that would seem to fall into this category include the marriage of Heathcoat Pickett's daughter Nancy to Nicholas Lentz in 1795 in Gallatin Co., Ky. and on July 11, 1797 when his Mary daughter married Robert Drake in Franklin County, Ky. (Pickett is generally recognized as the first European settler of Switzerland County, from about 1795.)
The marriage of Jonathan McCarty's daughter Lydia has been mentioned and that of daughter Nancy to James Wilson in Gallatin County on Sept. 17, 1801. Moreover, Paul Froman, McCarty's cousin, married Kesiah Pickett in Hamilton County on Nov. 13, 1800. The wide geography between these filings can easily be explained by assuming these families lived along the river between Lamb and Vevay.

A transcription of marriage records, made by a minister before the Hamilton County courthouse burned in 1884, shows the marriage was performed by Justice Jonathan County. This seems certain to be Jonathan McCarty as Froman was his first cousin. A second marriage performed by justice Jonathan County was that of Polly Netherland to David Owen by “Jonathan County” on Oct. 12, 1800. Because the Netherlands lived in the Switzerland County area, it appears this is also a Switzerland County marriage. Although it is not certain the minister transcribed all pioneer marriages, it still suggests that few from Switzerland County were ever registered prior to the creation of Jefferson County.

Another marriage that seems to fit this pattern is that of John Hall, son of Rev. War Soldier William Hall, to Elizabeth House in 1803 in Gallatin County, Ky. However, since both Halls had been appointed as militia in 1802 in Hamilton Co., along with Pickett, and William signed a petition on behalf of George Ash's land claims the same year, it seems likely the Halls were part of this settlement.

(This narrative relies heavily on data from the Executive Journal of the Northwest Territory. A transcription is viewable at http://www.ohiohistory.org/onlinedoc/northwest/exjournal/ and from the Executive Journal of Indiana Territory, reprinted by the Indiana Historical Society.in 1985.)