Ohio History Journal

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Captain James Riley and Antislavery

Sentiment in Ohio, 1819-1824





Captain James Riley had an unusually powerful reason for hating slavery: he had

himself been a slave.

Riley was born in 1777 in Middletown, Connecticut, the fourth child of a humble

farming family. Between the ages of eight and fourteen he attended common school

while earning his keep by working for local farmers. At the age of fifteen, tired of

hard work on the land, he decided to turn to a seafaring life. During the next twenty

years, as seaman and merchant, he traveled widely, "making voyages in all climates

usually visited by American ships," but mainly to South America, the Caribbean, and

western Europe. The years of maritime conflict with Britain and France after 1806

proved as financially disastrous to Riley as to most other American overseas mer-

chants, and he spent the War of 1812 at home in Connecticut trying to provide a

regular living for his wife and four children. After the war when Riley again em-

barked on an overseas trading venture, he suffered such a disastrous and agonizing

experience that he decided "never" again to leave his native country.1

For a brief period after 1815 Riley acted as a lobbyist in Washington, but his eyes

soon turned to the developing lands of the West. In 1818 he traveled through Ken-

tucky, the Old Northwest and Upper Canada. In 1819 he secured the office of deputy

surveyor of the public lands, a post for which the technical skills he had learned as a

navigator qualified him. His particular task was to survey the lands in the Maumee

River Valley recently purchased from the Indians. Through his surveys the enter-

prising Riley offered the first practical demonstration of the feasibility of connecting

the Wabash and Maumee rivers by a canal. Deciding to settle in this promising land,

Riley moved his family in 1820 from New England, first to Chillicothe, and then, in

the following year, to a frontier home on the St. Mary's River near the Indiana line.

Here, with the aid of his sons, this "large and powerful" man established the first

settlement in Van Wert County, Ohio, and in 1822 laid out the town of Willshire. A

figure of local prominence, Riley was elected to represent the sparsely settled north-

western counties in the General Assembly for the session of 1823-24. In the legisla-

ture he was an eager advocate of schemes for internal improvement, especially those

which would benefit his own locality. Unfortunately, ill-health soon forced him to


1. James Riley, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce . . .

revised ed., Hartford, Conn., 1829), 15-18, 260.


Mr. Ratcliffe is Lecturer in Modern History, University of Durham, England.