Ohio History Journal

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Chillicothe's Elite: Leadership

in a Frontier Community


The Northwest Territory was dominated by its small urban com-

munities, even though most settlers were farmers. The towns became

crucial regional centers for business, politics, and cultural affairs.

They served as headquarters for wealthy and powerful merchants,

provided a base for lawyer-politicians, and often contained the

homes of prominent rural landowners. A few of the Northwest's

towns eventually grew into great metropolitan centers, but most sim-

ply remained important regional centers, with thousands rather than

millions of residents. Chillicothe, Ohio, the economic and political

hub of the lower Scioto Valley, serves as a good paradigm for these


Historians have debated for generations the degree to which pio-

neer societies represented advancing democracy. Classic historians

like Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the frontier reduced social

elites and deference. Since the 1940s, however, most frontier histori-

ans have emphasized the social and economic competition that de-

veloped in pioneer communities. Thus, Richard C. Wade argued

both that urban centers were crucial parts of the Ohio Valley fron-

tier, and that they quickly produced social elites. Wade stressed that

these elites, cooperating in business and educating their children in

elite school settings, soon formed tight inner circles that were nearly

closed castes. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick emphasized that lo-

cal rivals for social prominence often learned to work together, but

only to advance their town's fortunes against rival towns. Don H.

Doyle and other historians stress the conflict that emerged within

towns, where continued in-migration inevitably produced social cha-

os and conflict. Robert Wiebe reminds us that it took time for the

leaders of isolated communities to build ties to one another, while

Edward Pessen and Frederick Jaher remind us that nearly all Ameri-

can communities, even the newest, quickly produced social and eco-





Jeffrey P. Brown is Assistant Professor of History at New Mexico State University.