Ohio History Journal






Professor of History, Ohio Wesleyan University



The people of Delaware, Ohio, have long pointed with pride

to the fact that their city is the birthplace of President Rutherford

B. Hayes. A Delaware tradition so old that no one now living

seems to remember anything about its origin, marks as his birth-

place a two-story brick house, which it asserts his father had built

and which stood until 1930 on the north side of East William

Street, a short distance from Sandusky Street. So strong was the

confidence of the Delaware citizenry in this story that when the

Standard Oil Company of Ohio tore down the building to make

room for a filling station, the Daughters of the American Revolution

erected a marker to identify the spot. Recent studies have raised

very serious doubts about the truth of the tradition and have thrown

considerable light on its origin.

The reliability of the legend regarding President Hayes's birth-

place was first checked by the prosaic evidence of the deed books

preserved in the office of the recorder of Delaware County, which

produced some surprising data. The brick house on East William

Street stood on a parcel of real estate known on the early plats

of Delaware as In Lot 66, for which a complete list of owners

is available. The Hayes family never owned it, as can be seen

from the following table, which covers the whole period of their

residence in Delaware:

Grantor        Grantee                                  Price            Date      Deed Book

Moses Byxbe Little                                       $ 30        9-15-1808 V.             I P. 58

Little                  Kester                                  1195       3-10-1813               II           290

Kester                Robinson                             1300       10-18-1813             II           432

Robinson            B. Tuller                               1350       1- 5-1815                III                      379

H. Tuller             Cox (west l/2)                        500         5-24-1822               XIII                   93

H. Tuller             L. Tuller (east l/2)                500         9-20-1822               XI                      497

Cox                    Goodrich (west l/2)              350         4- 3-1837                XV                    281


168 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

168     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly


As Rutherford Hayes, Jr., the father of the president, came

to Delaware in 1817 and died on July 20, 1822,1 it follows that

the Tullers and Cox were the owners of In Lot 66 throughout the

time when he was a resident of the town, and this hard-fisted

Yankee trader certainly did not build a house on another man's

land. The date for the construction of the brick house on this

property is not clear, but the tremendous increment in value be-

tween 1808 and 1813 (from $30.00 to $1,195.00) would indicate

that it was between these dates, and that Little was the builder.

However, Rutherford Hayes, Jr., did own a lot on William

Street and was building a brick house on it at the time of his

death.2 This parcel was known as In Lot 61, and is located at the

northeast corner of West William and Franklin streets, more than

a block west of In Lot 66. The deed abstract for it during the period

when the Hayeses were in Delaware runs as follows:


Grantor         Grantee                               Price    Date        Deed Book

H. Cellar             D. Cellar                              $ 152   6- 5-1816  V.             III P. 539

D. Cellar             Hughes                                152      6- 5-1816                   III          540

Hughes               Meeker                                180      8-18-1818                  IV          377

Meeker              R. Hayes Jr.                        300 12-20-1821                     VI          60

S. Hayes            Wm. St. M.E. Church 1900  1- 1-1851    XXXI               152

This lot contained a frame dwelling house, erected at an un-

known date before the Hayes family acquired it, which after the

construction of the new brick house was used as a kitchen.3 There

is no clear evidence as to when the Hayes family first occupied

this property. Although they came to Delaware in 1817 and only

acquired title to In Lot 61 four years later, there is no reliable

record of their having lived anywhere else. However, William O.

Stoddard in his Lives of the Presidents states that they occupied

the old house (In Lot 61) at the time of their first arrival in



1 Charles R. Williams, The Life of Rutherford Birchard Hayes (2 vols., Boston,

1914), I, 6.

2 Charles R. Williams, Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes (5 vols.,

Columbus, Ohio, 1922), I, 4.

3 Ibid.

4 William O. Stoddard, Lives of the Presidents (New York, 1889), 8.

The Birthplace of President Hayes 169

The Birthplace of President Hayes          169

Of the Hayes family only the president himself has left any

direct statements regarding his birthplace, and these reveal a rather

surprising fact. Until Hayes was nearly fifty years old he seems

not to have known the exact location of his birthplace, and his

knowledge of Delaware street names was extremely inexact. Thus

in 1856 he wrote some reminiscences of his early life in which

we find the astonishing statement that the house in which he lived

stood "on the northeast corner of William and Winter Street."5

As the two streets named are parallel to one another and a block

apart, the location is an impossible one, the correct description being

William and Franklin streets. His first mention of his birthplace

occurs in his diary under the date of August 6, 1872. He quotes his

maternal uncle Sardis Birchard as saying: " 'It was a gloomy night

when you were born. After your father's death your mother had a

dreadful fever and was very weak when you were born. It was in

the west room of the old house which stands on William Street,

north side, east of Sandusky, or Main.'"6 The care with which

the nephew recorded this evidence indicates that it was the first time

he had heard it, but his interest in the subject did not wane. As

late as July 27, 1890, he wrote: "Judge Jones . . . took me in his

buggy to see Mrs. Sophia Wasson White.... She says my father died

in the same house where I was born, on William Street."7 Obviously

he was still collecting stray bits of information regarding his birth-

place to the last years of his life.

Since Sardis Birchard was living with the Hayeses at the time

of the President's birth,8 his testimony should be carefully analyzed.

At first thought it seems to point unmistakeably to the East William

Street location, but more careful consideration shows that this

is not necessarily true. Mention of "the old house" indicates one

with which both uncle and nephew were thoroughly familiar, and

as the Hayeses had lived in the West William Street brick house

since Hayes was a year old, we may presume that Birchard was

referring to the old frame structure which later served the family


5 Williams, Diary and Letters, I, 4.

6 Ibid., III, 212.

7 Ibid., IV, 590.

8 Ibid., I, 4.

170 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

170     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly


as a kitchen. If he had meant the East William Street house, one

would have expected a more detailed description. Again, why

"the west room"? The description would have been adequate for

the small frame dwelling on the corner of West William and

Franklin streets, but quite ambiguous if applied to the East William

Street house, which had at least two west rooms in the brick front,

not to mention those in the frame wing.

At this point we should examine the origin and validity of the

local tradition regarding the Hayes birthplace. On June 22, 1876,

shortly after Hayes's nomination for the presidency, Abraham

Thomson, editor of the Delaware Gazette, wrote the following


There are few readers of daily papers throughout the United States who

are not by this time aware that Rutherford B. Hayes was born in Delaware,

Ohio, October 4, 1822. There are a good many persons, however, even in

Delaware, who do not know just where he was born. It has been the

general understanding that his birthplace was the old Hayes mansion which

was erected by his father and stood on the northeast corner of William and

Franklin streets, the present site of the Methodist parsonage. Such was

our belief until a few weeks since, when in passing the locality in company

with the Governor, we referred to it in that connection, when he corrected

the error by stating that he was born in the brick house on the north side

of William Street a few doors east of Sandusky now occupied by Mr.

Reichert as a furniture store.


Mr. Thomson had, at the time he made this statement, been

a resident of Delaware for more than forty years, having come

to the town in either 1833 or 1834, and his testimony respecting

the tradition which prevailed before 1876 on the Hayes birth-

place can therefore be accepted as final. Hence the year 1876

marks the disappearance of the old tradition-universally accepted

until then-and the beginning of the new one, which has prevailed

since that time.

There are several indications that the Delaware citizenry ac-

cepted the new story eagerly, attaching to it sundry features from

its discarded predecessor. Six days after the Gazette article appeared,

C. H. Bodurtha, a local photographer, made a photograph of the

The Birthplace of President Hayes 171

The Birthplace of President Hayes           171


East William Street house, which was reproduced the same summer

in Russell H. Conwell's Life and Public Services of Gov. Rutherford

B. Hayes.9 As Conwell visited Delaware and consulted a number

of older residents while collecting information for his work, his

statement concerning the Hayes birthplace tradition in 1876 is a

valuable source. He says: "The house which Rutherford Hayes

built, and in which Gen. Hayes was born, is still standing on

William Street, near Sandusky Street. . . . Until recent events

called it to mind, the people had forgotten that a family by the

name of Hayes ever lived there."10

From this it will be noted that some features of the old tradition

died hard. Delaware could not forget-and has never forgotten-

that Rutherford B. Hayes was born in a brick house which his

father had built, but it had forgotten, if indeed it had ever known,

that the Hayeses had once lived in the East William Street house.

Thus embalmed in the printed word, this hybrid tradition has

persisted ever since. The location to which it points as the Hayes

birthplace is the brick house on In Lot 66, but the only house

which President Hayes's father ever built in Delaware was the

West William Street brick house in which his family lived from

the time of its completion to 1846. In fact, it seems reasonable

to suppose that they had lived in the old frame building which

later served them as a kitchen, at least from the time of its purchase

in December 1821. If so, it would be the actual birthplace of

President Hayes.

Since the present Delaware tradition rest entirely upon the

assertion of President Hayes, and it in turn upon that of Sardis

Birchard, we may well ask how the latter came to make this state-

ment. We have seen that aside from the mention of "William

Street, east of Sandusky, or Main," the description fits the house

on In Lot 61 better than that on In Lot 66. Did he say "east" when

he really meant "west"? Did Hayes, whose ignorance of Delaware

street names has been demonstrated above, make a mistake when

he copied the statement into his diary? In either case, the house


9 Boston, 1876, 25.

10 Ibid., 24-26.

172 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

172     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly


on In Lot 66 happened to fit the entry in his diary, and accordingly

he pointed it out to Mr. Thomson. That he still entertained doubts

on the subject is evident from his conversation with Mrs. White

in 1890.

The foregoing discussion cannot in all fairness be considered

a definitive solution of the problem of the Hayes birthplace, but

unless positive new documentary proof in favor of the East William

Street location is discovered, the balance of probability will con-

tinue to incline toward In Lot 61, the site now occupied by the

William Street Methodist Church. But of far greater importance

is the light which our study has thrown upon the origin and growth

of the present Delaware tradition. It cannot be construed as dis-

crediting local tradition as a historical source, but it shows that

this type of source material is no more exempt from the need of

careful scrutiny than are written documents. If nothing else it

proves that each tradition must be traced to its origin before its

value can be determined, and that variant or conflicting traditions

should be weighed with the same care as the accepted one.