Ohio History Journal

Peter Cartwright's






A famous historian, referring to the people on the American frontier,

once wrote: "Whether Scotch-Irish Presbyterian, Baptist, or Methodist,

these people saturated their religion and their politics with feeling. Both

the stump and the pulpit were centers of energy, electric cells capable

of starting widespreading fires. They felt their religion and their democ-

racy, and were ready to fight for it."1 Peter Cartwright, one of the most

celebrated religious leaders of the early West, easily fits into his descrip-

tion. Though Cartwright served two terms in the Illinois legislature and





PETER CARTWRIGHT IN OHIO                                       91


once contested a congressional seat with Abraham Lincoln,2 it was as an

indomitable and fearless servant of his Methodist God that he made his

greatest impression on the new country. His two years as a very young

man on circuit in Ohio, as he related them in his Autobiography, give

vivid evidence of the reputation for exuberant energy to come.

Cartwright was born September 1, 1785, in Amherst County, Virginia.

His father had been a soldier in the Revolution; his mother was a devout

Methodist.3 In 1791 the Cartwrights and two hundred other families

moved to Kentucky in search of new homes and new farms. After they

entered a section known as the Wilderness, Cartwright said they "rarely

traveled a day but we passed some white persons, murdered and scalped

by the Indians." In one place called Camp Defeat, they built their camp

fires where, he said, "a number of emigrant families had been all murdered

by the savages a short time before"; in another place they buried the

bodies of six men who were killed while returning to Virginia. By the

time young Cartwright reached Lincoln County in central Kentucky, he

had learned first-hand why Kentucky was called the "land of blood."4

After living two years on a small farm in Lincoln County, the Cart-

wrights moved in the fall of 1793 to the southwestern part of the state.

They settled in Logan County, nine miles south of Russellville, and within

one mile of the state line of Tennessee. When the Cartwright family

settled on their farm in Logan County, they were on the edge of the

frontier. There was not a grist mill in less than forty miles, not a news-

paper printed south of Green River, and "no schools worth the name."

They killed their meat "out of the woods, wild; and beat out meal and

hominy with a pestle and mortar." They gathered their tea out of the

woods too, for sage, bohea, cross vine, spice, and sassafras were in

abundance. As for coffee, Cartwright noted, "I am not sure that I even

smelled it for ten years. We made our sugar out of the water of the

maple-tree, and our molasses too. These were great luxuries in those

days." After raising cotton and flax, they cut and made their own gar-

ments and bedclothes. And, said Cartwright, when "we got on a new suit

thus manufactured, and sallied out into company, we thought ourselves

'so big as anybody.'"5

Logan County, during Cartwright's boyhood, was known as "Rogues'

Harbor." Many refugees, from almost every part of the new nation, fled

there to escape justice and punishment. Although there was law in Logan

County, there was little order, because "murderers, horse thieves, highway

robbers, and counterfeiters" fled there "till they combined and actually

formed a majority." For a while it appeared that young Cartwright might

turn out as bad as some of the undesirable element of Rogues' Harbor

despite the prayers and efforts of his mother. He ran a short career of

horse racing and gambling. But in 1801, after attending a wedding where

there was a great deal of drinking and dancing, he became deeply con-

cerned over the life he was leading. Three months passed by, but he still

did not find peace of mind. In the meantime he gave his race horse to his


92                                                 OHIO HISTORY


father and threw his cards in the fire. After several weeks of mental dis-

traction, he attended a sacramental meeting at a nearby Presbyterian

Church, where he was converted, but he joined the church of his mother--

the Methodist Episcopal Church.6

In May 1802 Cartwright was licensed as an "exhorter" in the Methodist

Episcopal Church. In the same year he entered Brown's Academy in

Lewiston County, where his family had moved, and there he studied under

a Scotch Seceder, who, though he was an excellent teacher, held a bitter

hatred for Methodists. After a few months of persecution and ridicule

from his professor and classmates, he felt the urge to leave school and the

"call" to preach. So he organized his own circuit, and received several

members into the church.7

He was admitted on trial as a traveling preacher and received his first

official assignment from the Methodist Church at its Western Conference

in October 1804, at which time he was sent to the Kentucky District and

to the Salt River and Shelby Circuit.8 When the Western Conference con-

vened in 1805 in Scott County, Kentucky, Cartwright was reproved by

the conference for some of his conduct.9 Neither the conference journal

for 1805 nor Cartwright's Autobiography reveals why he was thus rebuked.

Nevertheless, after promising amendment, he was continued on trial, and

his appointment for 1805-6 was to the Scioto Circuit in the state and dis-

trict of Ohio.10 Thus, at age twenty, Peter Cartwright began what would

prove to be a remarkably interesting and effective ministerial career.

Scioto Circuit had been founded in 1799 by Henry Smith from the Ken-

tucky District.11 According to Cartwright, it extended from the Ohio River

to Chillicothe, and was a four-weeks circuit.12

During the time Cartwright rode circuit in the Scioto Valley, Dr. Ed-

ward Tiffin, a Methodist local preacher, was governor of the newly formed

state of Ohio. He was born in England, had lived for a time in Virginia,

received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and then

settled in Chillicothe, Ohio. Both Governor Tiffin and his wife, Mary, were

of great help to the pioneer Methodist ministers.13

While Cartwright was riding circuit along the Scioto River, James

Axley, a fellow preacher from the Hockhocking Circuit, came to Chillicothe

to preach for him. Governor Tiffin and his wife, as was their custom, in-

vited the two clergymen to make the governor's house their home during

their stay in the capital. Cartwright related an incident that occurred in

the Tiffin home which reveals something of the differing social and cultural

backgrounds of the men who helped settle the West.

Governor and Mrs. Tiffin had no children, but they kept a little lap dog

in their home. During the evening meal, Axley took an unjointed chicken

leg with his fingers, and without cutting the meat off, ate it in that manner.

He then "turned around and whistled for the little lap-dog, and threw the

bone on the carpet." The governor, though excited to laughter, controlled

himself. Cartwright cast an eye at Mrs. Tiffin. "She frowned, and shook

her head as much as to say, 'Do not laugh.'" When the two guests awoke


PETER CARTWRIGHT IN OHIO                                       93


the next morning, Axley looked up and saw the plastering on the walls

and said, "When I go home I will tell my people that I slept in the gov-

ernor's house, and it was a stone house too, and plastered at that." Cart-

wright added that Axley was "raised almost in a canebrake" and was not

accustomed to seeing anything but log cabins. It was a "great thing for

him to behold a good house and sleep in a plastered room."14

Before the conference year of 1806 ended, Cartwright was transferred

to the Hockhocking Circuit to replace John Meek, who had become ill and

had to give up the strenuous career of the itinerant.15 It took a tough breed

of men to hold up under that arduous life. For example, one circuit rider,

speaking of the journey from the Miami Circuit to the Scioto, wrote: "We

generally started at daylight for the settlements on the Scioto, having [to

travel] between forty and fifty miles, without a house."16 That these preach-

ers sometimes died on the circuit is evident in this simple notation in Bishop

Asbury's journal: "Wire and Layton, two young preachers, died lately upon

their circuits."17 According to Cartwright himself, these itinerant messen-

gers of God, with saddlebags burdened with a library consisting of Bibles,

hymnbooks, and religious tracts, rode through "storms, wind, hail, snow,

and swamps, wet, weary, and hungry,"18 following the restless pioneers

into every corner of the West. The disregard of the circuit rider for the

ordinary comforts gave rise to a saying when the weather was too cold

for most people to venture abroad, that "there is nothing out today but

crows and Methodist preachers."19

But despite this rigorous and lonely life on the circuit--where a man's

horse was often his only companion--most of the itinerants, born on the

edge of civilization, would not have traded their peculiar lots for any

other, anywhere. Reminiscing about his circuit-rider days on the frontier,

one of these ministers concluded that those were the happiest days of his

life--"log cabins to preach in, puncheon floors to sleep on, long rides,

corn-bread and milk to eat, a constant succession of kind friends to make'

welcome, and the love of God in the soul."20

It was during his brief stay on the Hockhocking Circuit that Peter

Cartwright made his reputation as a frontier fighter. It is not merely a

play on words to say that the circuit riders, and especially Cartwright,

knocked the devil out of many sinners. He was five feet nine inches in

height and muscular, weighing in his prime about 180 pounds;21 he was

high-strung and never turned his back on an opportunity for a good fight.

No doubt a few of the fights and brawls he and his colleagues entered

into could have been peacefully settled. Nevertheless, the evidence indicates

that most of the time these men fought in order to protect themselves and

their congregations from the tough and belligerent mobs of the West.

In most of the new and rude communities the clergymen found an en-

vironment in which lawlessness, rowdyism, Sabbath-breaking, gambling,

swearing, drinking, and fighting were common. Visitors from the East were

terrified at "the drunkenness, the vice, the gambling, the brutal fights, the

gouging, the needless duels they beheld on every hand."22 Indeed, Cart-


94                                                OHIO HISTORY


wright found many duplications of the Rogues' Harbor element as he

moved with an ever-expanding frontier.

The last quarterly meeting of his circuit in 1806 was a camp meeting

in the Scioto Valley. According to Cartwright, there were "a great many

tents, and a large turn-out for a new country, and, perhaps, there never

was a greater collection of rabble and rowdies." These men came drunk and

armed with dirks, clubs, knives, and horsewhips, and swore they would

break up the meeting. After causing a great deal of confusion on Saturday

night, they gathered early on Sunday morning, determined on a general

riot. "About the time I was half through my discourse," Cartwright said,

"two very fine-dressed young men marched into the congregation with

loaded whips, and hats on, and rose up in the midst of the ladies, and

began to laugh and talk." The two men were near the preaching stand,

so Cartwright asked them to be quiet and get off the seats. They not only

refused to get down, they also cursed him and told him to mind his own

business. He stopped preaching long enough to call for an officer. There

were two nearby. But when Cartwright asked them to take the men into

custody, the frightened officers said they could not do it. "I told them . . .

to command me to take them," he said, "and I would do it at the risk of

my life."

As Cartwright advanced toward the disturbers-of-the-peace, one of them

made a pass at his head with a whip, but he closed in on him and jerked him

from his seat. A regular scuffle ensued, and the congregation was in a

commotion. An officer gave the command for all "friends of order" to aid

in suppressing the riot. "In the scuffle," Cartwright wrote, "I threw my

prisoner down, and held him fast; he tried his best to get loose; I told

him to be quiet, or I would pound his chest well. The mob rose, and rushed

to the rescue of the two prisoners, for they had taken the other young man

also." A drunken officer ordered Cartwright to let his prisoner go, but

when he refused, the officer made a pass at him. "I parried the stroke," he

said, "and seized him by the collar and the hair of the head, and fetching

him a sudden jerk forward, brought him to the ground, and jumped on

him. I told him to be quiet, or I would pound him well."

In the meantime, the whole mob had rushed to the scene, knocking

down seven officers, several preachers, and others. Giving his prisoner

to another, Cartwright threw himself in front of the "friends of order."

Just at that moment the ringleader of the mob and Cartwright met. "He

made three passes at me," Cartwright wrote. "The last time he struck at

me, by the force of his own effort he threw the side of his face toward me.

It seemed at that moment I had not power to resist the temptation, and

I struck a sudden blow in the burr of the ear and dropped him to the

earth." This gave Cartwright's friends the confidence they needed; hun-

dreds of them rushed on the mob. The rowdies wheeled and fled in every

direction. Nevertheless, they captured thirty prisoners and placed them

under guard in a vacant tent until Monday morning, when they were


PETER CARTWRIGHT IN OHIO                                       95


tried and fined to the "utmost limits of the law." The aggregate amount

of fines and costs was near three hundred dollars.

On Sunday, after the mob had been vanquished, the whole encampment

was filled with dismay. In fact, the camp was in such a state of confusion

that no one even mentioned resuming preaching until evening; and then

there was not a single preacher on the grounds willing to preach. Cart-

wright, seeing that the camp meeting "had fallen on evil times," said to

the elder, "I feel a clear conscience, for under the necessity of the circum-

stances we have done right, and now I ask to let me preach." "Do," said

the elder, "for there is no other man on the ground can do it."

So the encampment was lighted, the trumpet sounded the call to worship,

the people left their tents and wagons, and every person on the grounds

assembled in the congregation. "My voice was strong and clear, and my

preaching more of an exhortation and encouragement than anything else."

His text, Cartwright continued, was, "The gates of hell shall not prevail."

In about thirty minutes "the power of God fell on the congregation in

such a manner as is seldom seen; the people fell in every direction, right

and left, front and rear." He computed that not less than three hundred

"fell like dead men in mighty battle." There was no need of calling mourn-

ers, for, as Cartwright explained, they were strewed all over the camp-

ground. Loud wailings went up to heaven from sinners for mercy, and a

general shout from Christians, so that the noise was heard far away. The

meeting lasted all night, and Monday and Monday night, and then it

closed on Tuesday. Two hundred had professed religion, and approxi-

mately the same number joined the church.23

The Western Conference in 1806 met at Ebenezer Church, Nollichuckie,

Tennessee, September 15.24 Membership in the conference had increased

to 12,670, with a net increase of 800. Of the eighteen preachers who had

been admitted on trial two years before, thirteen were scheduled for

ordination as deacons at that meeting and received the rites at the hands

of Bishop Francis Asbury, among them Cartwright. The others, because of

sickness or lack of financial support, were compelled to leave the traveling

ministry. Cartwright reported that he received approximately forty dollars

in 1806, but many of the preachers did not receive half that amount, he said.

As a matter of fact, Cartwright lamented, had not the preachers dressed

in homespun clothing made by the benevolent women on their circuits,

many circuit riders would have been forced to retire from itinerant life

and go to work to clothe themselves.25

Cartwright had traveled from Zanesville, Ohio, to the conference in

Tennessee, over five hundred miles. When the appointments were read,

much to his chagrin, he was sent "almost right back, but still further east"

--to the Muskingum Circuit in the Ohio District. Marietta, the largest

village on the circuit, was on the Muskingum River, at its confluence with

the Ohio. This circuit, founded in 1799, extended along the north bank

of the Ohio River for one hundred and fifty miles, said Cartwright, then


96                                                OHIO HISTORY


crossed over the Ohio at the mouth of the Little Kanawha. It was about

three hundred miles around, and Cartwright would have to cross the

Ohio River four times every round.26

Moreover, he had heard some dismal stories about the Yankees in

Marietta, who lived almost entirely on pumpkins, molasses, fat meat, and

bohea tea; neither could they bear loud, zealous sermons but had their

learned preachers, who read their own sermons and who criticized the

backwoods preachers. So, when his appointment to Muskingum was read,

he was greatly distressed and even begged Bishop Asbury to supply his

place and let him go home. "The old father took me in his arms," said

Cartwright, "and said, 'O no, my son; go in the name of the Lord. It

will make a man of you.' Ah, thought I, if this is the way to make men,

I do not want to be a man. I cried over it bitterly, and prayed too. But

on I started." "If ever I saw hard times," he added, "surely it was this


After his five hundred mile ride to Marietta, Ohio, Cartwright found

the people kinder and friendlier than he had heard, but, he wrote,

"Of all the isms that I ever heard of, they were here." Most of the people

were descendants of Puritans, generally educated, and their ancestors

were rigid predestinarians. The people espoused Deism, Universalism,

and Unitarianism, as well as other faiths. Cartwright said he believed it

was the best school he ever entered. They waked him up on all sides.

"Methodism was feeble, and I had to battle or run, and I resolved on

the former."28

His biggest battle in the Muskingum Valley was with a minister named

Sargent. Sargent had once been a Universalist preacher, but had since

organized a new sect, which he called Halcyon Church, and proclaimed

himself the millennial messenger. He "professed to see visions, fall into

trances, and to converse with angels." He had many followers, numbering

among them men and women preachers. The Congregational and Pres-

byterian ministers were afraid of him. Cartwright, at first, was handi-

capped in his struggle against Sargent because the Methodists had no

meeting house in Marietta, but the Congregationalists opened their acad-

emy for him to preach in.

In the meantime, the Methodists started a camp meeting in the vicinity

of Marietta. On a Sunday night when the presiding elder, John Sale,

refused to let Sargent preach, Sargent took some gunpowder, and lit a

cigar, and then walked down to the edge of the river, about one hundred

yards, and stood by a large stump. He put the gunpowder on the stump and

touched it off with his cigar. The flash from the ignited gunpowder was

seen by most of the people at the camp. When the powder flashed, Sargent

fell down and lay by the stump for some time. In the meantime, the people

found him lying there, and many gathered around him. In a few moments

he came to and said he had a message from God for the Methodists. He

said "God had come down to him in a flash of light, and he fell under

the power of God. and thus received his vision."


PETER CARTWRIGHT IN OHIO                                       97


Noticing many gathered around the prophet, Cartwright went down

to see what was going on. He reported that, as he approached the scene,

he smelled the sulphur of the powder, and, when he stepped close to the

stump, he saw clearly the sign of burned powder. And near it lay the cigar,

which had brought the light from heaven. Sargent was busy interpreting

his vision to the crowd. Cartwright stepped up to him and asked him if

an angel had appeared to him in that flash of light. He said, "Yes." Then

asked Cartwright: "Sargent, did not that angel smell of brimstone?"

"Why," said he, "do you ask me such a foolish question ?" Because, answered

Cartwright, "if an angel spoke to you at all he was from the lake that

burneth with fire and brimstone." Raising his voice for all to hear, he

added, "I smell sulphur now!" He then walked over to the stump and

called on the people to see for themselves. The people soon saw through

the trick and began to chide Sargent as a vile imposter. He soon left,

Cartwright said, "and we were troubled no more with him or his brim-

stone angels."29

Cartwright complained that so long as he was successfully battling the

Halcyons he was treated with great respect by the Congregational minister,

but as soon as he triumphed over and vanquished them, the elders of the

Congregational Church informed him that he could no longer preach in

their academy. He therefore begged the privilege of preaching a final time.

This favor was granted. When the day came for him to speak, the academy

of the Congregational Church in Marietta was filled to capacity. He not

only leveled his "whole Arminian artillery against their Calvinism," he

also challenged the Congregationalist minister, who was present, to a

public debate. The minister declined, and Cartwright thus interpreted

the whole affair as a victory for himself and the Methodists. Though this

effort brought Cartwright some "persecution," it also secured him many

friends in Marietta. "My way was opened," he noted, "and we raised a

little class and had a name among the living."30

In the fall of 1807 it was time for conference, and Cartwright ended

his interesting labors on the Muskingum Circuit. His own description of

his destitute condition at that time reveals why he called it a hard circuit:

"I had been from my father's house about three years; was five hundred

miles from home; my horse had gone blind; my saddle was worn out; my

bridle reins had been eaten up and replaced, (after a sort) at least a dozen

times." His clothes had been patched until it was difficult to detect the

original. He was in Marietta, he said, "and had just seventy-five cents in

my pocket. How I would get home and pay my way I could not tell."

A widow lady on the periphery of his circuit gave him one dollar, but

by the time he reached the ferry on the Ohio River, opposite Maysville,

Kentucky, he did not have ferriage. However, just as he got to the bank

of the river, the ferry landed with a man and a horse. When the man

reached the bank, Cartwright saw that it was Colonel Moses Shelby,

brother of the governor of Kentucky. Colonel Shelby was an exhorter in

the Methodist Church and a friend and neighbor of his father. Shelby gave


98                                                 OHIO HISTORY


him three dollars and a "bill of the road and a letter of introduction."

With the colonel's money and credit and friends along the way, he reached

home in about seventeen days, "with six and a quarter cents unexpended."

His parents received him joyfully, gave him a fresh horse, bridle, saddle,

some new clothes, and forty dollars in cash. "Thus equipped," he concluded,

"I was ready for another three years' absence."31

The Western Conference of 1807 was held in Chillicothe, Ohio, and

Cartwright was appointed to the Barren Circuit in the Cumberland District

of Tennessee. Thus he ended his work as a circuit rider in Ohio.32 But for

many years Cartwright would continue to be in the vanguard of the

frontier movement. He would share, as he had done in Ohio, in the hard

work, the excitement, the excesses, and the abuses, of frontier religion.

Yet he would also have the satisfaction of seeing his efforts bear fruit, for

law and order, educational and benevolent institutions, and cultural ad-

vancement came with or closely followed the frontier religions. For the

next half century Cartwright served in the Methodist Episcopal Church,

but he never returned, in an official capacity, to labor in Ohio. The pioneers

on the great American frontier were rapidly advancing toward the Missis-

sippi, and Peter Cartwright moved with them.


THE AUTHOR: Charles Townsend is

a doctoral candidate in history at the

University of Wisconsin.