Take a moment to this about this area in 1784, the year Thomas Lewis laid out the town of Point Pleasant.
Lewis and the other first settlers came from the Shenandoah Valley, 250 miles east on the Midland Trail, and Pittsburgh, the only city in our valley of any size, is 265 miles upriver. With Wheeling 178 miles upriver, Maysville 144 miles downriver, Charleston not to be settled for another four years, Point Pleasant may as well have been on the moon. That would change soon enough.
It would’ve been difficult and back-breaking work, setting up shop in the middle of nowhere. Clearing the land where only a decade before Thomas’ father, General Andrew Lewis, had led the Virginians in battle his uncle Charles was killed, felling and hewing the timbers that rebuilt Fort Randolph and constructed the first homes in town, blazing trails, driving herds of cattle, and cultivating the fields.
This work continued for many years as the settlement grew. Bricks were soon being made on site as larger homes were built, farms were expanding into the far reaches of the county, and river trade was increasing every day.
With so much work to do, most settlers wore multiple hats. Lewis, for example, was a plantation owner, surveyor, justice of the peace, and militia commander. Often the blacksmith was also the horse farrier, and farmers, then as today, had broad skills in agriculture, home and barn construction, forestry, surveying, and veterinary sciences.
Women on the frontier, far from the socialites of the seaboard cities, were right there with the men. Though writings of the 1700s and 1800s often portray women as seamstresses or housekeepers, which they often were, they were also tavern keepers, farmers, and more. Take Ann Bailey! She was as much a soldier and scout as Daniel Boone, fearless in the face of rifle fire and certain death, she carried news and reports between forts and settlements, and she was a merchant, consigning and delivering supplies that she herself brought across the mountains from Old Virginia.
And enslaved persons, who were certainly here in Mason County, were laborers of every kind. Yes, they were field workers, but they were also timber framers, brick masons, master craftsmen, seamstresses, cooks, and even soldiers when the need arose. Roseberry Plantation was certainly built almost entirely by slave labor, and it is one of the finest pieces of craftsmanship in the Ohio Valley.
Only later, after river travel increased and the population grew, could people afford to specialize in any trade or profession.
As a matter of fact, it was this boom in river travel that founded Mason County’s first major industry. Our old-growth wood, especially the several-hundred-year-old oak and sycamore, was perfect for building flatboats, more or less crude barges that were used to transport people or cargo downriver. In the Leon area, it was even used to build oceangoing merchant ships, which were then floated down to New Orleans and outfitted with sails and equipment. Yet, as impressive as these industries were, they were soon killed by the coming of the Age of Steam.
Aside from this early shipbuilding, Mason County remained agricultural for much of its early history. Indeed, Virgil Lewis in his histories included a story from a visitor to Point Pleasant in 1810, in which the town was described as having “about 15 or 20 families, a log courthouse, a log jail, and… one merchant, Mr. William Langtry.” I can’t find any record of what type of merchant Langtry was, but as he was the only one in town, he was probably into dry goods (e.g. everything that isn’t fresh produce).
This was the condition of Mason County until at least the 1830s. Whether due to a curse or the ever-expanding frontier and opportunity in the Northwest Territory, it took quite some time to turn this sleepy agricultural county into an industrial powerhouse with every type of merchant you could imagine. I’ll pick up there next week.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and assistant director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.