A Brief History of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County

At various times in the history of the land which is now comprised by Cuyahoga County, there have been differing claims to its ownership. 

Originally populated by North American Indian tribes, the land was subsequently claimed by Spain, France, and England. The Spanish claim, dating to Alexander VI’s Line of Demarcation in 1493, was never made good by occupancy of title. English claims extend to the voyage of John and Sebastian Cabot in 1497. The French claims come from the exploration and settlement of Le Caron in 1616 and subsequently by Marquette in 1668 and by La Salle in 1669. In addition, Virginia claimed the land of Cuyahoga County by virtue of its Crown Charter of James I, issued in 1609; and Connecticut claimed title under its Charter of Charles II, issued in 1662.

All French claims to the area were ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Paris in 1764; Great Britain, in turn, ceded its own title to the land in 1783, as part of the settlement of the Revolutionary War. Colonial claims were ceded to the government of the United States by Virginia in 1784 and by Connecticut in 1786, except for the area now roughly bounded by the cities of Sandusky, Willard, Youngstown, and Conneaut, Ohio, which Connecticut reserved to itself; hence the name, the Connecticut Western Reserve. This strip of land along Lake Erie from the Pennsylvania border was – except for two counties on the western side – sold in 1795 to the Connecticut Land Company, which bought the Indian titles in 1796 (east of the Cuyahoga River) and 1805 (west of the Cuyahoga River). The two counties which Connecticut retained (roughly now Huron and Erie Counties) were called the Fire Lands, because the land there was given to Connecticut residents as compensation for damages suffered in the Revolutionary War. 

The Connecticut Land Company, after its purchase of most of the Western Reserve, sent a surveying party to the mouth of the Cuyahoga River in 1796; the head of the group was Moses Cleaveland. Under his direction the initial one-hundred acre land plots were surveyed for subsequent sale to individual purchasers. The city which this company originally laid out took the name of the head of the company, Cleaveland, so that the City of Cleaveland takes its origin from the day Moses Cleaveland landed on the eastern bank of the Cuyahoga River, July 22, 1796. The “a” in Cleaveland is thought to have been removed in the 1830’s, although there is cartographic evidence from the British maps of the Great Lakes in 1817 that the spelling “Cleveland” was then in use.

Cuyahoga County was officially organized on June 1, 1810. The earliest development of the County and of Cleveland was far from promising, but, by 1809, when a public commission chose Cleveland for the Cuyahoga County seat, the area had begun to prosper and had all the appearances of a small New England village. There remained some contest and dispute about the County seat until 1826, so that the first substantial Cuyahoga County court house was not erected until 1826 although smaller impermanent quarters existed for County purposes before that.

Cleveland’s development was substantially enhanced with the construction of the Ohio Canal in the late 1820’s. The city became the northern terminus for Ohio and the western terminus from the Erie Canal through New York, the cheap, efficient, and relatively quick delivery of farm goods to the east and manufactured goods to the west made Cleveland an important terminal center and encouraged manufacture, commercial development, and banking functions. The discovery of ore in Wisconsin in the 1840’s and 1850’s and Cleveland’s advantageous position on the Great Lakes between the ore and its point of manufacture encouraged lake traffic and greater terminal and warehousing activity, as well as considerable growth in manufacturing capacities. The discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in the 1840’s and the enterprising activities of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., in Cleveland made the city a refining center and the home base of the Standard Oil Company. Automobile, aircraft, and defense production have all been a part of the city’s manufacturing capabilities since then as well as other economic activities; medical services, commercial and banking activity, home office site for corporations, education at all levels, and the accumulation of cultural riches effectively unsurpassed in the United States.

At various stages in the community’s history immigration from several parts of the world has enhanced the nature of the population and added to the urban viability of the area. The earliest immigration occurred as long ago as the 1810’s with Irish and German people; subsequent immigration has taken place from all parts of Central Europe, Great Britain, France, Russia and Poland, the Middle and Far East, and from Africa. Practically no large cultural or racial group is not represented in the makeup of Cuyahoga County’s population.

Cuyahoga County, with its sixty municipalities and various other government entities, has a population of about 1,500,000 persons; the City of Cleveland’s population is about 600,000. The land area is just under four hundred and sixty square miles. Within the County are housed major cultural and educational facilities, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, The Western Reserve Historical Society, the Cleveland Orchestra, natural history and science and medical museums, Case-Western Reserve University, Baldwin-Wallace College, John Carroll University, Cleveland State University and many other smaller universities and schools.

Major studies of the history of Cuyahoga County and Cleveland are Edmund Champion’s Cleveland: from Village to Metropolis, Eric Johannesen’s Cleveland Architecture, 1876-1976, William Ganson Rose’s Cleveland: the Making of a City, and George Condon’s Cleveland: the Best-Kept Secret. Local resources for study in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County history and development are the Cleveland Public Library, the Western Reserve Historical Society, and the Cuyahoga County Archives.

This informative excerpt was written by Roderick Boyd Porter, Director of the Cuyahoga County Archives, from the book Police Chiefs in Review, published in 1980.