Photo by Cleveland.com
Tired of hipster one-upmanship? You know, that whole “I liked it before it was popular” routine that alpha-hipsters use to assert dominance over their pack of horn-rimmed, side-parted liberal arts graduates who all work in the service industry? Well, don’t worry, because Lorenzo Carter has them all beat: he was living in Cleveland before it was Cleveland.
Fresh out of a surprisingly successful revolutionary war, the emboldened American ex-colonists started to look west to see if they could steal any more land from the Native American people. A nation of humility from the get-go, the United States government decreed that each state had the rights to all the land west of its current borders, as long as it lay between its northern and southern parallels. Wasting little time, Connecticut flipped Rhode Island the bird and eagerly started sending people to look for places to settle within the brand new Western Reserve territory.
So, in 1796, a guy named Moses Cleaveland stood on what is now the East Bank of the Flats and decided it would be a good place for a city. Whether or not he was right is still hotly debated, but the location on our Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie had him convinced of the region’s potential for a settlement. On his order, some surveyors drew up a rough map with rectangular lots available for purchase, and then they returned to Connecticut to see if they could sell the land. Ol’ Moses never returned to the site, and we Clevelanders have since taken to misspelling his name out of spite.
Meanwhile, in Vermont, a young man named Lorenzo Carter was freshly married to a Rebecca Fuller and eager to make a life for himself and his new family. Now, there’s not a lot written about Miss Rebecca Fuller, but that’s because historians didn’t really acknowledge that women existed until about maybe fifty years ago. Although, to be fair, when was the last time any of you ladies asked a historian out on a date? Coincidence? Maybe. Anyway, at risk of being sexist, I’m going to continue the narrative, focusing on ol’ Lorenzo.
Carter was reportedly six feet tall, of allegedly remarkable strength, and had a leaderly courage about him that he thought would inspire folks to follow him to the swampy mouth of the Cuyahoga. So, ‘Zo and the fam—along with a dude named Ezekiel Hawley and his family, whom history has also mostly forgotten—made their way to this Cleaveland that they had heard so much about and built a couple of cabins. They established a river ferry, planted some crops, started a fur trade, and did everything they could to encourage future settlers.
The local indigenous people, however, reacted to the new settlers’ presence much like most of us would react to a stranger who unexpectedly walked into our place, ate all the cereal, and passed out on our couch watching Netflix: they tracked him through the lake effect snow while he was out hunting and tried to kill him. Harvey Rice, in his 1891 tome City of Cleveland and Other Sketches, recounts the following story of the indigenous locals’ attempt at dispatching Carter:
“This the delegated assassins attempted to do, and thinking to make sure work of it, both fired at him at the same time, but failed to hit him. In an instant Carter turned on his heel and shot one of them, who fell dead in his tracks; the other uttered a terrific war whoop and fled out of sight. This dire result over-awed the Indians. From that time no further attempts were made to take Carter’s life.”
After that episode, Carter was regarded as a “favorite of the Great Spirit” and thus immortal. He would serve as an arbitrator and tentative ally to the natives for the rest of his days. The early records tend to treat indigenous people with triviality and disrespect, so it’s hard to know what they really thought of Carter. It sounds like he spent a lot time bribing them with whiskey, and they generally resented him.
In one story, for example, a local native known as John O’Mick was condemned to death for robbing and murdering two white settlers, perhaps out of annoyance that they were stealing his people’s land. On the day of the hanging, which took place in public square, O’Mick attempted to prevent the execution and clung to the scaffolding. Carter, allegedly O’Mick’s friend, offered him some whiskey in an attempt to console him. While the terrified man had a drink, Carter pulled the trapdoor.
Another oft-told story of Carter dealt with his reaction to a runaway slave known to history as Ben. After surviving a shipwreck that killed everyone else on board, Ben, starving and frostbitten, was taken in by Carter. Later in the year, two Kentuckians claiming to own Ben arrived in Cleveland demanding his return. In a quote that Cleveland Scene described as “badass,” Carter is alleged to have told them, “I don’t like niggers, but I don’t believe in slavery either.” After a couple days of back and forth, the Kentuckians gave up and Ben happily moved to Canada.
Once firmly established in the new settlement, Carter pulled the most Cleveland move of all time and opened a bar. The Carter Tavern must have made him awfully popular because when he was convicted of assault and battery in 1802, his accuser was run out of town by Carter’s supporters. To be fair, the charge was apparently over a mere slap in the face, and in the grisly world of the the frontier, no real man would dare snitch to the police over such a minute transgression.
Carter made his enemies, too. In a letter from a Connecticut statesman to Moses Cleveland (take that!) briefing him on his settlement’s status, Carter was the subject of several grievances: “[Carter] gathers about him all the itinerant Vagabonds that he meets with, out of whom he has absolute control—organizing a phalanx of Desperadoes and setting all Laws at defiance.” Sounds like this guy was just jealous he didn’t get invited to the party.
Speaking of parties, Carter threw what might have been the city’s first in 1801, and based on Harvey Rice’s description in The Founder of the City of Cleveland, and Other Sketches, it sounded like a real rager: “The refreshments were substantial in their character, consisting mainly of baked pork and beans, plum cake, and whiskey, and were partaken with a keen relish and in liberal quantities. The dance was continued until daylight, the next morning, when the party dispersed, and returned in a merry mood to their rustic homes.” Allegedly, the first wedding in Cleveland was a result of this party. Lorenzo, you dog!
While most probably don’t recognize his name today, Lorenzo Carter did a great deal to put Cleveland on the map. He tirelessly encouraged people to move to and remain in what was at the time just a rugged frontier settlement with no apparent prospects of the “Progress and Prosperity” that our city’s flag boasts. He built the city’s first cargo ship, the Zephyr, setting an early precedent for the lakefront shipping industry that would help turn Cleveland into a major commercial center. He helped establish the city’s tradition of soft racism—but in the tradition of Cleveland’s soft racism, let’s not dwell on that. He probably coined the phrase “Believeland” before anyone else, too.
And you call yourself a Clevelander.