Our past stays with us forever through stories

Listen to the Story

We live – as the droll among us are wont to say – in interesting times. And in times like ours, it is sometimes useful to consider both the jarring challenge of change and the consolations of continuity. It is important – that is – to reflect on the pertinence of the past.

So for today, I would like to talk a bit about not so much about the telling – as about the tale that is told.

What many of the people doing history today forget is that most of the word ‘history’ is the word ‘story.’ We are, if we are doing our jobs properly, good story tellers. We should tell accurate stories, well-researched stories, honest stories – but stories all the same.

Good history is a good story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. And it makes a point. And that point is usually a moral point. In short, in history as in life, good and evil exist. Right and wrong exist.

So let’s tell a story or two.

In the years after the American Revolution, a young man named Lucas Sullivant came up the Scioto River with a certain mission in mind. Too young to have fought in the war, Sullivant had trained as a surveyor. And now he was surveying the land that the Revolution had won.

Virginia claimed the land between the Miami and the Scioto as its own and wished it surveyed for its veterans of the Revolution. It could not pay them in money. But it could pay them in land.

Lucas Sullivant surveyed a good portion of that land and took his pay in some of the land he surveyed. The land he like best was at the forks of the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers. In 1797, he laid out a town at that place and called it Franklinton.

His town grew and even prospered a bit. By 1812, Ohio was looking for a new capital city. The state looked at all sorts of places – Circleville, Newark, and Delaware to name just a few. It even looked at Sullivant’s Franklinton. But in the end it chose the offer put forth by few men for land on “the High Banks opposite Franklinton at the forks of the Scioto called Wolf’s Ridge.”

And with that, on February 12, 1812, Columbus was born. Lucas Sullivant died in 1823. He had opened this part of the world to settlement and lived long enough to see a capital city come forth.

In the years between the founding of Columbus and the death of Lucas Sullivant, a young man named William Neil came to town with his wife, Hannah. Neil was a Kentuckian and had come north to make his fortune. He had failed as a banker in Urbana and now would try his luck in Columbus.

He did much better. His Neil House Hotel – largely managed by Hannah – would become the best in the city. In the meantime Neil would form a stagecoach empire only surpassed by Wells Fargo in later years over greater distances.

After his death in 1870, his farm would become the campus of the Ohio State University. And the Hannah Neil Mission and Home for the Friendless would become one of the great charities of Columbus.

In less than two generations, Columbus had moved from being a frontier crossroads to a center of state power and authority/ and the story of its growth and success was only beginning.

Why should any of us care about these stories of who we have been?

All of us have links to the pervasive past of the place we are in time. And it is a vibrantly living past. The simple fact is that most of us have not been shown how to see it.

We can see the living past in our streets, in our structures, and in the stories of the people who made them. And once we have that past it becomes a part of us forever.

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