The Ohio Origins of National Coming Out Day (October 11th)
Did you know one of the founders of National Coming Out Day (October 11th) is an Ohioan? Read her story and about the origins of NCOD!
In the spring of 1840, the Ohio Whig newspaper touted a future presidential campaign stop at Fort Meigs by candidate General William Henry Harrison. Readers may be familiar with Harrison’s slogan Tippecanoe and Tyler Too, coined due to his victory at the War of 1812 Battle of Tippecanoe, with John Tyler playing second fiddle as the hopeful vice president.
The campaign was also known as Harrison’s Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign with images of log cabins emblazoned upon memorabilia and advertisements showing a stoic Harrison in front of a log cabin, insinuating that he not only lives there but that it was built by his own hand. A vision of true Americana. The depth to which this image still clings to our minds today, or at least my own borne from several iterations of American History classes throughout middle and high school, is a testament to political subversion in media.
As Harrison was 67 years old at the time, the oldest candidate to have run for presidential office, his political rivals in the Democratic Party and it's radical subsect, the Locofocos, clung to concerns over his presumably fragile state. One such detractor, Baltimore Republican editorialist John de Ziska, wrote,
"Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension on him ... he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of the fire and study moral philosophy!"
In other words, let him live out the rest of his days drunkenly happy, left to enjoy the finer things in life.
These words proved to be all too easily corrupted. The Whig Party represented a newly emerging American middle class, alienating working class farmers and unskilled laborers. As Harrison was a well-known aristocrat, having been highly educated, the adoption of a log cabin by his side smoothed any notion of an out-of-touch candidate.
Shortly after the Ohio Whig announced the Fort Meigs campaign stop, a committee was established to oversee the expedited construction of a log cabin on the grounds of the fort prior to the June 11th rally.
Each township in Lucas and Wood counties was solicited to send one log, measuring no less than 25 foot long by 1 foot in diameter, to Fort Meigs.
In early May, the first log arrived, naturally accompanied by three barrels of hard cider, and local Whigs gathered to celebrate and revel in anticipation.
The revelry was soon replaced by fury as politically motivated hijinks ensued the following night. An article in the Ohio Whig exclaimed,
The Locofoco political platform was made up of mostly unskilled workmen who were vocally pro-union, liberally economic, and known to appear in headlines for their political activism.
As you can see from the accompanying illustration, members were thought of as being especially crazed or brutish.
Their stronghold didn't stray far outside of New York City, and they would be completely irrelevant to this story if not for another twist of ingenuity on the part of the Whigs.
Because of their radical nature, as well as being a perceived faction of the Democratic Party - a fact contested by both the Dems and the Locofocos themselves - the Whigs gleefully took advantage of their unusual name and derisive nature.
And so the Democrats were exclusively referred to as Locofocos in all Whig-produced media during this era.
Under the cover of night, local Locofoco members hoisted the hefty log into an old well located just north of the Grand Traverse at Fort Meigs (see the included map, above). Given that the well was no longer in use, a slurry of thick mud had accumulated at the bottom and so the end of the log stuck out by roughly eight feet. The log was unable to be removed, though the Whigs sarcastically boasted that the log was instead left as a,
"monument of the noble and brilliant achievements of the Locofocos."
Still, more logs continued to be furnished by Whig Party supporters. And, again, Locofoco meanness struck Fort Meigs for a second time.
According to C.W. Evers' 1897 Commemorative Historical and Biographical Record of Wood County, Ohio, local Locofoco members, again obscured by darkness, entered Fort Meigs and took to sawing each log in half, rendering them useless in the construction of the log cabin.
Undeterred, the Whigs again bolstered their call for logs, hired armed security to patrol the grounds - successfully warding off the meddling Locofocos - and completed the log cabin right on time for Harrison's July 11th rally.
The rally was an overwhelming achievement with a reported attendance of between 40,000 to 50,000 people - astoundingly successful for a town still considered to be at the edge of the frontier. One unnamed source, published by the Ohio Whig, had reportedly traveled from Huron County through the Black Swamp to Fort Meigs on horseback. The source recounts a near-complete reenactment of the War of 1812 Siege of Fort Meigs taking place on July 10 and a rousing hour long speech delivered by General Harrison the following day. Moreover, a confident sketch of Harrison's vitality is included,
" ... in person he is about 6 feet and 10 inches in height of handsome proportion and from his appearance and activity, he would represent a man of younger years."
Harrison was elected as the ninth President of the United States before ultimately passing away from pneumonia on April 4, 1841, one month into his first term. The Whig Party dissolved shortly thereafter.
The log which was cast into the well at Fort Meigs in 1840 remained stuck at the time of Evers' 1897 publication, far outlasting both Harrison's Presidency and the Whig Party.
So, what's this got to do with Archaeology?
Though Fort Meigs is most known as a key historic site due to its role in the War of 1812, archaeological preservation is indiscriminate. That is to say, specific events may be most revered by the public, but the detritus of other events, as well as mundane day-to-day life, survive just as well amongst the landscape.
Beginning in 1960 and continuing into the 1970s, work was underway at Fort Meigs to reconstruct the original 1812 stockade and the earth-moving prompted a number of professional archaeological investigations conducted by Raymond Baby, Curator of Archaeology at OHC during that time, the University of Toledo, and Defiance College. In 1974, Defiance College began excavation of a well located just north of the Grand Traverse - you can see where this is going - and by 1975, the Perrysburg Messenger-Journal announced that the well was fully excavated and discovery of the Locofoco-chucked log was made!
Archaeological investigations, and the discoveries made, press us to take a closer look into the past and reconsider the stories exclude from the historical narratives we tell. One example is the on-going archaeological research conducted at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello which examines the lives and living quarters of enslaved people, expanding our collective understanding of the historic plantation and farmstead.
In the case of Harrison's rally at Fort Meigs, primary newspaper articles published in the 1840s were some of the only resources available which document the rally and include the Locofoco story. Despite seven comprehensive volumes covering the history of Fort Meigs, Wood County, and the Maumee River Valley published between 1858 and 1908, only two even mention the rally.
In fact, this 1902 image taken from John E. Guncket's The Early History of the Maumee Valley clearly shows the Locofoco log sticking from the defunct well but is only included in the context of the well's use in the War of 1812.
And therein lies the beauty of archaeology, if we dig just a little bit deeper - literally and figuratively - the nearly forgotten past comes to light.
A special shoutout to Perrysburg's Way Public Library Online Newspaper Archives. With over 117,000 pages of newsprint digitized from two dozen historic and modern newspapers, this archive proved to be an indispensable resource throughout my research. Give their page a visit!