The Founding of Ohio’s “City of the Gauls”

Dr. Roger Anderson, Central State University, Assistant Professor of International Languages & Cultures

Ohio history is full of neat stories with French connections.  Ohio’s French instructors can draw from this heritage, or at least be aware of how modern Ohio has been influenced by French-speaking peoples.

Gallipolis (pronounced by locals as “ga-la-poh-LEES”) is a village on the Ohio River town with picturesque views and a very unique history.  Even its name, and the name of its county, “Galia,” evoke its French origins (remembering that ‘Gaul’ was the Roman name for France).  It is a story with particular resonance in today’s era of scammers and less-than-honest marketers. 

For Ohio History Connection’s website on the founding of Gallipolis, click here: https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Gallipolis,_Ohio

Swindling Immigrants into Settling Ohio

Following the U.S. War for Independence, the U.S. engaged in the Northwest Indian War, also known as the Ohio War (1785-1795), ultimately defeating various groups of American Indians and opening up vast tracts of lands for Western expansion.  Companies popped up along the Eastern seaboard, enticing investors and settlers from the 13 original colonies to adventure into the Western wilderness.  One such company, the Scioto Company, opened up offices in Paris.  At that time in the 1790’s,  France was still experiencing the turbulence of the French Revolution, and soon, the Napoleonic Wars and its ensuing volatility.

French aristocracy, fearing the guillotine and its random application, were eager to leave France behind.  The Scioto Company began selling them deeds to land in present-day Ohio, promising them a utopian vision of rich agricultural lands with empty homes awaiting human population.

In 1791, several ships carrying what became known in Gallipolis as the “French 500,” or several hundred immigrants, departed Europe and arrived in Virginia.  There, they learned that the deeds they had been sold were in fact worthless, since the Scioto Company who sold them did not actually own the land they were selling!  Ironically, one of the swindlers was a British man who had participated in the storming of the Bastille in 1789. 

Eventually, in 1795, the U.S. Congress granted these stranded, landless French immigrants land of their own elsewhere in Southern Ohio, also along the Ohio River, but further down in present-day Portsmouth, Ohio (Scioto County).  Some French ventured there to the “French Grant” land, while some who could afford to buy new deeds – effectively paying twice for the same land – stayed in Gallipolis, while others returned east.   

These immigrants found the land they were promised on the Ohio River, the beautiful river, not to  be idyllic farmland, but rather unsettled wilderness intermixed with swamps.  Forty  woodsmen from Vermont were ordered to Gallipolis to clear the land for these stranded French settlers.  These first settlers of Gallipolis experienced hardships unknown to them, particularly since many had previously enjoyed the privileged life of French aristocracy.  The swampy topography brought disease, ultimately killing one third of the French settlers during the early years.  

Just like in the Raison River community of French immigrants in Southeast Michigan, vineyards were planted on Gallipolis island in the middle of the Ohio River, and became known as Scioto Wine. 

Our House (Tavern) Museum

This history is recounted in the fantastically preserved museum along the Ohio River in Gallipolis.  The building served as a tavern and inn for travelers up and down the river.  In addition to the fabulous period furniture and decorated rooms, it houses some true treasures for Ohio Francophones.

One such treasure is a bed in the men’s side of the home where a man once slept en route to New Orleans from Marietta.  He would go on to become the King of France, Louis-Phillipe.  

Other fascinating objects are: 

-original maps of Gallipolis written in French.

-travel documents (a.k.a., loose-leaf passports) from the French Republic for its citizens who eventually arrived in Gallipolis.

-a cameo of Napoleon, which he supposedly gave to a mistress he was trying to woo back from Ohio, as well as portraits, china, and pewter flatware bearing the names “Menager” and other French aristocracy who founded the village.

-artifacts from Dr. Antoine Saugrin, a French physician who provided supplies to Lewis & Clark’s expedition.  He explored the Ohio River as a young man but was wounded in a violent encounter with American Indians.  Ultimately, he fled France because he supported the monarchy during the revolution.

– Another intriguing, mournful object is a small, beaded purse, which was part of a story of the kidnapping of one of two French girls, sisters by American Indians, who was raised within that culture and ultimately never returned to her previous settler life or family.

The centerpiece of the museum is an elegant but fading garment that belonged to a Frenchman of unparalleled status in the U.S.  In 1825, the elderly Frenchman spent two hours in the upstairs hall of this inn in Gallipolis, Ohio.  It was packed with admirers, since this man had helped secure American independence decades earlier.  General Lafayette’s tour around the U.S. at the invitation of President Monroe was an event that drew the masses.  In Gallipolis, he greeted his fellow Frenchmen and spoke against the evils of slavery.  

Before leaving, he supposedly left two invaluable objects.  One is a print of the General, which was gifted to all the establishments on his U.S. tour.  The other is an exquisitely embroidered jacket, which shows the effects of time’s passing.  Supposedly some wine was spilled on the jacket during his visit in the tavern, and it was left for cleaning but was never reclaimed by its owner.

For Ohio History Connection’s website on Our House Tavern, see the following link: https://www.ohiohistory.org/visit/museum-and-site-locator/our-house-tavern

Bonus history:  In Gallipolis, one can also find the John Gee AME Church where the U.S.’s first celebration commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation took place in 1863, as well as the Pine Street Colored Cemetery; many residents of Gallipolis were abolitionists, yet the races were to be segregated even in death.

For info on the Pine Street Colored Cemetery, click here: https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Pine_Street_Colored_Cemetery

For info on Galia County’s year Emancipation Proclamation Day Celebration, click here: https://www.emancipation-day.com/


I hope this short article will inspire other French instructors to seek out Ohio’s historical, hidden gems.  Once uncovered, please disseminate them in The Cardinal, so we can collectively learn about the fascinating historical connections with French speaking peoples!  For U.S. Francophiles, Ohio is quite fortunate to have such historical connections, since many states do not!  A trip to Arizona or California will immerse you in Spanish colonial history, but not French…  

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