John Reily: Guardian Of The People


John Reily. Courtesy Butler County Historical Society.

John Reily. Courtesy Butler County Historical Society.

When John Reily arrived in Hamilton in 1803, the fort had been abandoned for eight years, but traces of it remained.

Israel Ludlow had purchased the land around the fort from John Cleves Symmes (the original Judge Symmes, not his nephew, known as Capt. Symmes, the author of the Hollow Earth Theory). Ludlow, who had previously surveyed Cincinnati, laid plans for a town he dubbed Fairfield in December 1794. When the fort was abandoned, so was the name, and the town took the name of the fort.

A few of the original pickets were still embedded in the ground when Reily arrived to become the clerk of courts for newly-formed Butler County, but most had been repurposed, and Reily would have been able to see a clear outline of its former boundaries as a scar on the land, leaving a clear outline of its former boundaries running alongside the Great Miami River to about where Market Street presently is, along Front Street to the other side of Court Street and back to the river. Ludlow had not laid out the land inside the former fort. That would not be done until 1817.

A public well and a few garrison buildings remained inside the old fort, however, one being used as a tavern, others as courthouse and jail. The former officer’s quarters, a two-story frame house on High Street just east of the fort’s eastern scar, was in 1803 William McClellan’s tavern. Just north of it, extending from near the river to the east line of the pickets, was a row of stables built of stripped hickory logs, originally used for the horses of the officers and the cavalry, now served the growing town’s already burgeoning tavern trade. John Torrence had a tavern at the corner of Dayton Street and Water Street. Isaac Stanley kept the Black Horse tavern in an old log house on Front Street. He would later serve many years as the elected justice of the peace and keep his office in the barroom, dispensing justice along with the whiskey.

In 1803, there still would have been a natural secondary terrace of the riverbank that ran along Second Street, just south of the block assigned to be the public square, where the Butler County Courthouse now stands. That square had been the burying ground for the fort, and workers excavating the ground for High Street and leveling out the terrace for the public square had to relocate these remains. As late as 1812, there was a fence around a grave in the middle of High Street near Second.

Surrounding the graveyard/public square was a thick forest of oak trees with “an almost impenetrable undergrowth of hazel bushes and wild vines,” according to pioneer biographer James McBride. “The upper part of the town, north of Dayton street, was a beautiful natural prairie.”

The earliest census of Hamilton in 1810 put the population at 210, but in 1803 may have been but a few dozen, and most of those must have been living rough as McBride notes that “few houses had been erected,” and what was there, he described as “dilapidated” already.

“The inhabitants of Hamilton, when Mr. Reily went there, were few in number, and composed chiefly of soldiers and other persons who had been attached to Wayne’s army, and had remained there when that army was disbanded at the close of the campaign,” McBride said. “These persons lacking energy and enterprise, spoiled for pioneer work, by military camp life, and in many cases dissipated and immoral, were not the class of citizens best calculated to promote the rapid improvement of the place.”

John Reily, forty years old when he landed in Hamilton, had been a founding member of Cincinnati’s board of trustees and a clerk of courts in Hamilton County. He had come to the newly-formed Butler County to take up the clerk of court’s position here for the Court of Common Pleas, which organized the county into townships and set the date for the first elections at a meeting in May. He would hold this job until 1840, his seventy-seventh year, when he declined another appointment.

Reily established his office in a former shop just south of the pickets. He lived upstairs. He purchased a large parcel of land from Ludlow, established a farm and built a home just east of the public square on the corner of High and Second Streets, now the site of the Rentschler Building. He moved his office there, too.

In 1809, Mr. Reily removed his office to the south room of his just-completed residence, east of the public square, where it remained till 1824, when the present court-house buildings were completed.

Reily also served as the first recorder of Butler County (1803-11), clerk of the county commissioners (1803 to 1819), postmaster (1804 to 1832), and president of the board of trustees for Miami University (1809 to 1924) and a trustee until 1840, all the while maintaining a private practice of maintaining properties for non-resident property owners.

By all accounts, Reily was extremely efficient in his offices. There was never any waiting around for him to locate a document in his charge.

McBride wrote, “Reily watched over the financial affairs of the county with such wisdom and success, that at no time were county orders at a discount; nor did it become necessary to contract an onerous debt or subject the people to unreasonable taxes. He was, in fact, as he was often called, the guardian of the people of Butler county.”

Given this sterling reputation as an administrator and bureaucrat known in Hamilton for his “delicate and sensitive manner” and for his fastidious dress and exacting manners, one might be surprised to learn that before coming here, John Reily earned early fame as a soldier and Indian fighter.

Born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, April 10, 1763, John Reily was reared on a family farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

He witnessed battles with the native population early on, including a skirmish between the celebrated chief Cornstalk and Virginia troops when he was 11 years old.

At 17 years old, he joined the Revolutionary Army and served under Major-General Nathaniel Greene, distinguishing himself in campaigns in South Carolina and Georgia, including the hard-fought battle of Eutaw Springs near the of the war. In that battle, Reily’s company advanced too far into the enemy line and found itself surrounded by the British, requiring a supreme effort to break through the line again to rejoin the Southern Division troops.

After 18 months and decorations for bravery and good conduct, he received a discharge under the seal of General Washington and returned to the family farm in Virginia.

He did not stay long. The West beckoned, and he left the farm to seek his fortune in the wilds of Kentucky, where his eldest sister and her husband had moved.

He didn’t care much for the labors of the farm, but was mechanically included and so worked building houses and setting up a shop to manufacture plows and agricultural implements for the other pioneer settlers. Although not formally educated, he began teaching English. He then took a position to establish a school in the settlement of Columbia along the Ohio River, just east of Cincinnati.

Skirmishes with Indians were common, and in addition to helping protect Columbia, Reily also served on volunteer expeditions to aid other settlers, including a particularly tense attack on Dunlap’s Station, where a cadre of about 30 soldiers and pioneers held off at least 300, perhaps as many as 500, Indian attackers lead by the infamous Scotsman renegade Simon Girty.

In early 1792, Reily accompanied volunteers on a foray north to clean up battle field and bury the victims of St. Clair’s Defeat near Fort Jefferson.

In 1793, he left Columbia and tried his hand again at farming on a tract of land seven miles from Cincinnati. His partner, a man named Prior, was killed by Indians, and Reily became disillusioned with farming a third time and eventually took a job as clerk for the Hamilton County court. He not only assisted in setting up Cincinnati’s first city government, but was also appointed to represent Hamilton County at Ohio’s first constitutional convention.

His neat and systematic manner of maintaining records, his punctuality and honesty, led to his appointment in Hamilton in 1803.

“During his whole life, in all the multifarious business which he transacted, his veracity and integrity were never called in question,” McBride wrote of Reily. “They were proverbial.”

McBride said he was “plain and unostentatious,” ardent in his friendships, “uniformly cheerful and occasionally animated.”

At the age of eighty-seven, John Reily died quietly in the morning of June 7, 1850. Both the Butler County Common Pleas Court and the second Ohio Constitutional Convention canceled their sessions to eulogize the great man.

His funeral procession to Greenwood Cemetery was the largest yet witnessed in Butler County, including a “great number of venerable white-haired men, who had been the early companions of the old pioneer…”