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William Hewitt

In the fall of 1797 the Post Office Department established a new office in Jackson County, Ohio, and named it Hewitt. Although established simply for the convenience of the inhabitants of the valley of Hewitt's Fork, its name will serve as a fitting memorial of the gentle hermit who was the first permanent settler of the county, and was one of the earliest pioneers to make a home in the forest primeval of the Northwest Territory.

The life story of William Hewitt, the hermit, reads like romance. Much has already been written about the last fourteen years of his life, which were spent in Pike County, and about the several resurrections of his bones, but the story of his youth in Virginia, his early love and its disappointment, his thirty-three years hermitage among the hills of Jackson County, his varied experiences with the fierce Shawanese, and his scout life during the War of 1812, is yet a mine of virgin ore, untouched by historian or novelist.

He was born near Staunton, Virginia, in 1764, and the tirst twenty-two years of his life were spent in the Old Dominion. It was the life of a backwoods boy on the margin of the wilderness, full of hardships and perils from wild animals, and wilder men. But nature had amply equipped him for the struggle, and when he reached manhood's estate he was stalwart of frame, measuring six feet and two inches, and weighing nearly two hundred pounds.
Shortly after reaching his majority he left his home and kindred and disappeared into the wilderness to the west. The time and cause of his departure are in dispute, and some of the writers that have discussed the subject have even tampered with his reputation. Colonel John McDonald's version is to the effect that he fled from home, red-handed; that, "returning one night from a journey, he had ocular proof of the infidelity of his wife, killed her paramour, and instantly fled to the woods." McDonald states that this account was related by Hewitt to his father, but the fact that Hewitt related an entirely different account to James Emmitt naturally throws suspicion on both.

Emmitt states that "just after Hewitt had merged into manhood his father died, and, as is customary to this day, a row occurred over the division of the old gentleman's property, which was quite considerable. Some of the children were disposed to exhibit swinishness, and tried to gobble the old man's estate, to the exclusion of the interests of less aggressive members of the family. The performances of this little knot of family banditti utterly disgusted Hewitt, and he disappeared."

These conflicting versions prove that Hewitt's ready wit never failed him when the curious sought his secret. His disappointment in love was too painful a subject to discuss w4th every crony, and, besides, few of the prosaic natured pioneers would have believed his romantic tale, although they readily accepted his stories of murder or covetousness.

The truth is that Hewitt loved and lost. Another won for his bride the girl that had won his heart, and the world turned black to him. As sometimes happens to shy, gentle hearted, great hearted men, he could not endure his fate, and he fled from it. In Europe he would have entered a monastery, but living in colonial Virginia, he entered the forest, and left behind home, kindred, friends, love and all but life. Some writers claim that this happened in 1790, but the most probable date is 1787.

As already indicated, the Virginians who followed General Lewis into the hills of Southern Ohio in 1774 carried back glowing accounts of the wonderful game resort which they had discovered on one of the smaller branches of the Scioto, where they had seen herds of buffalo, deer, elk and smaller game in great numbers. Hither Hewitt pursued his course. Although tired of the world, he had no intention of throwing his life away, and he had come equipped with rifle, hunting knife and backwoodsman's ax. When he arrived in the neighborhood of Salt Creek he found game, as had been described. But he found Indians also. They were engaged in salt boiling. This was not a misfortune, however, and he soon determined upon a course of action. Watching his opportunity, he entered their circle, and they beheld in their power, a pale-faced giant, whose peaceful overtures soon disarmed all suspicion.

His melancholy mien, which was not assumed, his shyness, reserve and aimless wanderings, impressed the Indians, and ere long they came to regard him as partially demented. Such persons were considered by the Indians as under the direct protection of the Great Spirit, and Hewitt soon found himself as secure from hostile attack as if he had been inside a fortress. Permitted to wander at will, he began his hermit career of some forty-seven years, thirty-three years of which were spent in Jackson County, and fourteen years in Pike County.

After flowing past the licks, Salt Creek turns suddenly to the northward and flows through a gorge which it cut for itself during the last glacial period. Along this gorge, which is several miles in length, there are many cave shelters, and in one of them Hewitt made his first permanent home in Ohio. During the summer months he would leave his cave for weeks at a time, tramping hither and thither, camping where night found him, hunting, fishing, trapping. With game abundant, the Indians always friendly, and life all serenity, Hewitt lived down his sorrow, but did not tire of his solitude. One is almost tempted to envy this hunter hermit, his return to a primeval existence. Clad in buckskin fi-ora head to foot, living on venison, fish and bear meat, pawpaws, wild plums and berries, drinking the delicious waters of the conglomerate springs, and breathing the pure air of the hills, he needed nothing but love to make his life complete, and that he had lost.

The first white salt boilers settled in Jackson County in 1795, and before the end of the century there was a large camp at the Scioto salt licks. Many of these salt boilers had been Revolutionary soldiers, who had afterward become rovers, and not a few of them were reckless. In short, this early mining camp much resembled the later camps in the mining regions of the wild west. The proximity of such neighbors did not please Hewitt, and he followed the departing game into the fastnesses of the hills. He established his camp on the headwaters of the creek which now bears his name, and built his house, half dugout, half cabin, on land now owned by Dan D. Davis of Jefferson township. Here he lived for about ten years. Scioto County, which was erected May 1, 1803, took in Hewitt's Fork valley. The coming of homesteaders into the rich bottom lands of the Ohio drove the squatters back into the hills, and Hewitt soon had neighbors more undesirable than the salt boilers, from whose presence he had fled. Many of these early squatters in the hills of Southern Ohio were noted for their thieving propensities, and this brought trouble to Hewitt. In 1808 the sheriff of Scioto County determined to make a raid into Hewitt's Fork after some bold hog thieves. He arrested Hewitt and his nearest neighbor, one William Peterson, took them to Portsmouth and lodged them in jail. Peterson was identified and convicted, and punished at the stake with seventeen stripes. Hewitt declined to defend himself, but as no evidence against him was offered, the sheriff finally dismissed him with an apology. The hermit felt humiliated, and on returning to the hills he determined to abandon his camp, and moved to a cave shelter below the Scioto salt licks, where he spent twelve years.

The War of 1812 was now at hand, and Hewitt deserted the paths of peace to serve his country as a soldier. His long life in the woods had prepared him for the duties of scout, and his aversion to carrying a gun in the ranks caused him to ask to be assigned to that work. During nearly two years of life as a scout he rendered valuable service. He had thrilling experiences and hair-breadth escapes too numerous to describe in this work. In July, 1812, he joined the expedition of General Tupper into Northern Ohio. Tupper had raised about one thousand men in Gallia, Jackson and Lawrence counties for six months service, and Hewitt deserves much of the credit for the success of this campaign. On July 29, 1813, he joined Captain Jared Strong's company, as a private, and marched with it into the Indian country for the relief of Fort Meigs, which was then besieged. During his career as a scout he remembered the many kindnesses received at the hands of the Indians, and although he captured many of them single-handed, he never shed a drop of Indian blood, and for his treatment of them the Indians called him the "mad" scout.

Jackson County was organized March 1, 1816, and Hewitt cast the first vote of his life at the spring election held April 1, 1816. But he did not take kindly to the growth of the Salt Lick settlement, for that drove away the game on which he lived. He lingered on for a few years, but about 1820 he bade farewell to the licks, in whose proximity he had lived for a generation, and tramped down into the Scioto valley. Finding a suitable cave shelter at the base of Dividing Ridge, in Pike County, he pitched his camp. Enclosing the open front with a stone wall, he soon had a rock house, in which he spent the rest of his life. He had learned one bad habit with age, the love of liquor, and his visits to the towns became more frequent. One day, in 1834, he went to Waverly, and while there was taken ill with pneumonia, which caused his death.

And now begins a chapter in his history like those of the mummy kings of Egypt, or the bones of Columbus. His body was interred in the old Waverly graveyard, but it was not allowed to rest in peace. Dr. Willam Blackstone gave it an immediate resurrection. After selecting a part of the skeleton for mounting, he buried the other bones in his lot. There they were found in 1852, by Edward Vester, a cellar digger. He carefully reinterred them in another part of the lot, and soon forgot all about them. But in 1888, thirty-one years later, they were disturbed again. Vester was engaged in digging a cellar way, and suddenly came upon them a second time. Emmitt had them gathered and shipped to Dr. T. Blackstone of Circleville, who owns the skeleton, and who has kindly furnished me the following descripton of it:

Circleville, O., Feb. 20th, 1897.
Mr. D. W. Williams, Jackson, O.
Dear Sir,
All the bones of Hewitt, the hermit, that I now have in my possession are the three bones of the right arm, humerus, radius, ulna, and the entire skull without the lower jaw. The skull has been sawed in two just above the brows. The bones sent me by Mr. Emmitt were crumbling when received from him, and continued to do so till they were in powder. The other bones that I now have are perfect, solid and well preserved. Five teeth and a piece of one remain in the upper jaw, none of them showing signs of decay. One has a large cavity, which has never been filled. The skull is of good size, of symmetrical shape, and is thicker and heavier than the average. It shows, with the teeth, that it belonged to a strong man, past the prime of life.
Yours respectfully,

Such is a brief outline of the life of William Hewitt, who took up his abode in the Northwest Territory in 1787, one year before the coming of the Marietta pioneers, who lived a hermit for forty-seven years, never shed blood, never willfully harmed man or beast, and yet did not find love in life, or rest in the grave.

Source: A History of Jackson County, Ohio by D. W. Williams, Volume I, Jackson, Ohio, 1900.

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