john cleves symmes

On April 10, 1818, John Cleves Symmes Jr. issued a claim that the earth was hollow and habitable to a number of American colleges:

“To All The World. — I declare the earth to be hollow and habitable within; containing a number of concentric spheres, one within the other, and that their poles are open twelve or sixteen degrees. I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the concave, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.

I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia, in autumn, with reindeer and sledges, on the ice of the Frozen Sea; I engage we find a warm country and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals, if not men, on reaching about sixty-nine miles northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring.”

John Cleves Symmes Screws Cincinnati, The Feds Insult Green Township And Miami University Is Born

John Cleves Symmes, at one time, was titular landowner of everything between the Miami rivers from the banks of the Ohio to the outskirts of what is now Dayton. It is Symmes who first thwarted Cincinnati’s desire for a university.

Cincinnati was founded by a group of pioneers who had apparently been led to believe that late December provided fine boating weather in these parts. The founders hauled their flat-bottomed skiffs ashore at Yeatman’s Cove in 1788 and struggled through an Ohio Valley winter sustained by fortitude and bear-grass bread.

Within a few years, with the Ohio Valley Shawnee much reduced in number but still mounting occasional contests to the legitimacy of government-issued deeds, the citizens – all 1000 of them – looked about the local wilderness and voiced the obvious evaluation.

“What this place needs,” they said, “is a university.”

This question arose in earnest around 1805, when Cincinnati’s population was, indeed, around 1000 hardy souls. At this time, it was far from clear where the future metropolis of the Ohio Valley would lie. In 1805, Cincinnati was just beginning to assert primacy over North Bend and Columbia – both founded at approximately the same time as Cincinnati itself.

Columbia was located near today’s Lunken Airport. Columbia had fertile land, a head start, good commercial prospects, and – at one time – more people than Cincinnati. But Columbia was also prone to seasonal flooding.

North Bend had John Cleves Symmes, who had grown up in New Jersey where he served as a militiaman during the Revolutionary War. He was elected to the Continental Congress and also served as a judge. Inspired by the reports of explorer Benjamin Stites, Symmes convinced Congress to sell him a huge tract of land – on credit – in the Ohio Valley.

Symmes bought 311,682 acres from Congress in 1788. President George Washington signed the patent in 1794 conveying to Symmes 248,250 acres plus a surveying township, in trust, for an academy. This land was known as the Symmes Purchase.

Within this territory, Symmes founded both North Bend and Miamitown with an aim to control trade not only along the Ohio River but well up the Miami River Valley. What he wanted was not a university, but a fort.

Legend has it that love derailed his plan. Symmes had cajoled the Army into sending a young ensign and a handful of soldiers to North Bend. Symmes wined and dined the young man, showed him all the militarily advantageous locations around the western outpost, and introduced him to the citizenry. The surveyor liked North Bend just fine, but he liked the wife of one of the settlers better. The settler removed his wife to Cincinnati. The ensign, who couldn’t take a hint, followed, and Symmes’ fort went along with him.

As part of his contract to purchase land, Symmes had agreed to set aside a township of 23,040 acres for the benefit of an academy or university. By 1805, Cincinnati’s citizens wanted to know where this township might be located.

Why, it’s Millcreek Township, said John Cleves Symmes. This did not sit particularly well with the settlers in Millcreek Township, who already occupied many lots purchased from John Cleves Symmes.

Ooops, my mistake, said John Cleves Symmes. Did I say Millcreek Township? Obviously I meant Springfield Township. By this point, even the federal government, way off on the east coast, knew that Springfield Township was already also substantially sold off, so they sent a commission to investigate.

Symmes suggested that what he really meant to say was Green Township, but the federal commission concluded that Green Township was too rough for farming and too wild for any civilized uses. The federal commission eventually identified a college township in Butler County, thus setting the stage for Miami University’s founding in 1809.

Miami University’s Symmes Hall was named in his honor in 1949. Symmes Hall is located on East Quad near Erickson Dining Hall on the university’s Oxford, Ohio campus.

Having turned over one rock, the government found itself in a rock-turning mood. They uncovered suspicions that Mr. Symmes had been selling a lot of land to which he did not actually hold title. Though he protested in the courts, Symmes lost, went bankrupt, and died almost penniless in 1814.

‘I declare that the earth is hollow and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles twelve or sixteen degrees. I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.’

-John Cleves Symmes, Jr. (1818)

Illustration of a Citizen of Martinia wearing a wig. From Niels Klim’s 'Journey Under the Ground’, English ed. (1845)