Tuscarawas County is rich in American history, containing, among other things, historical sites commemorating the only Revolutionary War Fort and the first white settlement in what later became Ohio. The first people who settled in the Tuscarawas Valley were the prehistoric mound builders who left their mysterious mounds scattered about the area, but we have no clues as to who these people were, or what the mounds were for. They serve today as a reminder that we may never know all that this beautiful countryside has seen. Modern history in our area began just before the Revolutionary War. Immigrants from the east coast and from Europe moved westward to what was then the frontier, beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
In Switzerland there was religious persecution against the emerging Amish sects there. The new world offered a safe haven for the different Amish groups. Today Tuscarawas County, along with neighboring Holmes and Coshocton Counties, is home to the largest settlement of Amish in the world. In 1772 a Moravian Minister named David Zeisberger brought a group of missionaries here to the new settlement he named Schoenbrunn (Beautiful Spring). The missionaries converted a large number of the local natives to Christianity, and these converts also settled a nearby community called Gnadenhutten, which means Tents of Grace. During the Revolutionary War, these settlements tried to stay neutral, but the British recruited many native tribes to their side with the promise that, if the British won the war, the movement of whites into Indian territory would cease. Both Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten were threatened. The Schoenbrunn settlement moved farther south, into what is now Coshocton County, but, in 1782, Gnadenhutten was attacked and 90 Christian Indians were massacred.
The county seat in Tuscarawas County is New Philadelphia, which was founded in 1804 by John Knisely of Bedford County, Pennsylvania. This region, which he visited while hunting, so enchanted him that he returned home, sold his possessions and persuaded 33 others, in addition to his own family, to come with him to settle the new town. Moravian Missionary John Heckewelder, who was living in Gnadenhutten, acted as land agent for the owner, Godfrey Haga, and sold Knisely 3,554 acres of Haga's land along the Tuscarawas River. The town was laid out in a planned, checkerboard pattern adapted from that used by its namesake, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Two years later, in 1806, a young bachelor named Christian Deardorff came to the Ohio Territory with his brother-in-law, Jesse Slingluff. The two men purchased 2,175 acres north of New Philadelphia for $4,622 and Deardorff filed a plat for the City of Dover at the land office in Zanesville in 1807. In the spring of 1817 about 200 German immigrants came to America seeking freedom of religion. Their leader was Joseph Bimeler, who, with the assistance of Quakers in Pennsylvania, had purchased 5,500 acres of land north of Dover, where the group founded a community named Zoar. The immigrants arrived in the fall and faced a winter without supplies. An unknown benefactor sent enough provisions to see them through. No one has ever learned the identity of this good Samaritan.
Individual farms in Zoar were unsuccessful, so the group joined together to create a communal community. All land and personal property were held in common, even clothing and household goods. All the earnings, from crops raised or from items manufactured and sold, went into a common pool and was shared out equally to meet people's needs and to expand the community. The Zoarites pitched in to help in building the Ohio-Erie Canal when the project passed near Zoar, and the money they earned went to buy more land. The commune eventually covered 9,000 acres, and boasted a large hotel, a tannery, an iron works, flour and cider mills, a cabinet shop and blacksmith shop. The Zoar Commune continued until 1898, when the community was dissolved and the property evenly divided.
The Ohio-Erie Canal was built, in part, along the shores of the Tuscarawas River, and all the communities in the county benefited, both through increased commerce and an influx of new residents. Although the canal's dominance ceased with the coming of the railroads, it continued to be used as a means of inexpensive transport when speed was not required. The canal continued in use until the great flood of 1913 washed away most of it. Some locks still survive, and may be seen in various places near the river. Today the history of Tuscarawas County combines with its beautiful natural setting to make the area a prime destination for campers, antique hunters, genealogists and history buffs.
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