Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — John Young

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John Young Memorial, photo by Jack Pierce. (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Did you know that Youngstown gets its name from the first European-American to settle on and acquire the land?  Youngstown is literally “Young’s Town.” Sure, you knew that! That’s Youngstown history 101. What was interesting to me was to find out a bit more history about Young. Along the way, I discovered that his presence, on and off for under six years, was sufficient to shape the early contours of the city, still evident to this day, and to attract one of the key early settlers who helped found the city. I also discovered that there is some controversy about whether Young really is Youngstown’s first settler.

According to biographical information provided by Charles Young, a son of John Young to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society in 1875, John Young was born in 1763 in Petersborough, New Hampshire and moved to Whitestown, New York, about 1780. He married Mary Stone White in 1792. He moved to the Ohio lands in 1796, building a log cabin on the northeast bank of the Mahoning River near Spring Common. In 1797, he began the settlement of Youngstown, purchasing a township of 15,560 acres from the Connecticut Land Company for $16,085.16, with the establishment of the city being recorded in 1802. In 1799, his family moved to Youngstown and were there until 1803, when health concerns for Mary led them to return to New York. During his time in Youngstown he laid out the first plats of the city including Federal Street, Central Square, North, (now Wood) Street and South (now Front) Street, town lots and larger farm-size plats. After returning to Whitestown, he was involved in various public works in upstate New York until his death in 1825.

On Young’s first trip into the area, he and his surveyor Alfred Wolcott were reputed to have met up with Colonel James Hillman, who sighted smoke from a fire the Young party had set as he was canoeing up the Mahoning from Beaver, Pennsylvania. Young persuaded Hillman to join him for a “frolic” that evening (with an exchange of skins for whiskey). That supposedly led to Hillman deciding to settle in Youngstown. Hillman became Youngstown’s first constable, and later, during the war of 1812 led a militia that defended the area against Indian attacks. He later served as a representative in the state legislature, and is probably worthy of a post to more fully tell his story!

No one will dispute that John Young did not permanently reside in the town that bears his name. But did he actually settle there? Howard C. Aley, in A Heritage to Share, introduces a letter from a descendent of Daniel Shehy, one of the first to buy land from Young (1000 acres for $2000) and settle in Youngstown. He contends that it is Daniel Shehy, and not John Young, that built that first log cabin along the Mahoning and that Young did no more than travel back and forth between New York and Youngstown. There is evidence of a dispute between the two men over the land purchase, which in the end meant that Shehy only acquired 400 rather than 1000 acres. Might that help account for the conflicting narratives?

Whether Shehy played a larger role than most of the histories narrate will probably remain disputed. Sheehy was definitely one of the first to purchase land from Young. What is beyond question is that Young was involved in the surveys that gave shape to Youngstown, it was Young who purchased the land and sold it to Shehy and others and for this alone deserves a singular place in Youngstown history as that man who gave the city its name and had the vision of a thriving city on the banks of the Mahoning. 

[After writing this post, I heard from two Shehy descendents. In researching the article, I came across two spellings of the name, Sheehy and Shehy. I used the wrong one and have now corrected it. It is “Shehy.”]

 

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