Have you ever wondered why the top two-thirds of Mahoning County are aligned but the bottom third seems a little wider? Or maybe why the city of Salem is a little cutout along the County’s southern border? Perhaps you’ve heard the story about how Youngstown folks absconded with the County records in the middle of the night? The answers have their roots 175 years ago when Mahoning County was formed by taking townships from Trumbull and Columbiana Counties.
These modern political borders go back to the years following the Revolutionary War. Most of the colonies, now new states, laid claims to western land but relinquished them to allow the Federal government to create new territories. Connecticut surrendered most of their land but held on to a 120-mile stretch along the Lake Erie coast of the Northwest Territory, calling it their Western Reserve. The State sold the land east of the Cuyahoga River to the Connecticut Land Company in 1795. The following year the company sent surveyors into the territory to divide it into townships.
Town 1, Range 1, Poland Township, was the first of those townships to be formally established. Trumbull County was established by Northwest Territory Governor Author St. Clair on July 10, 1800. It took up the entire Connecticut Western Reserve, though its initial settlements were in the southeastern region and at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. The county was named for Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull. By 1801, Warren was established as Trumbull County’s seat. As historian Joseph G. Butler Jr. wrote in his History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, “the county seat was fixed at Warren, a decision that caused much joy at Warren and much rage at Youngstown.”
The decision to designate Warren as the county seat had been strategically planned by Warren residents, businessmen, and politicians. As Ohio became a new state in 1803, the rivalry between Warren and Youngstown was again ignited. Youngstown’s population was growing and their influence was starting to be felt in the state legislature. Even with these political shifts, Youngstown’s location remained an issue when it came to unseating Warren. By the 1820s, several counties had been carved from the original Trumbull County. Youngstown remained locked in the county’s southeastern corner, nowhere near the center.
In 1843, a proposal was in place to create three new counties. One of those would take townships from the southern part of Trumbull County and place Youngstown as its new county seat. The vote was stalled in the state legislature as Youngstown lacked enough representation to sway votes. By 1845, leaders in Canfield proposed a plan that took most residents by surprise. To this point, all of the contested land was part of the Connecticut Western Reserve, and that pioneer heritage was strong. No one had thought to go outside the Reserve’s borders in the creation of new political boundaries.
Columbiana County was created from parts of Jefferson and Washington Counties, in the original Congress Lands, in 1803. Its name came from the combination of Christopher Columbus and Queen Anne. The formation of Stark County in 1808, and Carroll County in 1832, along with various land grants and political shifts, altered Columbiana County’s shape and land area.
Canfield’s proposal was to take the southern-most 10 townships from Trumbull County and the northern-most five townships from Columbiana County for the creation of a new county. Of course, Canfield was centrally located and offered a fitting site for the new county’s seat of government. The plan was realized on February 16, 1846, when the state legislature officially adopted the Canfield Plan and created Mahoning County.
Meanwhile, Youngstown had again lost its chance at being a county seat, much to the annoyance of many its residents. Youngstown might not have been the geographic center of Mahoning County, but it was an emerging center of industry, transportation, and population. That indignation is best represented in a letter to Asahel Medbury from Judge William Rayen:
“I suppose you will have much said this winter on the subject of vested rights by the Warren and Canfield people. The Warren people need no more sympathy than the Canfield people, for when they got the seat of justice made at Warren they got it by every kind of villainy, fraud, and deception that probably could be practiced and contrary to the then known will of the very large majority of the citizens of what was then Trumbull County, and have retained it still, against the will of the people.”
Canfield began its role as the new county seat right away and built a courthouse that same year. This fight though, was not finished. Nearly thirty years later, the citizens of Youngstown were still pushing to be the county’s political center. In 1873, a meeting was held in Youngstown to elect officials who supported its case, while the same was done in Canfield. The fight then moved to Columbus where the bitter rivals debated on the floor of the State Legislature. On the Youngstown side was Chauncey Andrews, a powerful businessman who offered to foot the bill for much of the cost involved in relocating the seat. On the Canfield side was future president James Garfield. In October 1873, a removal referendum went in Youngstown’s favor. Canfield backers immediately sued to overturn the election result, but the vote was upheld by county and state courts. The case appeals went all the way to the United States Supreme Court in 1879, where the original decision on the county seat removal to Youngstown was upheld and finalized. The move officially happened in 1876 and Youngstown, after 75 years, realized its goal of being the political center for the county.
So what about those questions posed at the beginning of this post? The reason why the top two-thirds of Mahoning County are aligned but the bottom third is a little wider goes back to the initial layout of the townships. Trumbull County’s townships were laid out five miles square, for a total of 25 square miles. In what became Columbiana County, the townships were measured at six miles square for townships totaling 36 square miles. This fact created the five-mile jog in the southern tier of townships.
What about that little cutout around Salem? This anomaly goes back to the formation of Perry Township in Columbiana County. The Village of Salem was incorporated in 1830 right at the intersection of four townships: Green, Salem, Goshen, and Butler. In 1832, the village residents petitioned to have a new township created in order to avoid confusion over political borders. This smaller square township was set apart and stayed in Columbiana County when Mahoning County was formed.
Finally, what about the legend of Youngstown officials absconding with the county’s records from Canfield in the middle of the night? In truth, Youngstowners brought a caravan of 40 wagons and teams in broad daylight to move court documents and other county records along the 12-mile journey from Canfield to Youngstown. The new Mahoning County Court House, which stood at the corner of Wick Avenue and Wood Street, was completed by architect Charles H. Owsley and built by masonry contractor P. Ross Berry.