A monthly guide to day trips across Ohio

What’s most amazing about the tale of Marietta is time. Only 12 years after 1776, the year America became America, General Rufus Putnam took an expedition of cultured, East Coast intellectuals and curious explorers to their “new world” — the Northwest Territory, a utopia where the Ohio and Muskingum rivers coalesced. In exchange for service in the Revolutionary War, the men were given tracts of land in Ohio country, and subsequently settled Marietta.

That geographic convergence may seem minimal now, but renowned historian David McCullough, who wrote last year’s treatise on the evolution of Ohio, The Pioneers, saw that natural beauty — first inhabited by the Adena and Hopewell civilizations —as something that compelled our expansion west. Of course, there are scattered forts and squats in Ohio that pre-date Marietta. We were once part of the French empire. Not to mention the messy, complicated history white invaders have with the native populations (perhaps McCullough will write that thorny sequel). But Marietta is the first permanent settlement in Ohio.And with that distinction, and expansive timeline, Marietta has a lot to offer history tourists.

Our first guide of the day, Harley Noland, can trace back 200 years of family in Marietta. He is the regular driver on the town’s essential Trolley Tour. On this day, the trolley was in the shop, so he gave us an expanded jaunt in his car. We visited the First Congregational Church (the first place of worship in the territory), the Ohio River Museum (which includes the W.P. Snyder, the only remaining steam-driven towboat on the nation’s river system), the once-bustling ship-building district of Harmar (a flood-prone neighborhood across the Muskingum from Marietta), and numerous other sites that boggle the mind given their timestamp.

Noland also took us far atop the city, off the usual route, to give us a panoramic view of Marietta. There, he expounded on the same natural beauty of the primordial land that George Washington once marveled at in his initial explorations. There’s a reason it was settled first, and why it was the gateway to the Northwest Territory, a portal to unchecked opportunity. You can travel down the Muskingum on the Valley Gem sternwheeler, and, as you meet the Ohio, you can bask in the same splendor Putnam and his crew experienced.

A retired architectural designer, Noland was quick to point out the history of the town’s homes and the details of each style that has been built over the years. He described how some stately residences were built as facades onto simple cottages, and how fleeing slaves managed to escape further enslavement from Virginia outlaws in Douglas Putman’s Anchorage estate.

“You can stare at a grave all day or visit a museum if that’s what you’re into,” Noland said, “but what I love about Marietta is how it was planned. The way the streets are laid out, how we’ve learned to appreciate the rivers. It looks like a New England town. And that was all on purpose.”

Tourism is paramount in a town like Marietta. And with the recent publication and popularity of The Pioneers, Marietta was gearing up for a booming season in 2020. The pandemic shattered that optimism. But to those hesitant to get out, I will say that every guide on our trip through Marietta was socially distant, wearing a maskand concerned with procedure. They want you to visit safely and learn intently.

After a delightful visit to the Castle — a Victorian home that has its own unique history (spider collections, 19th-century hair art) —we met up with another historian, Scott Britton, who took us on an extensive tour of Mound Cemetery. The burial ground is purported to be the largest concentration of Revolutionary War “generals” in the world. There you’ll find Johnny Appleseed’s grandfather, Rufus Putnam and other important figures in Marietta’s history. But right in the center is the Mound.

Halfway through our tour, archeologist Wes Clarke walked into our small group and started the separate narrative of Marietta. According to many, the cemetery is the first preservation of native earthworks in our country’s history (they are adamant about becoming a UNESCO site). At the center, among the graves, is a monolithic mound built first by the Adena and added to by the Hopewell. About two blocks over is the Sacra Via, a long, rectangular stretch of ceremonial platforms that lead to the river and astronomically align with the winter solstice. Marietta has long been a proponent of preserving this chapter of the land’s history, but Britton gave anecdotes of town politicians using sacred walls from the Sacra to build houses in the early part of the 20th century. That is a part of history that we saw our guides wrestle with gracefully.

In dealing with Marietta, and any history that involves European settlers or new “Americans” commandeering any native lands, there is a necessary nuance. To the tourist’s eye, Marietta is slightly utopian. You can spend a night at the century-old Lafayette Hotel or marvel at the bounty of next-level antique stores nearby, but there should always be questions of what should be remembered and memorialized beyond the plotting of Marietta. And there was much proof in our travels that these questions are being properly slotted in history.

The lasting legacy of Marietta is that the pioneers, including Ephraim Cutler and Putnam, were progressive for their time. They were instrumental in drafting and fighting for the then-controversial provisions in the establishment of the Northwest Territory ordinance, pledging that there would be no slavery, that civil liberties and religious freedom would be upheld, that education would be a right provided to all (prompting the establishment of Ohio University in Athens) and that dealings with the native population would be fair and free of violence. We can thank these pioneers for fomenting a state of tolerance and unparalleled educational institutions. And though settlements in Ohio country flourished soon after Marietta was born, the ideals of the settlement in Marietta were profound in how the state was eventually established.