Three generations of Joseph Tomlinsons lived in the Ohio River Valley. The original Joseph was brought to Virginia by his three sons at a rather advanced age. The Tomlinson brothers, Joseph (II), Samuel and James, and their father accompanied a party led by Colonel Ebenezer Zane when he founded Wheeling, VA (now WV), in the winter of 1769-1770. Joseph Tomlinson, II started his plantation at the Flats of Grave Creek, a few miles downriver from Wheeling, in 1770. Later that year Joseph and Samuel Tomlinson traveled down the Ohio, reaching a point opposite the mouth of the Muskingum River at Williams Station. There they hacked their initials on a beech tree, thereby establishing a 400-acre “tomahawk claim” and a 1,000-acre preemptive claim.
A tomahawk claim consisted of marking the corners of a plot of land claimed in Indian territory by ringing trees at each corner of the tract, thereby killing the trees, (or with initials as in the Tomlinsons’ case) then waiting until government authorities could coerce the Indians to relinquish title to the land, at which point the tomahawk claim could go through a process to become legal.
Joseph Tomlinson (I) died at the Flats of Grave Creek in 1797 at the age of 85. Joseph Tomlinson, II died at the Flats of Grave Creek in 1825 and Joseph Tomlinson, III, who lived in Williamstown, died there sometime after the American Civil War. The Tomlinson brothers were among the earliest white settlers along the Ohio River in western Virginia. In fact Tomlinsons had settled in the Mid-Ohio Valley along with their slaves a good five years before Daniel Boone established Boonsboro, Kentucky.
It’s an interesting side note that this land was claimed by the Tomlinsons slightly before George Washington made his famous exploratory trip along the Ohio River. On his journey along the Ohio in 1770, Washington also made extensive land claims for himself and some of his friends under the Proclamations of 1754 and 1763, which granted lands to veterans of military service in the French and Indian Wars. During his explorations Washington left the Little Kanawha River and proceeded on foot to a point opposite the Muskingum where he spent a stormy night in November, 1770. Then Washington and the Tomlinsons, both parties having filed claims under the same provisions of the French and Indian War, got into a land dispute, and the Tomlinsons were awarded a much smaller claim than they had originally filed.
According to a deposition made by Joseph Tomlinson, II in Chancery Court at Clarksburg, VA, in the spring of 1771, he and Samuel returned to the land opposite the mouth of the Muskingum and cleared four acres of land, erected a Log cabin and, in Joseph's words, "planted the first corn...raised by civilized man on or about this area." The Tomlinson cabin was the only white man's habitation from Grave Creek to Vincennes.
Joseph II owned slaves at the Flats of Grave Creek when the American Revolution broke out in 1776. Several children born to the Tomlinsons during and right after the American Revolution, and there also were several slave children born there during the same period. One slave born there was named Mike.
As our story unfolds, we find Joseph (II) using his slaves to farm at his Grave Creek and Williams Station locations, taking them up and down the Ohio River as needed. In 1800 there were 61 slaves listed in Wood County, VA and 257 slaves in Ohio County, VA.
In 1804 while working at Williams Station two of Tomlinson's slaves ran away. They crossed the Ohio River at Marietta, and traveled about 35 miles north on the Muskingum to Owl Creek, where they stopped at a farm owned by William Craig. The fugitive slaves reportedly had been staying at William Craig's place for some time when Joseph Tomlinson received word of their location from a man traveling down the Muskingum by canoe, who had visited with Craig and the two errant slaves. So Joseph Tomlinson II took his son Robert and others up the Muskingum River to retrieve the fugitives.
William Craig saw the slaveholders coming and gave the alarm. The two slaves started running, but Robert was very swift of foot and soon overtook Mike and knocked him to the ground, using his rifle as a club. When Mike regained his feet, Robert knocked him down again. The young men were the same age and had been born and raised together at the Flats of Grave Creek. The treatment Mike was receiving from his friend enraged him. After repeatedly being knocked down, he pulled a knife from his belt and stabbed young Robert Tomlinson. Robert ran back to his father and cried out, "Father he has killed me," and died on the spot.
The other fugitive, who remains unnamed, managed to escape but Mike was captured by Tomlinson. After burying his son, Joseph and started across country with Mike, headed for Grave Creek. The first night they camped six miles west of Cumberland at Negro Run, where they encountered two travelers, Mr. Reeve and Mr. Cochran, who were on their way to Kentucky on business. Both men witnessed Tomlinson execute Mike at Negro Run.
Reeve and Cochran reported the murder to authorities in Muskingum County, OH and a coroner's inquest was held by Henry Smith, Esq. of Putnam. When Ohio Gov. Edward Tiffin was notified, he sent a written notice to the Virginia Attorney General for Tomlinson to be extradited to Ohio for deposition, but the request was denied. Mike was never even given a proper burial. His bones eventually lay scattered around the area where he had been killed, according to Reeve, who claimed to have seen them on many occasions later when he camped at the same spot.
So, in the very early days of slavery in the Mid-Ohio River Valley, tragedy needlessly struck down two young men before they had begun to experience life. In a sense, their deaths signaled the beginning of Ohio's Underground Railroad, which carried many slaves from slavery in Virginia to freedom in Canada. It’s likely that Mike was unaware that the Fugitive Slave Law – giving slaveholders the right to pursue their slaves in “free” states – had been passed by congress in 1793 or he and his fellow fugitive might not have stayed in Ohio. Word got around and by 1812 fugitive slaves from Virginia began to follow the Muskingum River north as far as it went, then kept going to Canada.