|Arthur St. Clair doodle|
People tend to think of history as some sort of concrete timeline where the occasional revisionist meddles with the facts. While that may be true at times, the fact is, some history just gets lost. Original sources like books, documents, paintings, etc turn up missing or get destroyed. Sometimes the original source is found to be wrong or subsequent authors didn't have access to good sources. Then folks use that as a source. You get the idea.
Back in the 18th century, seals were all the rage. Not the adorable trick-performing fish-eating mammals but rather the circular emblem type with a Latin motto. It made things all official-ly looking. The Old Northwest Territory, which would give birth to six US States had its own official seal designed by my favorite terrible frontier General and Governor Arthur St. Clair himself. I hadn't really thought about the Seal of the Northwest Territory too much until I ran across a funny reference to it in a 1939 book called "Cincinnati: Story of the Queen City" by Clara Longworth de Chambrun.
|Arthur St. Clair|
|Clara Longworth de Chambrun|
At any rate, as funny as I thought that "worthless buckeye" comment was, something didn't quite sit right with her apocryphal statement. She makes it sound like the seal was only in use very briefly. While St Clair certainly made his mistakes, he was a scholarly and educated man. The Old Northwest Territory existed from 1787–1803. The seal's first recorded use was in a proclamation made on July 26, 1788, by Arthur St. Clair himself. Statehood certainly was not in sight in 1788. That wouldn't happen until 1803. So it was in use for at least 15 years. In the image, there also seems to be no way to tell what kind of tree that is in the design.
|William Hayden English|
His research was published in the 1896 book, Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783 and concluded:
The coiled snake in the foreground and the boats in the middle distance; the rising sun, the forest tree felled by the ax and cut into logs, succeeded, apparently, by an apple tree laden with fruit; the Latin inscription, "Meliorem lapsa locavit," "he has planted a better than the fallen," all combine forcibly to express the idea that a wild and savage condition is to be superseded by a higher and better civilization.
I believe what English came up with reconciles with what someone like Arthur St Clair had in mind. White men civilizing nature and "savage" Indian country. Also, English's book was published over 60 years prior to de Chambrun's. Whatever image Clara was looking at was the one re-created by English's research. As amusing that remark is about the fool and the buckeye is, and as much as I wanted it to be true, I think I have to go with English's more mundane interpretation. But where did Clara Longworth de Chambrun's notion come from? I guess that's the story lost to time.