CLEVELAND, Ohio — Author Kenneth Clarke offers a glimpse of what life was like for his ancestors to settle the Cuyahoga Valley in the early 1800s in his new book, “Wolves and Flax: The Prior Family in the Cuyahoga Valley Wilderness.”
The book was released this month, and is available to order at lulu.com.
In its 83 pages, Clarke makes use of his family’s archived materials to detail the struggles and successes that his fifth great-grandfather, Simeon Prior, experienced when he moved from New England to the Cuyahoga Valley in 1802.
Prior and his family were early settlers of Northampton Township, which is now a part of Cuyahoga Falls.
Stories about Prior were common in Clarke’s family while he was growing up, he said — tales about Prior’s fight in the Revolutionary War, his work to establish the town of Northampton and the family’s tense relations with local Native American populations were shared among the family, all supplemented by the family’s archived materials.
The history drew in Clarke, who once worked as president and CEO of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago. Currently, Clarke is the project manager for Blockland, Cleveland’s blockchain initiative.
Years ago, he reached out to his great aunt to become the next keeper of the Prior family archives. He worked with his family to secure not only the running archive, but also stray documents that had been passed down through various cousins’ families.
“It’s this wonderful, rich trove of documents going back over 200 years,” Clarke said. “My family’s been writing about this stuff over the generations, since the early 19th century… I thought, if I’m not the one to write the next chapter in this family story, then who is?”
“Wolves and Flax” is Clarke’s first book under his name; previously, he had edited and published other historical books. “Wolves and Flax” weaves together a story of Prior and 10 of his children moving to the Cuyahoga Valley after the end of the Revolutionary War. Prior served in the Revolutionary War, and was even a bodyguard for then-Gen. George Washington.
A conversation with Washington proved to be the spark of inspiration that brought Prior and his family to Northeast Ohio.
“Simeon heard a story from George Washington when somebody asked him, ‘What would you do if we lost the war?’ Washington, who was a surveyor before the war, said, ‘I’d move out to Ohio,’” Clarke said. “That’s exactly what a lot of Revolutionary War soldiers did… Simeon ended up in [Northeast Ohio] because of that story: the seed of an idea that Washington planted in his head in his service, 20 years earlier.”
Land in the unsettled Cuyahoga Valley area was cheaper than in New England, and Prior purchased 80 acres with $200, Clarke said. In the early days, the family grew flax to create linen and tow cloth, since it couldn’t yet protect its flock of sheep from nearby wolves.
That detail was one of Clarke’s favorite parts of the book, and also where he got the name “Wolves and Flax.”
“It wasn’t really that long ago,” Clarke said. “It’s a paradigm shift, to think of bears and wolves and the occasional mountain lion in the area.”
“Wolves and Flax” provides snippets of what life was like in the early 1800s, detailing the isolation that the Prior family felt when they moved into the wilderness. Their nearest settler neighbors were miles away, with Native American communities closer by.
Clarke didn’t shy away from sharing the problematic relations the Priors and other settlers kept with local Native American populations. The book includes an account from William Prior, Simeon’s son, about white settler vigilantes that hunted down several Native American people after the War of 1812.
“Any white writer talking about Native Americans back in the day is very cringeworthy. It’s a tough topic, but they were also neighbors with them,” Clarke said. “It’s harrowing… I didn’t want to shy away from that, especially because I had relatives that actually wrote about that stuff.”
Clarke’s work in retelling his family’s history will extend beyond the release of “Wolves and Flax” — he plans to find a local organization to take care of the archive and make it available to the public at a future time, helping preserve the early history of Northeast Ohio.
Today, some aspects of settlers’ lives are visible in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which has returned to wilderness in recent decades.
“One of my favorite parts of thinking about the Cuyahoga Valley is that in the last 50 years, we’ve embarked on an expedition and that is the Cuyahoga Valley National Park,” Clarke said. “That park is unlike any other park in the nation in that it wasn’t a pristine wilderness someone wanted to preserve; it was a settled, privately owned space that has been reclaimed and is being converted back into wilderness. As the park goes toward that, it gets closer to what my family would have experienced when they got here.”
Find more information about “Wolves and Flax” at wolvesandflax.com.