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Sedamsville founder helped build Fort Washington

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Posted at 5:57 AM, Sep 30, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-30 05:57:15-04

The great flood of 1937 wiped out many riverside businesses in the small western Cincinnati neighborhood of Sedamsville, and the community has struggled to rebound since.

As a result, Sedamsville is little talked about today. After accidentally coming upon a sandstone grave monument in Spring Grove Cemetery dedicated to the life of one Col. Cornelius Rycker Sedam, I set out to find out the story behind the man who founded the historic neighborhood.

I discovered it was not named Sedamville because there were two Sedams. The colonel and his son, Henry, were so dedicated to and influential in the old village that its residents named it for both of them by adding an “s.”

My go-to Cincinnati history books in the stacks at the main Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County barely mention the Sedam men. Charles T. Greve, however, in his 1904 book, “Centennial History of Cincinnati and Representative Citizens,” wrote this about the Sedams: “Probably no two men who ever lived in Hamilton County have the subject of so many anecdotes and reminiscences as the two Sedams.”

Two sources, one online and one buried in the off-limits library stacks, helped me find things out about Cornelius and “Squire Henry” that our top 19th-century historians like Greve never knew.

Credit for the following biography of Col. Sedam must go to Emma S. Backus, who published a 23-page account of his life in the Ohio HistoryJournal, using letters kept by Sedam’s family. (See it here.)

Check WCPO.com Monday for the story of Henry Sedam, based largely on a four-page chapter in “Cincinnati Past and Present,” an 1872 book published by M. Joblin & Co.

Col. Cornelius Sedam

Cornelius Rycker Sedam, whose New Jersey parents were of Dutch origin and spelled their name either Suydam or Sydam, was born in 1760. He enlisted in the New Jersey militia at age 15 and served for six years before joining the Continental Army in 1775 to fight in the Revolutionary War.

Ensign Sedam served in several army forts before being sent to Cincinnati in about 1789 to help build Fort Washington under Maj. John Doughty and Gen. Josiah Harmar. Young Sedam fought in battles with the area’s Indian tribes in an effort to secure the land between the Great and Little Miami rivers.

Gen. Arthur St. Clair, the man who gave Cincinnati its name, made Sedam a captain in 1793 with the written recommendation of President George Washington.

Sedam fought with valor alongside Gen. Arthur St. Clair and reportedly had two horses shot out from under him. No records show if Sedam helped Gen. Anthony Wayne win the final fight of the Northwest Indian War, the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in 1794, but family lore says he did. The resulting August 1795 Treaty of Greenville secured Southwest Ohio for white settlers such as Sedam and the many Germans who became his neighbors.

A group of them founded what became Sedamsville in 1795.

Sedam returned to the East Coast in 1796 to launch a trade business in the West Indies. He secured support from numerous powerful men, including Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of War Timothy Pickering, but there is no proof he ever left the country and no reason his new business never got off the ground.

Back in Cincinnati, Sedam purchased 640 acres from land baron John Cleves Symmes in 1799 along the Ohio River on either side of Bold Face Creek in what was then called South Bend Township. He built a stone farmhouse there and settled into life as a farmer and trader with a reach as far as New Orleans.

During this time, Sedam started a family and became good friends with important historical figures such as the city’s first mayor, David Ziegler, and the nation’s first great winemaker, Nicholas Longworth.

Sedam had three boys: Cornelius became a riverboat captain; Henry captained his first boat at age 17 and went on to live a life that mirrored his father’s; and David lived the life of a country gentleman in his mansion, “Riverside.”

The colonel, who stood 5-feet 11-inches tall and had a broad physique, was a strict father and a religious man. Letters in Backus’ article indicate he was quite the task master. As one of his sons wrote: “Our man Friday said one day that he would not work. Father ordered his men to roll the man in a blanket and put him in the hot sun on the porch for a good sweat. And he went to work!”

Col. Sedam was the clear leader of the Sedamsville community, serving it as justice of the peace until his death. He also served as a judge in Hamilton County’s Common Please Court for a year.

Wrote Backus of the colonel:

“… The flavor of Sedam’s life, his service to his country, in war and peace, still lingers. We ponder over the fullness and richness of his days, as the soldier under Washington, Harmar and St. Clair, and the colonizer who, with John Cleves Symmes, did much to settle the land between the two Miamis.… Sedam saw the war through, he helped make ‘the Miami slaughter-house’ a safe place for the home-seekers that came after; he fought and labored with the great men of his time to win and hold the old Northwest.”

Sedam died in 1823 and was buried in the family plot in Sedamsville. Ninety-three years later, his heirs moved his body and others in the family to Spring Grove Cemetery, where the sandstone monument still stands in Section 110, Lot 89.

Sedam's stone house near Bold Face Creek didn’t fare so well. It was razed to make way for the Gaff, Fleischmann & Co. distillery and yeast factory.

Sedam’s springhouse?

Along Delhi Pike near where it intersects Mayhew Avenue stands what is left of an early 1800s springhouse that helped water the local vineyards of Nicholas Longworth.

According to Ohio historian Emma Backus, the springhouse included a recessed shelter area known as a “bower” where Cornelius Sedam would go to drink wine and spirits with his friends, including Longworth.

For years, it has been known as Sedam’s Springhouse, implying that he either built or owned it. Historical websites such as Wikipedia.com and archived newspaper articles claim it was Sedam’s springhouse. Afterall, he owned a large farm in the area that included hillsides such as the one where the springhouse stands.

The historical marker at the site, however, refutes this claim. It shows the deed lineage of the site, and no Sedam is listed.

In part, the marker says: “A deed search clearly shows that Cornelius Sedam never owned the location of the Delhi Springhouse. Instead, the Springhouse property is situated 1.2 miles up the Boldface, along Delhi Pike.”