Little did I know while helping raise a family on a hilltop subdivision in Athens County’s Alexander Township that the remains of some of southeast Ohio’s earliest settlers are buried a couple hundred yards down the hill in an all-but-forgotten graveyard.
Among them is Margaret Haning Snowden, according to various accounts the first female white settler in central Athens County and one of the first two in the entire county. Her memory is preserved in the names of nearby Margaret’s Creek and, a few miles to the southwest, Lake Snowden reservoir. The story of Margaret and her family’s arrival and settlement in what became Athens County, in 1798, are significant to local history, but also are interwoven with the history of the Northwest Territory and its first institution of higher learning, Ohio University.
Since January 2021, I’ve been working with a small group to bring the Snowden Cemetery to the attention of local residents — and perhaps spark a campaign to ensure its continued maintenance. While three members of our group — local landscaper Joel Hobbs and his daughter Emily mainly but also Bill Hayes — cleared brush from the small cemetery in the early spring, nature had mostly reclaimed the site by midsummer.
Other group members include Tom O’Grady, director of development and outreach for the Southeast Ohio History Center in Athens, who tipped me off to the cemetery’s existence; and Nancy Tatarek, associate professor of anthropology at Ohio University.
For the most part, the cemetery — which according to different accounts contains between 50 and 100 graves — remains the way it’s been for many decades: overgrown with brush, hidden from nearby Fisher Road, with 12 to 15 deteriorating gravestones mixed among what appear to be mossed-over fieldstones. There’s no easy way to tell whether some of the latter mark graves as well.
Fronting the cemetery site, a badly tarnished plaque, easy to miss on its sandstone slab beside Fisher Road, reads, “Margaret Snowden: First White Woman in This Section, for Whom Margaret’s Creek was Named.”
From that historical marker, placed by a local Daughters of the War of 1812 chapter during a ceremony in 1932 (reported at the time by the Athens Messenger), one can’t see the grave markers; they’re perhaps 60 feet farther back scattered in no apparent pattern over around a half acre of land. The two largest gravestones, marking the final resting places of Esther and Ezra Hull, stand about six feet from a house on Fisher Road, though apparently not on that house’s lot. The cemetery land is owned by Don Skinner, Sr., who lives in an old white farmhouse a few hundred yards to the east. Skinner granted verbal permission for the committee’s cleanup work in the cemetery. (Notably, Athens County’s first schoolhouse, founded around 1802, was located across the road from the Snowden cemetery.)
Some of Athens County’s earliest historical accounts use the name “Margaret’s Creek” for the stream that flows a short distance below the knoll where the cemetery is located. It was named while Margaret was still alive; historical records indicate she was born around 1774 and died around 1850, raising a family in between. Her husband, Joseph Snowden Jr., perished in the Hocking River in 1804, a mere six years after their arrival here, according to records.
Some of their descendants still live in this area, including the Hanning family (Margaret’s maiden name, though with the slightly different spelling).
SO HOW DID THE SNOWDENS and Hanings end up in this thickly forested wilderness, which in the late 1700s was frequented only by Native American hunting bands, government surveying parties, and traders traveling between established settlements in Marietta and Chillicothe?
Ample historical accounts, gleaned from original sources, exist of that period, including a number that focus on what became Athens County, the city of Athens and Ohio University. Genealogical research also has unearthed a lot of information about the first settlers of what became Athens and Alexander townships, including histories put together by the Hanning and Hewitt families.
An auto tour created in 2009 by Margaret’s descendant Tracy Hanning of Dayton synthesizes much of the available historical material about the Snowden/Hanings’ arrival and settlement in the future Athens County.
According to “The Haning History Tour,” the Haning family — including the Snowdens, Margaret’s two sisters and their husbands (and perhaps children), her brother, and their father (the mother isn’t mentioned) — began heading west from New Jersey around 1788. After an extended stay in Washington County, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, and around five years in the Marietta-Belpre area, the party in 1798 floated a large flatboat down the Ohio River and up the Hockhocking River.
Margaret’s family and her two sisters and their families ended up settling a couple miles south of Athens, near where Hooper Road and South Blackburn Road now intersect on a branch of what became Margaret’s Creek.
Why did Margaret win recognition as the first female white settler “in this section” when her two sisters accompanied the party into Athens County in 1798? According to Robert L. Daniel’s book, “Athens County: The Village Years” (Ohio University Press, 1997), Margaret Snowden was the lone female accompanying a group of men, including her husband and the Haning men, to this area in early 1798. At some point shortly thereafter, they traveled back to Marietta-Belpre and fetched the other wives and any children.
Daniel’s book mentions that Lt. George Ewing brought his family — presumably including his wife — to eastern Athens County, in what became Ames Township, in 1797, which would have been a year before Margaret arrived. A contemporary account (related by Ephraim Cutler to a historian at that time), however, says Ewing “removed” his family to that area in 1798.
Meanwhile, William E. Peters’ “Athens County, Ohio Vol. 1” (1947) states that Margaret was “one of the first two white women to settle in Athens County.” (The other may have been either Ewing’s wife or early settler Moses Hewitt’s wife Phebe.)
THE HANINGS, SNOWDENS, BROOKS, Hewitts and other white settlers in 1797–98 didn’t end up in future Athens and Alexander townships by accident. Both “centrally located townships” had been designated for the location of the first institution of higher learning in the Northwest Territory, Ohio University, as a result of negotiations between Manasseh Cutler (of Ohio Company fame) and Congress in 1787.
A book by noted historian (and pioneer physician and scientist) Dr. Samuel Hildreth (1783–1863), “Biographical and Historical Memoirs of the Early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio” (1852), contains a section on Athens County and its “first settlement.” The chapter recounts the wave of settlement that included the Snowdens and Hanings, made possible by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Ohio Company land purchase that followed, and later by the defeat of a confederation of Native American tribes who had fought to resist the growing wave of white settlement.
The war on the frontier between Native tribes and the U.S. government and its proxies had all but stopped settlement in the Ohio country until the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which ended the war. That opened the floodgates on renewed settlement, and the future Athens area was among the first areas to experience that renewed wave of settlement, in 1797–98.
Hildreth, in his aforementioned book, describes the incentives that helped attract the Snowdens, Hanings and other settlers to Athens County: “In the early part of 1797, Marietta was crowded with this kind of population, seeking for some place to make a home. It is well known that in the purchase of the Ohio Company’s lands, they made it a condition that two townships of land (Athens and Alexander) should be conveyed which were to be forever for the use and benefit of a university.
“The (Ohio Company) trustees were convinced,” Hildreth continued, “that it would be good policy to early make these lands productive, and thus provide a land to commence an institution… They believed that the public interest would be served by encouraging substantial men to occupy these lands, make improvements, and wait until a more permanent title could be made to them by an act of Legislature…”
The Snowden Cemetery Census
Many years after Hildreth’s history was published, William E. Peters, in his capacity as local historian, included the Snowden Cemetery in his comprehensive census of Athens County graveyards.
Peters (1857–1952) served multiple roles during his lengthy career in Athens County: civil and mining engineer, mapmaker, historian, surveyor, attorney and author, among others.
Peters’ single-page census for the Snowden Cemetery, completed on Nov. 1, 1939, with “information from Adam Niggemeyer,” mentions the bronze plaque on the nearby road, then cites each of the five grave markers that still had visible inscriptions at that time. Only small parts of those inscriptions can be seen today, if at all.
While none bore the name of Margaret Snowden, Peters did write, “About 1910 Mr. Henry Hibbard told Mr. Niggemeyer that Mrs. Snowden was buried a few graves south of the grave of William Robb and at that time pointed out the grave.”
A small, rough-cut gravestone, with no visual inscription, is located at the approximate spot described above, 10 or 15 feet south of a foot-stone where in certain conditions (such as newly fallen snow), one can make out the name, “Wm. Robb.” No other markers are now visible in that specific area, though to state with any confidence that this is Margaret Snowden’s grave is likely wishful thinking.
For now, it’s not clear why this cemetery was located at this particular spot, what connection its other occupants had to Margaret, or the span of time when these people were interred. According to Peters’ census, one grave’s headstone, that of Esther Hull, bore an inscription stating that she died in 1814 at the age of 29 (though the words long since have peeled off the marker).
In Peters’ “Athens County, Ohio: Vol. 1,” he writes, “In 1807, Mrs. Snowden leased of the Ohio University Farm Lot No. 36 in Athens Township on the head of the branches of the creek named for her (near the current intersection of Hooper and South Blackburn roads). She lived upon the land until 1844. On her death, about 1850, and as a fitting tribute, she was buried some four miles south of Athens on an eminence on Farm Lot No. 75 nearby and overlooking the stream bearing her name.”
As of this writing, the Snowden Cemetery committee has taken a summer break, though tentative plans call for perhaps creating a dedicated internship to continue researching the cemetery. Members also hope that publicity about what’s certainly one of the Northwest Territory’s oldest pioneer cemeteries will result in creation of a permanent maintenance program.
That publicity, as a matter of fact, is what you’re reading right now. An article on the same topic may appear later this year in “Echoes,” the glossy, members-only magazine of the Ohio History Connection.
Helpful sources in writing this article include William E. Peters’ Papers in Ohio University’s Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections; Peters’ book “Athens County, Ohio, Vol. 1” (1947); Dr. Samuel Prescott Hildreth’s “Biographical and Historical Memoirs of the Early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio” (1852); Charles M. Walker’s “History of Athens County, Ohio” (1869); Henry Howe’s “Historical Collections of Ohio” (1847), and Robert Daniel’s “Athens Ohio: The Village Years (1997). Also useful were “The Hewitts of Athens County” by Susan L. Mitchell (1989), Fred Bush’s “Centennial Atlas of Athens County” (1905), and “The Haning History Tour: A Nine-Stop Auto Tour of a Branch of the Haning Family” by Tracy Hanning (2009).