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Col. Return Jonathan Meigs

Meigs family gravestone.jpg

Return Jonathan Meigs was born in Middletown, Connecticut on December 17, 1740, the son of Return and Elizabeth (Hamlin) Meigs. He was one of 13 children. His father, a hatter, was a member of the Connecticut General Assembly. He is the first of a long line of Return Jonathan’s which are found throughout the Meigs history, over 13 as of the writing of this – 1989.


The traditional story behind this delightful name follows, but let it be noted that the Meigs family has a long history of unusual names. Some that come to mind are Concurrence, Mindwell, Recompense, Silence and Submit (twins), Thankful, Mercy, Wait-still and Church. Now, as the story goes, Return Jonathan’s father was very much in love with a fair Quaker maid who lived near Middletown, Connecticut. He wooed her persistently, offering her his hand, heart and the name of Meigs over and over again, but she always put him off with ‘Nay, Jonathan, I respect thee much, but I cannot marry thee.’ Finally Jonathan grew tired of the fruitless chase. He dejectedly mounted his horse to depart for the last time, but when she realized she was about to lose him, she relented and called to him, ‘Return Jonathan! Return Jonathan!’ These were the sweetest words he ever heard in his life, and he vowed that if he had a son he would name him Return Jonathan. As delightful as this story is, it is false. His father’s name was not Jonathan, but Return, and his grandfather’s name was Janna. He was not the first born and the name Jonathan never appears in the family before this occurrence. The story behind his name appears to have been confused with his grandfather’s courtship of one Hannah Willard. Rear Admiral R. W. Meade relates the following:


Janna Meigs of East Guilford, CT., the father of Return Meigs and grandfather of Col. Return J. Meigs, courted Hannah Willard, of Wethersfield. Hannah was not a Quakeress, but a Puritan damsel, the daughter of Josiah and Hannah (Hosmer) Willard, and granddaughter of Major Simon Willard, the most famous Indian fighter of his day, in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay.


This is the true story as given in the family records. It may now with propriety be asked how I know all of this. My reply is that my mother’s grandfather was Josiah Meigs, a professor in Yale College, and younger brother of Col. Return Jonathan Meigs, the first owner of the Puritan name.” 1

In 1772 Meigs’ was commissioned by Governor Trumbull of the Connecticut colony as a lieutenant in the 6th Connecticut Regiment. Two years later he was made captain. After the battle of Lexington, he swiftly assembled his company and march to the aid of Boston. Later, he was commissioned a major and joined in Benedict Arnold’s ill-fated march to Quebec, during which he kept a diary (later published), written with ink made by mixing powder and water in his palm. 2 The Journal gives information on a very unpleasant, painful and disastrous undertaking. In plain detail, it tells of the courage, cowardice, labor, and suffering on the long march to Quebec, the attack, and its failure. Meigs was captured after scaling the walls of Quebec, paroled, and then exchanged by the British for Major Christopher French on January 10, 1777. 3


Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he conducted a raid from Guilford, CT., on Sag Harbor, Long Island. On late May 23, 1777, 170 men under Meigs left Guilford for Sachem Head. Then, in 13 whaleboats escorted by two armed sloops, they rowed from the Head through British warships in the Long Island sound without being detected. They landed near Sag Harbor, surprised and attacked the British with a bayonet charge, and defeated Lt. Col. Stephen De Lancey and his 70 men, killing six and capturing the rest. The only spirited opposition came from an armed schooner of twelve guns, which lay within 150 yards of the wharves. Nonetheless, Meigs did not lose any men. He burned 100 tons of hay, 10 transports, and the wharves. He was back at Guilford by noon, having covered almost 100 miles in 18 hours. On July 25, 1777, Congress voted to give him a sword for his action. 4 A month later the British paid a return visit. They found neither supplies nor troops at Sachem’s Head. Therefore, they set fire to Solomon Leete’s house and barns. “The family packed up what they could, including fat Mother Leete and a feather bed, and made off with all haste to Guilford. 5 In 1779, he served with distinction under Anthony Wayne at the capture of Stony Point. 6 He also played a major role in stopping the mutiny of Connecticut troops in May, 1780, for which he received a personal note of thanks from General Washington. Meigs retired from military service on January 1, 1781.


After the war, Meigs became interested in the Ohio country and was appointed one of The Ohio Company’s first surveyors on November 23, 1787. 7 “Pursuant to the orders of the [Ohio Company] directors, the boat builders and mechanics, under the command of Major Haffield White, rendezvoused at Danvers, Massachusetts, in December, 1787. The party consisted of twenty-two men. The arrangements being completed they set out for Sumrill’s Ferry, on the Youghiogheny river, about thirty miles above [present day] Pittsburgh, where it was intended to build boats, and proceed thence by water. After a long and difficult journey, they reached this point toward the last of January, and immediately began their work of boat building. Meanwhile, the surveyors [which included Meigs] with their attendants, and the remainder of the pioneer party, having met at Hartford, Connecticut, early in January, 1788, commenced their march westward, under the command of Gen. Rufus Putnam, assisted by Col. Ebenezer Sproat. When they reached the mountains, it was found that the great depth of snow there rendered the crossing impossible, save by the use of sleds, which were accordingly constructed, and the baggage by this means transported over the Alleghenies, and on to Sumrill’s Ferry, the general rendezvous, where Putnam’s party arrived about the middle of February.


With the working force thus largely increased, and urged on by the energetic superintendence of Gen. Putnam in person, the boat building, which had lagged somewhat, owing to the severity of the weather, now progressed rapidly. On the 2nd of April, 1788, the largest boat was launched, and the pioneers left Sumrill’s. In addition to the large boat, forty-five feet long and twelve wide, which was roofed over, and had an estimated capacity of fifty tons [they called it the "Mayflower"], there was a flatboat and three canoes. Laden with the emigrants, their baggage, surveying instruments, weapons, and effects, the little flotilla glided down the Youghiogheny into the Monongahela, and finally out upon the broad bosom of the Ohio, which stream was to bear them to their new home. For several days and nights they pursued their solitary travel, urged along only by the current of the beautiful river, whose banks gave no signs of civilized life, nor of welcome to the pioneers. Occasionally, a flock of wild turkeys in the underbrush, or a startled deer, drinking at the water’s edge, would draw the fire of the riflemen from the boats; and now and then the dusky form of an Indian would be seen darting into the forest. But the emigrants met with no interruption.


On the fifth day they approached their destination. It was cloudy and raining as they drew near the mouth of the Muskingum [and] in a few moments they came within sight of Fort Harmar (a U.S. fort erected in 1785), located at the mouth and on the right bank of the Muskingum. [They] landed, at the upper point, about noon on the 7th of April, 1788, and from that day Ohio dates her existence.” 8 Meigs drew up a code of conduct, which was posted on a big oak tree, by which the settlers lived until appointed judges could arrive.


The work of the surveyor’s had its dangers. The Indians had a great dislike for them and frequently exhibited their hostility. On the 7th of August, John Mathews, a surveyor, and his party were about their camp “when they were startled by two rifle shots, occurring almost simultaneously. Mathews was sitting upon his blanket, only partly dressed, and [Mr.] Patchen was by his side. The latter threw up his hands and exclaimed: ‘My God, I am killed!” and fell backward, dead. Mathews, turning toward him, saw a wound in his breast from which the blood gushed forth. He had scarcely time to notice the fate of his companion and friend, for the first shots were quickly followed by a volley, the Indians rising from their concealment and taking aim with a deliberation which made their fire a deadly one…. With a wild and horrible yell the Indians sprang forward into the camp, and as they rushed upon their dead and wounded victims with tomahawks and knives, Mathews and three other men fled in an opposite direction, followed by several of the enemy, who, however, soon gave up the chase. Mathews legs and feet were bare, and he suffered in his flight through the stiff underbrush and briers, exceedingly…. On the. same day that this bloody attack was made Colonel Meigs, lying on his boat in the river, had become alarmed at the discovery of fresh Indian signs, and dropped down stream to the point where is situated the village of Burlington. Here his men had hastily built a block-house for defense in case of necessity. Meigs and Mathews [who had made his way to the river and joined up with Meigs and his party] now resorted to this little stronghold and remained there until the tenth of August, when another party of surveyors, who had been out under a Mr. Backus, arrived, and they then went up the river [to their home]. 9


Meigs later served as a judge of the Court of Quarter Sessions and clerk of the Court of Common Pleas. At the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, he worked for the return of white captives among the Indians.


In May, 1801, at the age of 61, Meigs accepted a dual appointment as Cherokee Indian Agent and Agent of the War Department in Tennessee. His reputation among the Indians varied according to his critics–friend or just a crafty diplomat–but he was generally sympathetic. Henry T. Malone writes, “Fate smiled on the Cherokees in 1801 with the appointment of Return Jonathan Meigs as Indian Agent. A seasoned frontiersman, Meigs had a thorough knowledge of the Indians and a deep sympathy for their problems. Sensible, just, firm, and above desire for personal gain, the new agent devoted himself to promoting the well-being of the Cherokees. Diplomatic in spite of his rough background, he ably served his government, successfully dealt with state authorities, and generally gained the confidence of Indians. After the confusion of frontier crises Colonel Meigs was a stabilizing force in a crucial period of Cherokee history.” 10


The Cherokee Nation stood as a barrier between the trading areas of the coastal regions and the interior. During the period that Meigs was agent, numerous attempts were made by federal and state commissioners to secure land grants and right-aways for roads from the Cherokees. To obtain land concessions, Meigs, under direct orders from Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, resorted to the customary bribing of individual Chiefs. This reduced the Cherokee Nation to an area of only ten million acres. The white population continued to expand and put pressure on the Cherokee and his land. In 1807 Meigs began to press for a different policy towards the “Indian problem.” After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and at the suggestion of Jefferson, he questioned whether the Indians east of the Mississippi would be willing to exchange their present territory for an equal amount west of the Mississippi. This would get around the constant friction between Indians and unruly white frontiersmen pressing into their land. An agreement for a voluntary migration was negotiated and agreed to by all parties. Although it was not completely successful, in a letter to James Robertson on June 25, 1809, Meigs wrote:


“I removed 201 families off the Chickasaw lands, and 83 families off the Cherokee lands–not less than 1,700… souls. These people bear the appellation of intruders but they are Americans… in our new country every man is an acquisition–we ought not to lose a single man for the want of land to work on.” 11


By 1811 nearly two thousand members of the Cherokee tribe had been moved. It should be noted that the majority of the Indians were opposed to the removal. They desired to remain in the land of their birth and could not understand why a few years before the government had sent them plows and hoes saying that it was not good for them to hunt, but they should cultivate the earth. Now they were being told that there was good hunting on the new land and if they would go, they would receive rifles to hunt with.


Meigs continued to work for what he considered the good of the Cherokee. His sincere friendship won him the respect of the Indians. The Cherokee named Meigs “The White Path” as a symbol of their feeling. In January, 1823, just after he passed his 82nd birthday, he moved into a tent so that his more comfortable quarters could be used by an elderly chief who was visiting him.


As a result, Meigs contracted pneumonia and died on January 28, 1823 at the Hiwassee Garrison, Cherokee Agency, (now Calhoun) Tennessee. “Meigs was buried as he wished, beside Grace and Timothy in the Old Garrison Cemetery overlooking the junction of the Tennessee and Hiwassee.” 12 The little two acre country graveyard is located in Rhea County Tennessee about four and one-half miles east of Dayton. Fielding Pope Meigs, Jr., in 1965, had the Head stone and plot walls repaired. 13


Here is presented the life and services of a good citizen of patriotic and military descent, with a reputable and notable progeny, and with a record of military service unsurpassed by any Revolutionary soldier of Connecticut. He is believed to be with General Putnam the only officer from Connecticut who received by resolution the notice and approbation of Congress, and the only one who was voted a testimonial sword. It is a better commentary on the forgetfulness and ungrateful appreciation of men that his name is scarcely known to the citizens of Connecticut today.” 14

On February 14, 1765, Meigs married Joanna Winborn, who died on October 30, 1773. He later married Grace Starr (12-22-1774), who died in Tennessee on October 10, 1807.



  • 1.         Washington Evening Star, October 31, 1891.

  • 2.         “Dictionary of American Biography,” Volume 12, Charles Scribners’ and Son, New York, 1933.

  • 3.         Journals of Congress,” August, 1776, page 665.

  • 4.         Mark M. Boatwer III, “Landmarks of the American Revolution,” Stackpole Books, 1973, page 49.

  • 5.         Marguerite Allis, “Connecticut Trilogy,” G.P. Putnam’s Son, New York, 1934, page 256 & 257.

  • 6.         John B. Meigs wrote in a letter from Mossy Head, Florida, on March 21, 1890: “The Old Col. [Meigs] was with Mad Anthony [Wayne] at the storming of Stony Point [and it was] the hottest place he had ever gotten into. He was very fortunate not to be killed, but got a bayonet through his coat-sleeve.” From W.M. Meigs, “Life of Josiah Meigs,” authors note in margin.

  • 7.         “History of Washington County, Ohio,” The Washington County Historical Society, Marietta, Ohio, 1881, page 45.

  • 8.         Charles M. Walker, “History of Athens County, Ohio,” Robert Clarke & Co., Cincinnati, Ohio, 1869, page 82-84.

  • 9.         “History of Washington County, Ohio,” page 63-64.

  • 10.       H.T. Malone, “Cherokees of the Old South,” University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1956, page 57.

  • 11.       American Historical Magazine, Volume 5, pages 261 & 262.

  • 12.       B. V. Meigs, “One Man In His Time; Return Jonathan Meigs,” PP, 1981, page 286; J.T. Acklen, “Tennessee Records: Tombstone Inscriptions and Manuscripts,” Cullom & Ghertner Co., Nashville, TN, 1933, page 187.

  • 13.       The manuscript section, Tennessee State Library, has eight 8×10 photos of the site and repair work. Refer to their card index. Also see: Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Volume 4, Nashville, TN, page 166. Zella Armstrong, “The History of Hamilton County and Chattanooga, TN,” Volume One, Lookout Press, Chattanooga, TN, 1931, page 45. Steward Lillard, Meigs County, TN.,” The Book Shelf, Cleveland, TN., 1982, page 19.

  • 14.       Meigs H. Whales, “A Historical Sketch of Return Jonathan Meigs, A Revolutionary Hero of Connecticut,” a paper read before the Jeremiah Wadsworth Branch, Sons of the American Revolution on April 4, 1917, page 14; published by the same Society. A copy may be found in the Taylor Library, Milford, Connecticut.

  • 15.      Marriage dates from F.W. Bailey’s “Early Connecticut Marriages,” Sixth Book, reprinted by the Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore, MD, 1968, page 94 & 100.

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