‘Wolves and Flax’ uses a family archive to illustrate 19th-century Cuyahoga Falls

Reporting and writing by Kyle Cochrun

In April 1802, the seventh U.S. Congress passed the Enabling Act of 1802, which permitted residents of the Northwest Territory to form the state of Ohio. In autumn of that year, the Prior family – Simeon, Katherine and nine of their children – left their home in Northampton, Mass. and traveled for more than 40 days, by teams of horses and open boat, to the Connecticut Western Reserve. They settled on 80 acres of land near what is now the corner of Chart Road and State Road in Cuyahoga Falls. 

This was the first settlement of what came to be Northampton Township, named after the family’s New England hometown. Northampton Township merged into Cuyahoga Falls in 1986.

Kenneth Clarke’s Wolves and Flax: The Prior Family in the Cuyahoga Falls Wilderness outlines the story of the Priors’ journey west and their remote life in Ohio. Clarke’s history is built from letters, government documents, other books and news articles making up the Prior family archive, which has been preserved and passed down for several generations. Clarke is its most current curator. 

The book is part family history, part local history, as well as a record of Clarke’s fervent interest in what he considers, “a compelling time for American history.”

Simeon Prior Log Cabin

“That the western border of the nation was more or less marked by the Cuyahoga River and what was beyond was largely unknown is fascinating to think about,” Clarke says. “Our collective memory places the American frontier much further west and much later in the nineteenth century, but for good and for bad, the policies, beliefs, conflicts and et cetera that the nation would experience were established in places like Ohio.” 

When the Priors arrived at the Connecticut Western Reserve, they stayed with the area’s first, and then only, settlers, the Hudson family, before moving on to the four lots they purchased in the Cuyahoga Valley. 

Clarke includes the text of the original land deed, as well as a scanned image of the crumpled and yellowing document. 

“The formal text of these deeds,” Clarke explains, “belies the fact that all four lots were out in the middle of nowhere.”

Clarke adds context to the family documents he presents, including the disclaimer that, “white writers from this era can be cringeworthy at best in the way native cultures are depicted.” 

The passages directly quoting letters and historical accounts written by Simeon and his family provide the book’s most compelling  moments. Some of the letters include endearing spelling inconsistencies (Simeon uses both “where” and “whair” within the same letter) and occasional bouts of literary flair. One account from Simeon’s oldest son, William, describes an eclipse in proto-horror-story fashion: “The dense wood so intensified the darkness and sudden gloom that animals of all kinds were frightened. Owls hooted and wolves howled most hideously…” 

One account, written by Simeon’s son Elisha, describes the Cuyahoga Valley as a wilderness that would be nearly unrecognizable to people living there today:

“Leaving the family at Hudson, my father with the older sons went in search of the ‘promised land,’ and made choice of a tract one mile north of what are known as Northampton Mills, and immediately commenced felling trees and building a cabin. That finished the family were removed to their new residence in the woods, seven miles from any other white family, and there, without any roads, mails or neighbors, except the red men of the woods, they commenced life anew. Bears, wolves, deer, turkeys and an occasional panther abounded in the woods, with other kinds of wild game in abundance.” 

Clarke, who is the fifth great-grandson of Simeon and Katherine Prior, largely keeps himself out of the story, referring to himself sparingly as “the writer of this book.” Though he writes with the detached tone of a historicist, Clarke’s interest in the Priors’ story comes through in occasional reading recommendations, footnotes highlighting discrepancies between different historical accounts, and a personal anecdote in which Clarke and a relative replace Simeon and Katharine’s weathered headstone with a white granite upgrade, which includes a recreation of the original front text, a list of the couple’s children, and an acknowledgment that they were the first settlers of Northampton Township.             

“The outline of the book follows the chain of custody of the people who were the keepers or main contributors of the Prior Family Archive,” Clarke says. “This allowed me to approach the book almost like one would approach a mystery – uncovering clues, following information where it leads and making discoveries. I continue to be amazed by what I discovered about the people in the book…. It all seems so simple now, seeing it laid out in the book, but it was anything but simple to figure out. And I’m still learning.”

Clarke has also started a Wolves and Flax Facebook page that provides photographs, postcards and other historical images not included in the book, as well as written summaries offering context. 

Though the book has been published, Clarke considers his research on the Prior family history an ongoing project. 

“Simeon Prior’s contemporary David Hudson has a historical society named after him, but Simeon and Katharine and their family had almost faded to obscurity,” he explains. “This inspired me because unlike David Hudson, Simeon wasn’t wealthy… stories about common people tend not to get told largely because nothing is saved that ties their lives to the past. The Prior Family Archive lets the story be told.”   

Kyle Cochrun is a writer and turntablist from Akron, Ohio.

Photos: Used with permission from Kenneth Clarke.