To many residents of Marietta today, it’s a picture perfect small town complete with local businesses, a community feel and a historic atmosphere.
But Marietta almost wasn’t the small city situated along the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers that it is today.
If but for a twist of fate, Marietta could well have become one of America’s largest and most bustling cities.
As the United States was growing after the end of the Revolutionary War, a capital city for the burgeoning young nation was needed. And included in the list of possibilities was Marietta, which in 1788 became the first organized settlement in the Northwest Territory.
Kenneth Bowling, author of “The Creation of Washington D.C: The Idea and Location of the American Capital,” a 1991 book about the founding of the capital city, says Marietta was one of the seven contenders back in the 1780s to become the nation’s capital.
According to reports from the time, pioneer Manasseh Cutler was promoting the city to be chosen.
“In 1787, Manasseh Cutler … argued publicly that the seat of empire belonged on the Ohio River. He urged Congress to postpone action until the claims of the Ohio could merit serious discussion,” Bowling wrote.
Cutler and others reportedly felt that the frontier was a more suitable place for the capital than a city on the east coast and less likely to be invaded. There was also the beginnings of a city in Marietta at the time while nothing was yet developed in what would become Washington D.C.
Marietta was apparently the only site in Ohio to be considered.
Ultimately, a location along the Potomac River was selected to become the site of the new nation’s capital, as part of a compromise surrounding Congress’ support of creation of the Federal Reserve, but many still wonder “what if” when it comes to Marietta.
“What would’ve happened if this did become the center of government for our United States? What would Marietta look like then?” said Bill Reynolds, a historian with the Campus Martius Museum in Marietta.
If Marietta had become the capital city, it certainly would not have the small town feel it does now. Instead, it would be the booming metropolis that Washington, D.C. has become, home to the White House, Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S. Supreme Court and many current residents probably wouldn’t want to live here, Reynolds noted.
However, with the quality of people in the area and its resources it would’ve made a great capital for the nation, said Mayor Joe Matthews.
“I think it would’ve been fantastic with the rail systems we used to have here and the rivers and the boat traffic. It probably would’ve been a great idea,” he said.
Marietta resident Tom Leister, of Sharon Street, agreed the city would’ve made a good capital location, but noted he’s not sure if he would’ve liked living in the equivalent of Washington D.C.
“I like my rural small town setting,” he said.
Leister, who has traveled to Washington D.C. as well as cities including New York City, Baltimore and Chicago said he appreciates the safety and tranquility of Marietta, but said it does have all the resources to be a great capital city.
“From where we (are), we could’ve been a good capital,” he said. “We’re more central in the nation, back at that time than what D.C. is. You’ve got the Ohio River for travel and commerce. It wouldn’t have been the worst choice, that’s for sure.”
Consideration of Marietta as the nation’s capital was also a result of the city’s direct ties to expansion of the country.
As the first organized settlement in the Northwest Territory, Marietta had plenty to offer, historians say. It was located along the dominant mode of travel at the time with the rivers, and it was on the frontier of westward growth.
Construction of the national highway, which is now Old U.S. 40, altered the travel pattern in the frontier, but the city still remained a key hub in America’s growth, said local historian Jim O’Donnell, who is authoring a book on Rufus Putnam.
“This is sort of the opening to that door,” O’Donnell explained.
Upon founding, Marietta served as capital of both Ohio and the Northwest Territory.
As happened with its potential to become the nation’s capital, the seat of power would ultimately shift away from Marietta with Ohio’s capital becoming centralized in the state, first going to Chillicothe and finally to Columbus, following the transportation pattern.
“(Marietta as capital) was not going to happen, primarily for geographical, economic and transportation reasons. Setting aside any politics, those reasons prevailed,” O’Donnell said.
If Marietta had become capital of Ohio and the nation, history could well have taken a different course, noted local historian Jean Yost.
The Northwest Ordinance, passed on July 13, 1787, established laws to be upheld throughout the Northwest Territory. Included in that landmark document was prohibition of slavery throughout the territory, and a capital based in a city with such distinction could have changed the first century of life for America, Yost explained.
“(The Northwest Ordinance) was really the start of a whole new direction on the outlook, that we the people are now going to govern and it’s time for it (slavery) to be over,” Yost said.
Selection of the District of Columbia as capital occurred in 1790, but Thomas Jefferson would be the first U.S. President to take the oath of office in the new capital in 1801.