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Massillon History: Thomas Rotch

The Story of Thomas & Charity Rotch

For the full history of Spring Hill, please visit Spring Hill Historic Home's website.
Taken from the Massillon Museum's 1961 Spring and Summer Bulletin, written by Helen Henley

Thomas Rotch likeness silhouette

The Rotches’ move to Ohio could be blamed on a germ. However, the fact that they were Quaker missionaries, the westward movement was at a high pitch and that Thomas Rotch actually had an itchy foot could have been additional reasons.

Charity, Thomas’ wife, caught spotted fever in Hartford, Connecticut, and recurring attacks were making her weaker and weaker. The famous Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia diagnosed her disease by letter and recommended treatments for her recovery- amongst which was change of climate, possibly to “westward Ohio.”

Thomas was born in 1767 in Nantucket and was the youngest son of William Rotch, Sr. and Elizabeth Barney; Charity, nine months older, was born in Newport and was the youngest daughter of Thomas Rodman and Mary Borden. In 1790 Thomas and Charity were married and in 1791 had their only child, Thomas Jr., who lived only a few months. Perhaps sadness caused them to move to New Bedford to join Thomas’ brothers in a business venture. Thomas, Sr. was at this time a little hard-up because of the Revolution and his new venture in Europe. But despite this, the Rotch family was a wealthy one. Whalers and all businesses connected with whaling, not only in New England but in England and the continent as well, brought them a comfortable living. Incidentally, the Boston Tea Party ship belonged to the Rotches; it was a Rotch ship bearing the first American flag that sailed up the Thames after the American Revolution.

Thomas and Charity lived only about eight years in New Bedford although they prospered well there. Having that keen Yankee ingenuity, Thomas was to prosper all his life. But even though they were happy in New Bedford, they moved on to Hartford. Thomas writes, “10 mo. 23rd, 1800: left our beloved friends and relatives at N. Bedford in order to reside in Hartford, Conn. 27th of the month we reached the place but our furniture not getting up the River, we did not get to housekeeping till 11th of the 11th mo.” Thomas said that he went to Hartford primarily as a missionary, but his address was: Thomas Rotch, Merchant, Hartford. Besides being a merchant and missionary, he had a woolen factory, a slitting mill, an oil mill, and a farm with pure-bred Merino sheep. He apparently was very active in Hartford, for in addition to the above-mentioned activities, he must have been connected with a school for some letters indicate his having hired a teacher; having been associated with Wadsworth, founder of the Atheneum; he also made a long religious journey to Nova Scotia.

Charity Rotch likeness silhouette

His stay in Hartford was not much longer than the one in New Bedford. Thomas was a rolling stone who seemed to gather considerable moss. Spotted fever caught from lice must have weakened Charity considerably, but weakened condition or not, Charity and Thomas “set out in the 1st mo. 1811, passed the Allegheny Mts. To the Ohio at Pittsburgh and through the little towns to Cincinnati, to the northerd between the two Miami Rivers to the headwaters, returning by way of the Pickaway plaines and homeward the 5th mo. Following.” All of this was done on horseback. He writes how fascinated he was with the mounds at Fort Ancient and thought them to be Indian mounds- an unheard-of thing in those days. He made a map of the place including the walls which were intact then. The Wales family still has it.

Massillon is nowhere near Cincinnati, so Thomas and Charity must have seen this area on their way home. Charity’s health must have improved, and they must have preferred the climate here to New England’s, so as a result, they “Left Hartford 1st of 10 mo. 1811 to move west.” Thomas and Charity came the second time by horse and buggy- Thomas buying wagons and filling them with merchandise all along the way so that he could begin a store here.

Thomas bought his some 2,500 acres of land at the Steubenville Land Office; later he acquired some more at the Wooster Land Office which brought his holdings to 4,000 acres, “South of the 41st parallel of latitude, lands known as Congress Lands, surveyed by Ebenezer Buckingham in 1800.” It was then part of Tuscarawas Township; The Tuscarawas River was then the boundary line between the United States and the Indians. Kendal later became part of Perry Township named after the Great Lakes hero of the War of 1812.

Thomas apparently was impressed with the land around Sippo Creek, so he laid out land seven miles west of Canton and called it Kendal after an English manufacturing town which is picturesquely situated on the hillsides in northwest England. I rather imagine that Rotch wanted a similar Kendal here in Ohio. He built the one and only log cabin in Kendal “high up on the hill away from swamp and fevers.” This early dwelling was replaced by a frame house suitable for Charity.

Thomas Rotch was a successful owner of Spanish Merino Sheep. Eight years before coming to Kendal he purchased eight pedigreed sheep from Col. David Humphrey, one of the largest and earliest Merino sheep importers. Humphrey, an ambassador to Portugal, managed to sneak a few of the royal sheep out of the country. Europeans were not overly anxious to share Merino sheep with the Americans. Thomas’ flock multiplied, and he sent over four hundred sheep across the Pennsylvania mountains under the care of Arvine Wales. Arvine, born in New Stamford, Vermont, in 1785, was only fifteen years old when he entered the employ of Thomas Rotch. Apparently Thomas had a great deal of faith in him, for Arvine worked in the store in Hartford, calling himself a “clothier,” took charge of the sheep, and was, in general, a “handyman.” He inherited $1,000 from Thomas and later used this to purchase the farm after Charity died. The farm is still occupied and worked by his descendants (historical note: The Spring Hill Historic Home is now under care of the Massillon Museum Foundation, Inc.).

Arvine Wales, c.1850

On arriving at Pittsburgh, Arvine floated the sheep down the river to Steubenville, left half of the flock there and brought the other half to Kendal. Charity stayed in Wheeling with friends and Arvine and Thomas wintered it out with the sheep in a log cabin near Sippo Creek. That first winter must have been a rugged one. William Dickinson and a friend stopped by to visit with Thomas and Arvine described it thus: “Besides warm and comfortable coverings for the flock, he has built a snug little cabin not far from the spring where he has, in great abundance, all the substantial comforts of the country. With full health he has excellent tea, coffee, sugar, chocolate and warm blankets at night. They have but one room and that rather too small for all hands to sleep in, so by way of an upper story your husband has suspended a hammock by four strong ropes about five feet above the floor. It requires some degree of agility to ascend this hammock; he has had recourse to a rope ladder by which he climbs up every night and then swings and slumbers it out until morning.”

Thomas converted Dickinson to the Spanish Merino sheep raising business, and the two of them incited Bezaleil Wells’ enthusiasm, but he did not start on his venture until after the War of 1812. Through these three men developed three great sheep ranches between Canton and Massillon, which in the 1820s were the greatest in the country. Thomas, of course, used his wool in his factory which he set up beside the Sippo Creek. There is some argument as to who brought the first sheep to Ohio – whether it was Seth Adams of Zanesville or Thomas Rotch of Kendal. There follows some correspondence which took place between the two.

Jan. 17, 1812
Dear Sir:

I was in hopes to have seen you at this place before this-. My son Thomas Bullfinch Adams was on at Steubenville a few days since informs me that you have purchased at or near Canton – but not withstanding I am yet in hopes to have that pleasure. The Legislative are now in session at this place, many of the members have spoke to me to bring on some of your cloths, they are in want and I believe you may sell considerable to them- The Legislative of this State have passed a law protecting (sheep) the holders of them by exempting the sheep and wool, yarn and cloth made in private families to the am’t of $45 from execution – this is not finally passed but will be a law – I am expecting myself to have a law passed for encouraging the raising of sheep and restraining same from running large. I will thank you give me your idea on this subject by next mail.
Seth Adams”

Thomas was greatly concerned with protective tariff and petitioned Congress many times. Another example of how this Quaker, missionary, businessman, farmer, engineer too, made himself felt in his day follows:

“Washington Feb. 4
Dear Sir:

Your letter of Jan. 18th was received yesterday. The Petition I presented to the Senate, and had it referred to the Committee of Commerce and manufacturers where several other Petitions of a similar nature, from different parts of the country have been referred. I think something will be done this season to favor manufacturers. The subject has not yet come under consideration. I thank you for the specimens of manufactured cloth you sent me from your factor- I showed them to the members of the Senate and several other gentlemen, who seemed much surprised to see the manufacture of cloth carried to such perfection in the Western woods. I intend to show them to the president the first opportunity that occurs. I have no news of importance the proceedings of Congress you will see in the papers.

Please to remember me to your Lady – to Jonathan Winters and family.
(signed) Benjamin Ruggles”

On laying out Kendal, Thomas sought to utilize the water power of Sippo Creek for the woolen factory and the sawmill. In plan it was very much like a New England village with its town green. The Stark County History says: “Mr. Rotch succeeded in having a post office in the village, and was first postmaster. He also built a woolen factory and saw-mill, utilizing the water power from Sippo Creek (which now runs through one of the city parks). He did other first things too, such as a grist mill, a pottery, established a meeting house which also served as the first school; Charity started Kendal’s social library which in turn began our own present day library. Thomas and Charity were named first Quaker Missionaries. In 1816 Thomas incorporated an aqueduct to supply the village with good wholesome spring water and bringing it also to the farm.”

Thomas apparently wanted Kendal to be a very “special” village. Although he himself lived in a log cabin on the edge of the town, he would not allow log buildings within its limits, placing building restrictions as to size and materials of dwellings on every lot he sold and requiring houses to be built within a year or the land would be forfeited. The people could cooperate, for most of them were above the run of the mine pioneer, many of them being retired sea captains and folk of some substance. They brought with them a definite flavor of New England culture. Thomas even wrote to artisans in New England encouraging them to come to Ohio. Kendal was definitely restricted, which is possibly the reason why it was not too successful. It did not really begin to grow until the Canal came. It was Massillon, really, which put Kendal on the map.

But nonetheless, Thomas was the big man of the community. A letter written in 1815 mentions “the numbers of wagons moving through town” and how Thomas Rotch entertained them. Another letter from George Flowers stated that he had not been impressed by uncouth Ohioans and how pleased he was to meet “a Gentleman such as Thomas Rotch.”

Thomas and Charity, like other Rotches, were opposed to slavery and were frequently called upon to protect the fugitive slave on his way to Canada. They were never known to leave a call unheeded and provided them with a place of safety in the second story of the spring house. In the mansion there is a steep winding stairway running from the basement to the second floor with no opening onto the first floor. Tradition was that runaway slaves were taken from the basement up this stairway to the second floor and kept in a low room under the roof until whoever was searching was gone. The door of this attic room is only half as high as any ordinary door, and when it was hidden by a barrel of sugar as it was in those days, entrance to the room was not visible.

Thomas was continually attending various meetings of Friends. In September, 1823, while attending an annual meeting at Mount Pleasant, he died at the age of fifty-six. According to custom, he was buried there. He never lived in the house he built for his beloved Charity.

She was destined, however, to outlive her husband by less than a year. Dr. Rush’s diagnosis of her illness, which was dropsy, is much admired by physicians of today. Just before her death she made a will leaving most of her material possessions to her late husband’s brothers and sisters. Then she says: “Having for many years past been very desirous of promoting the establishment of a benevolent institution for the education of destitute orphan and indigent children, more particularly those whose parents are of depraved morals, that they may be trained up in the habits of industry and economy, it is my w ill that my executors convert the remainder of my property, both real and personal, into money, as soon as possible, and place the same in permanent funds, the interest of which to be solely applied to said institution. Should the amount be sufficient to attach a farm thereto, so that a portion of the boys’ time may be devoted to the laudable pursuits of agriculture and a part of the girls’ time be devoted to acquiring the art of housewifery whereby they may support themselves and become useful members of society, and where also a sufficient portion of their time may be devoted to acquiring a common English education, it would fully comfort with my views.”

She appointed Arvine Wales and Matthew Macy her executors. She is buried in the Quaker Cemetery cared for by the Charity School Trustees. The Charity School came into being and was run successfully until public school education became its competitor. The funds are used today helping many kinds of needy children in Massillon.

It is difficult to end the story of the Rotches when I have only scratched the surface. Thomas had so many other interest: the militia laws of Ohio in relation to the Quakers; he petitioned for the Ohio Canal, which he never lived to see; he was a father confessor to many in trouble; he was much concerned with the tariff laws; it is suspected that he gave money to Dr. Todd in Hartford to begin what is now the Institute for the Living- to mention only a few. They were fine and admirable people, the Rotches.

Charity Rotch School of Kendal, 1910
In the early 1800s, education was not publicly accessible. Charity Rotch wanted to help educate the underprivileged children in the area. Through sale of wool from her own flock of sheep, she started a fund to establish a school, which offered classes in 1826 after her death. The Charity Rotch School was the first vocational school in Ohio, teaching farming to boys and housewifery to girls. Accepted students became wards of the school until they reached the age of 18. The school was closed in 1906 and the building was razed in 1926.  Today, the Charity Rotch School of Kendal Foundation still assists underprivileged students with vocational scholarships each year.
Collection of the Massillon Museum (BC 2295.1b)


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