By Ronald J. Taddeo, M.D.
The naming of villages, cities, counties and states in the U.S. usually evokes historical curiosity. These names may be inspired by people, geographic locations, historic events, famous cities and countries, native American influences and even businesses, i.e., as in the many sites named “Mills”. Occasionally we encounter off the wall designations such as, “Hell”, Michigan and “Truth or Consequences”, New Mexico, which was renamed from Hot Springs to win a contest sponsored by a wild and crazy radio quiz show in the 1940’ and 50’s.
Since Willoughby, Ohio is the only incorporated city in the U.S. with this title, it is time to set the record straight on how Willoughby acquired this name. Hopefully this will put to rest the many myths and legends that have distorted this fascinating history.
By now, most people should know that Willoughby is the only city in Ohio which has been part of six counties, namely Washington, Jefferson, Trumbull, Geauga, Cuyahoga and Lake. When the Western Reserve was surveyed in 1796-97 by Moses Cleaveland for the Connecticut Land Company, some of the five-mile townships were immediately assigned names while others retained numerical designation for variable time periods. The first map of the Reserve, drawn by surveyor Seth Pease indicated that what would eventually be called Willoughby Township was originally labeled Carlton. On the next map of 1798, Carlton was changed to Charlton. The origin of this name remains unknown to date. What is known however, is that Charlton is an ENGLISH name, literally translated as, “Charles’ Town”. In English, “ton” at the end of a city name always means town, as in Washington, Lexington, Boston, Barberton, Wilmington, etc. The meandering Chagrin River which winds its way through Lake County once propelled several grist and saw mill establishments along its course to Lake Erie. Here in Willoughby, the original grist and saw mills of David Abbott have eluded precise location, but did exist somewhere along this stretch between downtown and the lake outlet. Obviously, the mills proved to be the attractive nucleus of the new settlement here which, within ten years, expanded into the growing village of Chagrin(e) as described on the maps of the day.
While it is true that the first European explorers of North America, including the Great Lakes region, were French, it is also true that no Frenchmen would ever assign the English name, Charlton, to one of their trading posts. This myth of one such settlement at the mouth of the Chagrin River should be discarded here and now! Charlton was NOT the name of a French/Indian trading post on the Chagrin. Since these early traders and missionaries referred to the Chagrin as the rivière biche, French for Elk River, that could very well have been the name of a trading post, if there ever was one there.
Five years after Ohio became a state, the name Chagrin replaced Charlton on the Pease map of 1808. There might be an explanation for this switch in nomenclature, but so far we have not discovered it. Surely the opening of the first water-powered grist and sawmills here by David Abbott in 1798 and 1799 spread the word of this pioneer, neophyte settlement on the Chagrin River, attracting other settlers from far and wide.
Unofficially, the location was sometimes known colloquially as Abbott’s Mill or Chagrin Mills. Soon everyone was referring to the place as Chagrin, (originally spelled, Chagrine) which remained the official name of the township until 1834 when it became Willoughby. Why and how this Willoughby name transformation occurred will be discussed in the next segment. Hopefully, you will stay tuned!
Ronald J. Taddeo, MD is a retired plastic and reconstructive surgeon with an insatiable interest in history. Dr. Taddeo and his wife Sandy are members of most of the historical societies in northeast Ohio. For over twenty years, Dr. Taddeo has served as historian for the Lake County Medical Society, historian for the Ohio Valley Society of Plastic Surgeons and is a member of the President’s Advisory Committee of the Lake County Historical Society. Additionally, Dr. Taddeo is president of the Willoughby Area Welcome Center in downtown Willoughby where historical exhibits tell the fascinating stories of our Lake County communities.