top of page

Place History

An in-depth study of the history of Martin Rockafield, the first white settler on present-day Wright State land.






                                        Alex Tischer

                                        Dr. Jennings

                                         ENG 4110


Painting a White Picture - History of WSU Through Martin Rockafield

         The history of the land on which Wright State sits is the history of America. It is a chronicle of “frontier” colonization, masculine supremacy, and Native American removal. Many Wright State students are either ignorant of its existence or its importance, and improved, continual education onthe history of this land is essential to a nuanced understanding of the land on which we study. It is also essential to re-learning our relationship to land in general in the middle of the climate crisis. Though the entire history of Wright State as "property" and as unownable land is important, the original white settler family, the Rockafields, have a fascinating and understudied story. Martin Luther Rockafield, the father of the family and the first white settler on this land, experienced a life unlike any reader will know. His lifetime alone, 1761 - 1836, shows the most significant change to Native American land in the Bath township area, the formation of the United States of America, the Greenville Treaty, the formation of Ohio as a territory and then a state, the War of 1812, and the Shawnee removal in 1832. Though he was the oldest white settler on Wright State land, his grave in the Rockafield cemetery is the only one that can still easily be read with the naked eye. His legacy obviously endures through multiple studies into his descendants and graveyard, but I feel that massive areas of research are missing. Macro and philosophical studies are seemingly entirely left out. This paper seeks to both put Martin Rockafield’s life in its proper relation to other events at the time, and ask big questions about what these events mean for our understanding of WSU and America today. In the wake of decolonization, the climate crisis, and racial reckoning, understanding our school’s inheritance is important. What does it mean, and what is it like to be buried on land that was not yours, not part of your country, not part of the country to which you were once tethered to, at the time of your birth? What does it mean to live a life separate from your family, potentially walking to Ohio from Maryland? What did Martin have a front-row seat to historically, and how close was this to present Wright State property?  The fascinating and the horrific live in very close proximity during Martin Rockafield’s life, and delving into his story can help see them both.

         Martin Rockafield was born on September 11th, 1761. Almost nothing is known about him until his move from Frederick County, Maryland to Bath township in 1807.  Very little is known of his wife, Mary. However, many important events happened around Martin of which he would have been aware. In his first 46 years of life before moving to Ohio, the United States was formed, the Revolutionary war was fought, states were beginning to pop up everywhere, and, topically for him, the Greenville Treaty of 1795 stole the majority of what today is the state of Ohio from varying Native American tribes. The Greenville Treaty was not unanimously agreed upon by tribes, and was an excuse of an agreement to pacify warfare and protect Native American lives. However, the ink of the treaty was not dry when settlers began entering the stolen land. Tellingly, Enumeration ‘96, an index of names of settlers in Greene and Montgomery counties from 1796-1810 begins in 1796, a few months following the August 3rd Greenville Treaty. It was 12 years following the treaty, and four years following the formation of Ohio as a state, that the Rockafields made their entrance into Wright State land.

Martin Rockafield moved to Bath township in late 1807. Records show only his son Aaron was with him. The township was only founded on March 3, 1807, and in the “enumeration of all the free white males over the age of twenty-one years” (Robinson 30) conducted by Mr. David Sleeth that year, Martin and Aaron were not on the list. However, Martin and Aaron’s journey into Ohio must have been difficult. Records do not show how they arrived in Bath, but many walked over the Appalachian Mountains to get to the promised land of Ohio. The father and son duo were ahead of the curve, as, in 1800, 42,000 people lived in the Ohio territory. By 1803, when Ohio officially reached statehood, Ohio had 60,000 citizens. In 1826, the population ballooned to 800,000 people (Stockwell 72). Such massive growth was unprecedented, and the Rockafield family’s later trickling in to join them in Bath can be seen in reaction to the increased security in westward living. 

         They were the first two Rockafields to move to Bath, and records show Martin had two other sons by 1807, John and Jacob. John was born in 1801, Jacob in 1803. These boys would have grown up without their father in likely Virginia or Maryland, and John moved to Bath in 1820, Jacob in 1830. It is assumed that their mother Mary raised them in Virginia, where Jacob was born. Aaron, likely the first-born son, was a Captain in the Army by 1812, as he fought in the War of 1812. Though fought all over the country, Aaron was, due to their proximity, likely deployed to the battles near what today is Toledo. He survived the war, and ended up having at least two sons. To move into a new land with grand hopes for the future and have your first-born sent into a war from which he may never return must have dampened some dreams of prosperity, and further explains why it took years for the rest of the family to migrate to Bath township. Following the war, the Shawnee and other tribes native to the land tried to assimilate with the dominant white culture by beginning farming. Their assimilation was unsuccessful, as they were still systematically removed.

         Unfortunately, the timeline becomes more suspect and full of gaps as more of Martin’s kids come into the equation. Mary, Martin’s only daughter, is born in 1826, though she’s not necessarily born in Bath. As well, Martin’s son Isaac moved to Bath in 1840, four years after his death. How Martin and his wife, who weren’t necessarily both in Bath, were moving around the country to have kids in different places may be lost to history.

         However, it is confirmed that, by 1830, Martin, John, two of John's sons, and Jacob were in Bath Township. There is no evidence for their involvement in the mass removal of Shawnee Indians in 1932 from Lewistown, Ohio, an hour north of WSU by car. However, their removal path to Northeastern Oklahoma traveled within 30 minutes of campus by car in Piqua. The combination of Native American artifacts found in the WSU Campus Woods and the timeline of the Rockafields make the possibility of their involvement in Shawnee removal not impossible or unlikely.

         It was only four years after the Shawnee removal that Martin Rockafield passed away. It is odd that his son, Capt. Aaron, also died in 1936. Being 71, Martin could have believably died from old age. However, Aaron’s death seems more accidental. His youth precludes old age, though some undocumented skirmish could have cost him his life. Whether Martin saw his own son pass before him is not known. 

         The grave of Martin Rockafield, the best-preserved grave

          in the cemetery.




         The life of Martin Rockafield exists in the annals of history, yet new questions can be asked to mine a modern perspective on the pioneer and father. A dichotomy exists between the subjugation, killing, and theft by pioneers, and the eventual progress made by Ohioans. Martin Rockafield was a stepping stone, not only for Wright State to become a university, but theoretically for Wilbur and Orville in their flight experiments. In an archived report by Lawrence Abrams, he found in interviews with prominent families in the area that the Wright Brothers practiced flight experiments near “the football field by the back access road” (16). Understanding that our ability to better ourselves today in university comes from a direct line of history back to killing and subjugation is hard to swallow but important. 

Aside from the straight, dry history, there exist many fascinating questions that come out of pondering Martin’s life. What went through Martin’s mind when ‘settling’ this land? The Rockafield cemetery was created before Martin’s death, and thus his place of rest was known to him before he passed. How odd must it have been for Martin to be buried in land that was not part of America when Martin was born? The United States of America had not even been formed at the time of his birth. Why did he choose that specific land for the house and cemetery? Apart from its apparent flatness and being to the edge of old growth forest, the cemetery holds a great vantage point into the stream below, and the sloping hills east of the cemetery were probably a great source of reflection for the Rockafields.

         In a national effort to come to terms with our past, our individual connection to the land on which we study needs further chartering past 1836. My short study of 1761-1836 will help students understand the inheritance this land holds, but it needs to be drawn all the way to our student body today. More questions for later periods could be if there were artifacts found by construction workers when building the campus that could be traced to the Rockafaields? Were there any considerations for the history of the land when building and planning the land? By extending the timeline into the current era of Wrigtht State, students can really see the picture drawn, and engage with Wright State University as a newer university on old, historied land.





















Other graves in the cemetery.


Works Cited


Enumeration ’96 : A Name & Source Descriptive Index to Persons in the Ohio Counties of Montgomery & Greene, 1796-1810. Celebration Dayton ’96 Bicentennial Committee, 1996. EBSCOhost,


Robinson, George F. History of Greene County, Ohio; Embracing the Organization of the County, Its Division into Townships, Sketches of Local Interest Gleaned from the Pioneers from 1803 to 1840, Together with a Roster of the Soldiers of the Revolution and the War of 1812, Who Were Residing in the County, Also, a Roster of Ten Thousand of the Early Settlers from 1803 to 1840. S. J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1902. EBSCOhost,


Stockwell, Mary. The Other Trail of Tears : The Removal of the Ohio Indians. First Westholme Paperback 2016, Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2016. EBSCOhost,

Abrams, Lawrence. Wright State History (Except for excerpts in archives, the source is unfindable)

bottom of page