One of the most vital functions of the historian is to provide us opportunity to see how far we have come from the troubling past. Historians can offer proof that humans and communities and societies actually do evolve. Historians supply evidence for optimism.
If the world seems hopelessly petty and brutal in the headlines of the 21st century, all we have to do is look back at the Mansfield Square in the 1820s, and suddenly our time looks pretty civilized.
Civility in early Mansfield was only a tenuous bridge on the road away from savagery; and often the bridge sagged. Sometimes it crashed.
On one memorable day in the late 1820s, it totally disintegrated.
Larger Than Life
This wasn’t just a bunch of rowdies who had too much to drink, blowing off steam: any town has those; probably every town. This was much more intentional: an epic rumpus.
These were no mere idlers either; one team was a batch of bona fide horse thieves and famous desperados. A few years later they would be gunned down in Illinois by a posse of 111 men. These were authentic icons from the pages of American history.
One of the things that makes this tale so irresistible is the fact that it took place 200 years ago. Those centuries cast the characters into a state of folklore that has a mythic quality, which removes the action from the realm of real danger. If this battle took place today, there would be cops and body cams and headline recriminations and media hyperventilation. On the Square at the time of Johnny Appleseed however, it is simply a bit of tall tale Americana.
It is amazing to think of downtown Mansfield as the American frontier: simply a clearing in the vast forest. This story took place when our city’s only pretense to civilization was an odd assemblage of some two dozen log-stacked cabin buildings gathered around the perimeter of a muddy town square.
Into this rough-hewn setting rode a band of roughshod tough guys: loud and profane, smelly and rude; with only the barest rudiments of civility, and all the most animal instincts of humanity, such as: eat or be eaten.
There were two separate gangs of these guys in Richland County who herded like wolves: feral humans who survived in packs. Whenever they encountered another pack, they met with teeth bared.
It made for a lot of fights, especially if there was whiskey on the premises. And these characters were mean enough that they looked for fights. They even set dates and scheduled their brawls.
One of these gangs was from the northern end of the county, and the other was from the southern end. Today we would reference them by their towns: they were from Shiloh or Olivesburg; or Butler or Ankneytown. But none of these places existed yet in 1820, either on the map or anywhere in the hills. There were no towns: there were only rivers.
So the northern gang was known as the Blackforkers; the southern bunch was the Clearforkers. That is how they were remembered in the history books, and that is how they referred to each other in the 1820s.
These two ornery packs of brawlers set a date to meet at the Square in Mansfield so they could prove how tough they were.
The witnesses described it years later as a cockfight. It is an apt description if you’ve ever seen two roosters face off: just one glimpse of their opponent and they’re ready to rip each other apart.
It is an apt description in another way as well: in a proper rooster contest, the angry males are staged to their face off by placing them inside a ring of some sort—usually a circle of bettors; or often: a ring of aiders and abetters.
That is exactly what happened in Mansfield: the two teams joined together in a circle of perhaps fifty men, and they shoved their fiercest bullies into the ring.
Witnesses said they looked like giants. That is really how we remember them in folklore: giants of men made monstrous and huge to embody the raw, unforgiving wilderness.
One of the combatants went on to a life so lawless that he got his nose bitten off in a melee. They actually called him No Nose Driskill. Apparently that’s why he smelled so bad.
They were giants because America was so big back then, no one knew the end of it. The continent just kept getting bigger and wilder the farther west you went.
When the pioneers came to Ohio in the early 1800s, they left behind an East Coast world that was genteel and orderly. But this was the cutting edge of the nation, and there was very little of that orderliness here. Whatever rules existed, were only those agreed upon by everyone involved. And not everyone agreed. That is exactly why a lot of them came here—because they were disagreeable.
So these two hulking scrappers began the ritual dance by snarling at each other with imaginative animal epithets. These were those half-horse, half-alligator dudes you read about, who wrassled bears and kept tornados as pets.
The typical frontier presentation in a case like this consisted of a boast and a threat, something like: “I’m the baddest, buffest, brawniest, bone-breakin’est booger you ever saw! I’m the fastest, foulest, fartin’est flamethrower there ever was! And I’m gonna rip you and ravage you and regurgitate you and roast you on a spit; and then serve you to rattlesnakes for breakfast!”
Once the alliterated speech-making formalities were completed, the two titanic ape men bashed into each other, while everyone cheered.
Bystander witnesses to the fracas on the Square stood safely apart from the action, perched atop tall tree stumps, because they had seen enough of these melees to know what came next on the dance ticket.
Once the bloodletting began to trend one way or the other—when it became clear to one side their hero was about to lose the fight—then the ring of accomplices all flew into the pileup, dissolving the human circle to a shapeless brutal free-for-all.
These parties always started with two honorary contestants; they always ended with All-Dance.
This particular combat was recorded to have taken place in the southwestern quadrant of the Square: found today directly across Main Street from the Mechanics Bank block.
An archaeological excavation of the lawn there might conceivably turn up a bucket of teeth, fingers, and extraneous appendages; except that most of these men had already had their teeth knocked out years before.
The brawl stories never have a clear and satisfying ending. In the 21st century we believe every football game ends with a winner and a loser; and our world view is accordingly pretty black and white that way: there are no loose ends in our version of civilization.
But 1820s Richland County had no such requisites. You could tally up the blood and bruises and broken bones, but that was nothing like the end of it. There was no score card, record book, award ceremony. This was a battle that had no end until, perhaps, they were all dead.
In this case, the rivalry ended when the Clearforkers left town for good. Actually, they were run out of the county by a posse of regulators who had sworn to shoot them dead if they didn’t go away.
Today the news clipping would end with some team won or they lost and this was the score, and that would be the extent of it. Sports casters don’t have words to capture such spectacle, passion, and unnerving virulence. This battle on the Square is exactly the opposite of games with rules: it was nothing but spectacle, nothing but raw forces of nature crashing into each together like logs smashing on rocks as they’re thrown downstream in a wild spring flood.
There is no score for that. Only shock and awe, like watching fireworks.