Wilson was born on April 16, 1811 near Belfast in Highland County, Ohio. His family moved to Virginia in his early childhood. He had varied professions in his young adult life including as a stone quarrier, school teacher, farmer, and merchant. In 1829 Wilson returned to Ohio, and other than a short period of residence in Tippecanoe, Indiana in the interim, he ended up settling permanently in Adams County Ohio in 1832.
He initially rented a room out of a stone dwelling belonging to John and Martha Smiley further up Georges Creek than the present location of the community of Tranquility, on Old Paint Road and operated a mercantile business, selling dry goods, groceries, and whiskey. Later that same year he built the log cabin that is at the John T. Wilson homestead and moved his growing store to this location. In 1832 he also named the village of Tranquility that was forming around his business. His store continued to prosper and in 1840 he started work on the brick home that makes up the John T. Wilson homestead.
In 1841 he married Miss Hadassah G. Drysden. They had their only child, Spencer Wilson in 1842. In 1844 the brick structure of the Wilson home was finished and he named his new home “Prominence.” The store was moved to the east room of the first floor of this new structure. His wife would die in March 23, 1849.
The Tranquility Store was operated out of the east room from the mid 1840s to late 1850s. The village post office was also run out of the store as well. In late 1850 W. A. Blair, an apprentice of Wilson, acquired the business and moved it into the Tranquility Valley.
If caught supporting runaway slaves, you risked loss of property, money, imprisonment, or possibly even death. Even so, John T. Wilson adopted abolitionist ideas and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Wilson was also affiliated with the Reverend Dyer Burgess, a firebrand abolitionist. We can deduce that this minister influenced Wilson’s anti slavery views and support of the Underground Railroad.
There were various routes fugitive slaves could take on their path to freedom through Ohio. The one that went through the Wilson home started when slaves crossed the Ohio River at Ripley, Ohio and were hidden by Reverend John Rankin. From Ripley they moved to Read Oak in Brown County and were then conducted to West Union. The next stop would be the John T. Wilson homestead. After a stay at the Wilson home they would then move on to Sinking Springs on their path northward.
As tensions grew intense, building up to the Civil War, Wilson became an outspoken activist in keeping the Union intact and abolishing slavery. He invested all available monies into bonds to support the Union Army. As the war drew near, he approached Colonel Cockerill of West Union with the idea of forming a local group to be called Company E of the 70th Volunteer Ohio infantry. He began a recruitment drive in the local area of Tranquility and in the fall of 1861 had mustered 62 recruits. These were mainly Scottish and Irish descendents and a few other locals from the area. These recruits had early meetings and signed their enlistment papers in the East Room of the Wilson home. They also began their first drills in the fields of the Wilson property.
It is interesting that Ohio soldiers in the Civil War often carried buckeyes in their pockets. This was for good luck and to remind them of their families and homes that they left behind. Today buckeye trees grow naturally on the John T. Wilson homestead. One can wonder if these are descendents from trees of Wilson’s day and those may have produced the buckeyes that Company E carried with them into battle.
Wilson now at the age of 51 was granted a commission as Captain in the Union Army. He led his troops to Camp Hamer at West Union, Ohio where they trained into the early winter of 1861. Even though Wilson walked with a limp from an earlier injury involving a horse, he was determined to lead his soldiers. The 70th Infantry later marched and traveled by steamboat to Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. Company E fought at that site in the April 6-7, 1862 bloody battle of Shiloh. Historians have indicated that Wilson led his men into battle and held his troops together for the two-day confrontation during many horrific skirmishes of cannon fire and close combat.
He later became severely ill with the “fever” in the march to Cornith, Mississippi, pursuing the Confederate forces that had retreated from Shiloh. He had to be removed from the battlefield and returned to Ripley, Ohio to recover. His son who also had followed Wilson into the war, died in Louisville, Kentucky on March 4, 1862. Wilson rejoined Company E in early November of 1862; however, his health had deteriorated to the point that the commanding officers felt he could better serve the Union at the home front. He resigned his commission in November 1862.
Upon his return to the Tranquility community, Wilson was elected to the Ohio State Senate representing the 7th district in 1863. He would be reelected in 1865. He was nominated and was elected as a United States Congressional Representative for the 11th Ohio District in 1866. He would be reelected in 1868 and 1870. During the last two terms, he served as the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee. In that era this was a prestigious committee yielding tremendous influence. It is said by people in his districts of the time that he represented them honestly and very openly.
After his congressional service, he returned to Adams County and pursued farming, land speculation, and banking. His first forays into banking can be traced back to 1862 when founded his own bank at Ripley, Ohio called First National Bank, later renamed Ripley National Bank.
In his later years Wilson made a very generous gift of over $46,000 (equal to $1.1 million today) to build the Adams County Children’s Home in West Union, Ohio which was completed on December 5, 1884. This facility is still standing today and you can see a bust of Wilson outside the building. Inside the children’s home there are only two photos of people hanging in the main hallway, one of Wilson and the other of Reverend Dyer Burgess – the abolitionist minister. This further illustrates the relationship that these two men had.
His wise banking and investing and other endeavors allowed Wilson to accumulate great wealth. Interestingly he was the owner of Serpent Mound and land surrounding it when these lands were deeded to the Peabody Museum of Harvard University 1886. John T. Wilson passed away in his beloved home, Prominence on October 6, 1891. Upon his death he had a net worth of over $550,000 (over $13.2 million in today’s dollars) making him the richest man in Adams County. His will showed that he owned 74 farms. It stipulated that all of his wealth would go to worthy causes and individuals, certain colleges, and close friends.
He willed over $500,000 to charitable causes including a $35,000 endowment along with $15,000 in farming lands to the Adams County Children’s home; a fund of $150,000 for worthy poor of Adams County, OH (still in existence today and governed by a citizen committee); and $5000 for the Civil War Soldiers Monument that was erected on the grounds of the children’s home.
John T. Wilson was buried in the Tranquility cemetery across the street from the John T. Wilson homestead with his wife, son, and long term house keeper, Ellen Couser. His is the largest monument in the graveyard.
John T. Wilson was a man of service, success, and most importantly; a self-made person that few can emulate today.