Biography of Capt. James and James W. Riley
Mercer County, Ohio Biographies


Prominent among the first and best known pioneers of Western Ohio, was the late Capt. James Riley, who. won distinction as a traveler, navigator, author and statesman. He was born at Middletown, Connecticut, October 27, 1777, and died at sea, March 13, 1840.

Like many other lads brought up in ship building centers, James Riley early sought the adventures held out by a seafaring life and was but 15 years old when he shipped as a cabin boy on a trading vessel to the West Indies. By the time he was 20 years old he was master of a ship and had visited all the best known commercial points that foreign vessels then touched. His whole life on the sea which covered many years was more or less adventurous and much of it is incorporated in his interesting book, "Riley's Narrative," which at the time was the first reliable account of many unknown countries and of savage tribes. A thrilling experience related was of the wreck of his vessel, in August, 1815, on the reef off Cape Bojador, Africa. The shipwrecked captain and crew landed without loss of life but were taken captive by a wandering tribe of Arabs by whom they were sold to Moorish merchantmen, who made slaves of them and transported them to the Desert of Sahara. Of their escape and of the final return to the United States after a long absence, Captain Riley writes entertainingly in his work.

Wearied of the sea and financially prostrated by the loss of his vessel and cargo, Captain Riley then turned his attention to the rapidly developing western part of Ohio. Securing a government contract, in association with his eldest son, James Watson Riley, he surveyed and laid out counties and townships all through the northwestern part of this State. He was for a period extensively engaged in the erection of mills, the building of roads and the opening up of opportunities for settlers. In 1823-24 he represented Darke and Shelby counties in the General Assembly of Ohio and he it was who introduced the bill which laid the foundation for the State's present superior public school system. Failing health and a return of the old seafaring spirit induced him to return to commercial life on the water and, as probably he would have chosen, his last days were passed surrounded by the element which he loved so well,

in January, 1802, Captain Riley was married to Phebe Miller, a daughter of Hosea Miller, a "Minute Man" during the Revolutionary War. They had five children, namely: James Watson; Horatio Sprague; Williain Willshire; Amelia Ann, who married Dr. William Murdock, of Urbana, Ohio; and Phebe, who married John Jay Beach, of Connecticut.

JAMES WATSON RILEY, the eldest of the above family, became one of Mercer County's most distinguished men. He was born in Middletown, Connecticut, February 20, 1804. When he was 19 years of age, he assisted his father in surveying Southern Michigan and Northern Ohio and Indiana. Before he had reached his majority he was appointed clerk of courts of Mercer County. At that time the county seat was St. Marys, but in 1839 it was moved to Celina. This position he.held for a period of 20 years, resigning it in 1841 to take charge of the United States Land Office at Lima, being one of President William Henry Harrison's first appointees.

James Watson Riley was originally a Whig until the formation of the Republican party, when he became one of the earliest and stanchest supporters of the new organization. In 1843 he was elected td the Ohio Legislature and subsequently was appointed chief clerk of the State auditor. Upon his resignation of this position, he returned to Celina, always having been deeply interested in the development of this place. In 1853 he removed to Sandusky in order to give his younger children better educational advantages, and became attorney for the Sandusky, Mansfield & Newark Railroad Company. His death occurred at Celina, January 1, 1870, from an accident received at Toledo.

In September, 1827, Mr. Riley married Susan Ellis, of Alexander, New York, and they had six children born to them, namely: William Willshire, a physician and statesman, at Judsonia, Arkansas; Calvin Erastus, president of the Commercial Bank Company of Celina; Amelia Ann, deceased, formerly wife of Capt. William McMurray, a hero of the Civil War; James Watson, Jr., residing in Celina, who distinguished himself in the Civil War; Susan (wife of Hon. E. M. Ashley, of Denver, Colorado), who was one of the Vice presidents of the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago, and the first president of the Colorado Federation of Women's Clubs; and Mahala, who is the wife of Judged A. J. Hodder, a prominent resident of Boston, Massachusetts. Mr. and Mrs. James W. Riley also reared and adopted six orphan children.

History of Mercer County, Ohio
and Representative Citizens
Edited & Compiled by: Hon. S. S. Scranton
Published by: Biographical Publishing Company
Chicago, Illinois

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