On September 21, 1836 in anticipation of a celebration for President Andrew Jackson – who was to visit Portsmouth. Four men, supporters of Jackson were killed – these men members of Jackson’s Democratic party were set to honor the President. One of the men was Joseph Bonser, hero son of Major Isaac Bonser on whose farm the first 4th of July celebration in Ohio was held in 1808.
The Bonsers were pioneers to the Ohio country; Isaac brought his family from Pennsylvania in 1796, and made his permanent home at the Little Scioto River.
He helped organize the Militia to protect those who settled here. During the War of 1812, Isaac was a Major and he commanded the 1st Ohio Regiment called to service. His son Joseph was a member of that regiment and was taken prisoner at the surrender of Detroit, by General Hull.
So we have it, men who were proud to have lived during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who was also a veteran of War of 1812. When it was heard that the President promised to make a brief stop at Portsmouth, something special had to be done.
Accounts of the cannon incident vary as to did the President leave the boat he was on – or stay on board and wave at the crowd. A few dignitaries boarded to visit with Jackson; it was thought that Isaac Bonser was one of these. It was not the meeting on board, but the celebration on the bank that ended in tragedy.
The Book “Pioneers of Scioto County,” published by James Keyes in 1880, describes what happened. “Some of Andrew Jackson’s most ardent friends in Portsmouth brought out the old six pounder (cannon) to give a salute as he came up. They were unused to artillery and being very reckless in their enthusiasm, went around thoughtlessly. After firing two or three times the touch hole became very hot, and the man whose duty it was to hold his thumb on the vent removed it while they were ramming down the wadding; the cannon went off, killing Joseph Bonser and three others.
It is not hard to believe that the Bonsers had something to do with the firing of the cannon. When that first 4th of July celebration was held on their farm and according to the same record and in order to supply the “noise” part – they had, “bored out a log and banded it with iron to serve as a cannon.”
The cannon used to salute the President is thought to have been one procured after the War of 1812. The names of the other men killed that day are not known. An old tombstone in Greenlawn Cemetery does record the name of one other Joseph Tanner. A search has been made for other stones to complete the story, but they are not to be found. The only record that was found was quiet short but expressive; in speaking of the affair it said, “It was a sad affair for the city of Portsmouth.” Few residents of this river community know about the tragic day of celebration for a President. That makes one wonder, whether Jackson himself ever knew that when Portsmouth’s population was about 1,600, four patriotic citizens died in paying tribute to him.”
Retraction: In the story about the shoe industries of Portsmouth one Company was misspelled – The correct spelling is: “The Padan Brothers & Co.” (not spelled Paden.) Sorry for mix-up.
Bob Boldman is a local historian. He can be reached by email: [email protected]