In the spring of 1796, three parties pioneered north into unknown wilderness, their Cincinnati home fading behind them. After a 10-day adventure up the Great Miami River — through mysterious, perilous, unknown wilderness — these pioneers reached their destination. The woman believed to be the first off the boat, Catherine Benham Van Cleve Thompson, is now recognized for being the great-great grandmother of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Both Dayton and the Wright brothers are unequivocally tied to the city of Cincinnati. This is how.
In 1788, Cincinnati was founded, in part, by Colonel Robert Patterson, the founder of Lexington, Ky., and grandfather of famed NCR proprietor John H. Patterson. The colonel’s family would soon settle in Dayton, but not before another legendary bloodline would enter the area.
"The families that formed my ancestry, the Wrights included, came together in the Ohio Valley here," says Stephen Wright, great grandnephew of Wilbur and Orville Wright. "They had all been awarded land grants for having fought in the Revolutionary War, and they converged on this area, down the Ohio River by flatboat, to Losantiville, which was to become modern day Cincinnati."
Some of the town’s first citizens would leave Cincinnati only a few years after they arrived, embarking on a new expedition to the near north.
"In 1796, there were three parties traveling from Cincinnati," says Wright. "They all started out at roughly the same time within about a month of each other, and ended up here on the shores of the Great Miami River, in what was to become Dayton, Ohio, to stake their claim on this new land."
The woman purported to be the first off the boat from Cincinnati to Dayton was the great grandmother of Bishop Milton Wright. Milton and his wife, Susan, had five children that lived to adulthood. Their two youngest sons became printers, then opened a bicycle shop, then forever altered the course of history.
"It’s believed that Catherine Benham Van Cleve Thompson was the first white woman to set foot on the shores of what was to become modern day Dayton, Ohio," says Wright. "And she, in turn, was the great-great grandmother of Wilbur and Orville Wright."
Dayton grew and prospered, and by the turn of the 20th century, its population had exploded from three dozen Cincinnati settlers to over 85,000 residents. In 1896, the city held a major centennial pageant to celebrate, and the Wright brothers unveiled their first bicycle: the Van Cleve.
"They had been assembling bicycles in their shop from off-the-shelf parts that they could buy from other manufacturers," says Wright. "They decided, ‘Well, we might as well just go into the business of manufacturing them ourselves. We can make more money that way.’ So, one of the first bikes they introduced they named after Catherine Van Cleve, in tribute, and it just so happened that this was the centennial year, so it was the perfect timing."
That same year, Wilbur Wright read in the Telegraphic News of the famous German aviation pioneer who died in a gliding accident, Otto Lilienthal. He later recalled: "My own active interest in aeronautical problems dates back to the death of Lilienthal in 1896."
In roughly six years, working only part-time in the back of their West Dayton bicycle shop, the brilliant brothers built the world’s first airplane. On Dec. 17, 1903, a little over a century after their relatives first arrived in the area, Wilbur and Orville Wright uncovered the secrets of the birds. Two Dayton brothers — two pioneers in their own right — whose hometown and lineage can both be traced to the city of Cincinnati.
Leo DeLuca's writing has been featured by Ohio Magazine, Pitchfork, A.V. Club, Aviation for Women, and more. His radio reporting has aired on WYSO, Antioch College's NPR affiliate. The co-author of Dayton's Spirit of Community Service and Leadership (Dayton History, 2016), DeLuca is a three-time All Ohio Excellence in Journalism award winner.