In a map of Ohio accompanying an article yesterday on a name campaign being waged by descendants of Revolutionary War hero Isaac Van Wart, Interstate 75 and Highway 30 were mislabeled. (Published 10/13/1999)
For more than a decade, Jeffrey Van Wart has tirelessly waged a quixotic--but so far fruitless--campaign to correct a trivial spelling error transcribed into a declaration by Gen. George Washington over 200 years ago. Little wonder it has been an uphill battle, since his effort would change the name of a fair-sized city in Ohio and plunge it into bureaucratic confusion.
Van Wart, 31, a geriatric nurse who lives in Cottonwood, Ariz., says that for most of his life he didn't even know there was a jurisdiction in Ohio named after his ancestor, Isaac Van Wart. Isaac was a Minuteman in General Washington's Continental Army whose 15 minutes of fame came on Sept. 23, 1780.
It was then that Isaac Van Wart and two fellow foot soldiers captured the British adjunct general, Maj. John Andre, near Tarrytown, N.Y., and uncovered what Washington later called "the villainous perfidy" of Benedict Arnold's treasonous plot to surrender the strategic Hudson River fort at West Point to the British.
Andre was hanged as a spy, Arnold escaped to the loyalist lines, and a grateful General Washington wrote a letter to the Continental Congress urging it to reward the three heroes--Van Wart, John Paulding and David Williams--for preventing "one of the severest strokes that could have been mediated against us." The Congress did so, striking the first U.S. medals ever awarded and providing each of the three young heroes with $200 a year until they were dead. New York state gave each man a farm.
The only problem was that in the congressional proceedings, Van Wart's name was misspelled as "Van Wert."
In 1820, when the Ohio state legislature was creating new counties furiously as homesteaders moved into the western part of the state, it decided to honor one of the young revolutionary militiamen who captured Andre by naming the county "Van Wert."
Soon afterward, the county and the state legislature created the City of Van Wert [pop. 11,000] and what began as an innocuous transcription error definitely had traction, as politicians say.
Why the lawmakers settled on Isaac "Van Wert," a New Yorker who apparently never visited Ohio, has been obscured by time. Lenore Kennedy, 91, a longtime board member of the Van Wert County Historical Society, said she thinks the legislature already had used the names of the most prominent historical figures and was running out of ideas.
Fast-forward to 1987. Jeff Van Wart was an Army corporal detailed as driver for the commanding general of Fort Devens in Massachusetts. He met a colonel who mentioned he was from Van Wert, Ohio. That was all that Van Wart and his father, Robert, who died two years ago, needed to launch their personal crusade.
Van Wart said he has written hundreds of letters to officials ranging from U.S. senators to the most obscure local bureaucrats beseeching them to do honor to Isaac Van Wert by spelling his name correctly--all to no avail.
Sometimes he has been brushed off, as in the two-paragraph letter from Ohio State Sen. Lynn R. Wachtmann last month saying it was up to local "political subdivisions" to change their names. Sometimes he has received no response, as in the case with Ohio's two U.S. senators, Mike DeWine (R) and George V. Voinovich (R), he said. He also contacted the office of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) in August, but has not gotten a response.
Van Wart said he wrote to Army Lt. Gen. Daniel W. Christman, superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, figuring the academy had reason to be grateful to Isaac Van Wart and might submit a letter supporting the correct spelling of his name. He got a two-paragraph reply from a secretary saying Christman was not allowed to lobby for such "personal matters."
In 1987, Van Wart's father exchanged correspondence with Van Wert Mayor Stan Agner, who suggested that the Van Wart family travel to the city for a planned historical function. "He [Robert Van Wart] said when they change the name, we'll come. It's just very hard for me to believe that heroes of this caliber are forgotten and misrepresented," the younger Van Wart said.
He said it was "comical" that when the local museum put Isaac Van Wart's musket on display in April, the event was headlined in a local newspaper, "Van Wart's Musket Displayed in Van Wert Museum."
The current mayor, Eugene Bagley, did not return repeated telephone calls after his secretary was informed of the nature of the inquiry.
But Ava Good, one of three Van Wert County commissioners, said it would be "quite a financial burden" to the county to change the name now, even though she thinks Jeff Van Wart is a "great guy" with a legitimate grievance.
"We're all aware how this happened and that Isaac Van Wart captured Major Andre," said Good, who also happens to be vice regent of the Isaac Van Wart Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. "But every birth record, every map, every sign, every property transfer record and part of almost every public record would have to be changed."
Saying that the "turmoil" caused by changing one letter outweighs historical accuracy in this case, Good added, "They may have intended it to be Van Wart, but it's Van Wert, I'm afraid. We all know who we're named for."
That explanation doesn't impress Jeff Van Wart, who said he has now contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and the Pro Bono Institute in Ohio asking for help in launching a civil action on behalf of Isaac Van Wart.
"I'm not going to let it drop," he said.
CAPTION: Larry Webb of the Van Wert Historical Society with the musket Issac Van Wart used to capture a British spy.