One of the most widely known of Circleville's residents was Caleb Atwater, minister, lawyer, educator, legislator, author, and antiquarian. He was, in fact, a man of national reputation. He won distinction by his able services in the legislature, in behalf of the causes of education and public improvements, and a wide fame through the publication of the results of his archæological studies and his history of Ohio--the first ever written.
He was born on Christmas day, 1778, at North Adams, Massachusetts, and was the son of Ebenezer and Rachel (Parks) Atwater. His mother was of Welsh extraction. She died when Caleb was but five years old. His father placed the funds left for the child's support in the hands of Esquire Jones, of North Adams, with whom the boy lived until he was eighteen years of age. About that time Williams college was founded, and the stir caused by the opening of the institution led the young man into reflections, which resulted in the formation of a strong desire for a liberal education. Although not of age, his guardian warmly seconded his plan of attending the school, and assisted him to do so. He passed through the college, and received the honorary degree of master of arts. The diploma given him is now thought to be in the museum of the Boston Antiquarian society. After leaving college, young Atwater removed to New York, where he opened a school for young ladies, and gave instruction to the daughters and sisters of a large number of personal friends. He studied for the ministry at the same time, and two or three years later was ordained to preach in the Presbyterian church. He married a Miss Diana, who lived but one year, and whose death was a very severe blow to him. His health failed, and as he was urged by his physicians to take up the study of law and practice that profession, instead of remaining in the ministry, he did so. He commenced studying with Judge Smiley, of Marcellus, New York, and in a few months was admitted to the bar. He then married Balinda, a daughter of Judge Butler. Engaging in a business which turned out disastrously, he was thrown entirely upon his own resources, and decided to seek out a field of usefulness in the great and but little known western country. He came to Circleville in 1815, and remained there until his death, March 13, 1867.
He was occupied in the practice of law until chosen to represent Pickaway county in the legislature. Here he performed the services for which the people of Ohio have greatest reason to be thankful and to hold his memory in the most sacred reverence. The cause of popular education had all along occupied his attention, and when he was invested with the power of a legislator, he exerted, constantly and strenuously, all his influence to create such laws as would forever secure to the people of the state a plan for the education of their youth. He and his associates had a long and hard struggle to secure the embodiment of their views in a legal enactment, but they finally succeeded, and the result has been one of incalculable good. They laid the corner-stone upon which the fabric of our present system of common schools has been slowly and thoroughly built. Mr. Atwater was also one of that originally small minority in the legislature which started the movement for that vast public improvement--the canals. After the close of his term in the legislature, he was appointed to represent the United States in the treaty with the Winnebago Indians, at Galena, Illinois.
His first literary production of general interest to the public was his contribution to the Archæologica Americana, upon western antiquities, the result of studies begun in Circleville, upon his arrival there, and continued for some years--in fact, for his whole lifetime. He wrote, also, "A Trip to Prairie-du-Chien," "An Essay on Education," and last, but most important (if we do not except the book on western antiquities), an able and comprehensive history of Ohio.
He was the confident and friend of the first, best men of his time in Ohio, and the country at large, and numbered among his acquaintances many of the eminent scholars of Europe, who visited this country to study it antiquities, or, coming for other purposes, developed an interest in them.
Mr. Atwater was a man of somewhat eccentric characteristics, but of large and genuine worth. He combined with culture, the qualities of exceeding kindness and of the most rigid conscientiousness. He was unselfish; labored for the benefit of others--the masses and his neighbors--and exhibited but little desire for pecuniary gain or personal advancement. His character commanded the respect, and his talents and his employment of them, the admiration, of all who, personally or by reputation, had knowledge of his life and services.
Caleb Atwater's second wife lived until about ten years previous to his death, and was the mother of six sons and three daughters: Butler, Douglass, DeWitt Clinton, Henry, George, Caleb, Belinda Ann, Aurelia, and Lucy. The only one living in Circleville is Belinda Ann (Mrs. William Foster). Aurelia (Mrs. Henry Coouts) lives in Kansas, as does also the only living son, DeWitt Clinton. Lucy (Mrs. M. Brown) is in Gambier, Ohio.