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Curious Cbus: How Did Refugee Road Get Its Name?

Columbus Neighborhoods
Refugee Tract was set aside in the 1780s for Canadians who sided with the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.

This story is part of the Curious Cbusproject. You ask the questions, you vote for one of the questions and we answer.

Refugee Road is a pretty typical busy city street, with heavy traffic driving past chain restaurants, houses and schools.

An anonymous tipper asked Curious Cbushow Refugee Road came to be. As it turns out, the road got its name from a group of people who took a unique path to Central Ohio.

Emmy Beach, of the Ohio History Connection, says it wasn't always a road.

“What we know today as Refugee Road originally rose from the Refugee Tract,” Beach says. 

Canadian Revolution

During the Revolutionary War, the American cause resonated outside of the 13 colonies. Canadians, and Nova Scotians in particular, pitched in - sometimes at great cost to themselves. 

“They either joined the colonists in their fight against Great Britain, or they provided monetary support," Beach says. "For that reason, Great Britain took that land away, and it was considered a treasonous act."

After the war ended in 1783, a number of Canadians who participated were essentially left homeless.

In the 1780s, the Continental Congress of the United States proposed compensating Canadian sympathizers with land, about 103,000 acres in total. In 1801, Congress passed an Actestablishing Refugee Tract, drawings its boundaries and naming the claimants.

Credit Columbus Neighborhoods
In 1801, Congress established the boundaries for Refugee Tract in Ohio.

Located in parts of Franklin, Fairfield, Licking and Perry counties, Refugee Tract encompassed over 58,000 acres.

“The soldiers that wanted to claim it only claimed about half of that,” says Dick Barrett, president of the Reynoldsburg Historical Society.

“And the lot of them weren’t even interested in moving out to this wilderness that was still inhabited by Indians and wild animals.”

By “wilderness,” of course, Barrett means Ohio circa 1800.

“They would sell their land to people interested in kind of speculating,” Barrett says. “Some of them were speculators and moved on. Some of them bought land and stayed.”

Whether the people who settled there had much of a say is up for debate.

“The way we think of refugees today, they didn’t have a choice,” Beach says. “They had to come and flee their home country. There’s questionable history there.”

Claims ended in 1816, Beach says, with 67 people ending up making their homes in the Refugee Tract.

The road that we know today as State Route 104 cuts through the southern part of that tract. Though it's not known when the road was first constructed, it first appeared as "Refugee Road" in the Columbus City directory in 1904.

Credit Adora Namigadde
Along present-day Refugee Road, a sign made of styrofoam cups is jammed into fencing at Pickerington Middle and High School.

Along The Road

The legacies of those settlers remain today in bits and pieces.

Truro Township near Reynoldsburg got its name from the first Canadian refugees.

“People from Nova Scotia were basically Scottish," Barrett says. "They went to Canada and founded a town there, which they named Truro."

Nova Scotians who fled to Ohio brought the name with them. 

Later on, the man responsible for one of America’s popular fruits himself lived in Reynoldsburg, right in the Refugee Tract area: Alexander Livingston.

“Livingston developed the tomato,” Barrett says. “He domesticated the tomato, made it tasty and attractive and became famous.”

And now, a Central Ohio couple - Tara and Stu Rase - are bringing Refugee Road to a brand new space: Comics.

Rase spent some of her formative years in a house on Refugee Road, and the couple's four-part comic series by that name puts her experience into ink. Part one has been released already, and the couple is working on the second installment.

Credit Adora Namigadde
A plaque at LeVeque Tower in Columbus memorializes Refugee Tract.

But for the Canadian refugees, that story is getting harder to tell.

“To my knowledge, there are no historic structures remaining on Refugee Road,” Barrett says.

A plaque outside the LeVeque Tower in downtown Columbus memorializes the Refugee Tract. Beach says Refugee Road is an important - and rare - bridge to the past.

“When we think of Ohio, we don’t necessarily think of Ohio’s connection to the Revolutionary War,” Beach says. “So Refugee Road and its genesis from the Refugee Tract really illustrates that in a great way for Ohioans.”

Got your own question about Central Ohio? Ask us below for Curious Cbus.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.