Put-in-Bay History offers several theories as to the origin of its name.

Picture of the early history of Put-in-Bay Harbor
A photo of the history of the Hotel Victory at Put-in-Bay
Photo of the early history of the downtown Put-in-Bay Docks
Picture of the History of downtown Put-in-Bay
A modern day photo of the Put-in-Bay Docks
Photo of history makers in a boat in the Put-in-Bay Waters

According to an 1879 journal, the Harbor on South Bass Island was “shaped like a pudding bag with a soft bottom”. However, the origin most likely came around because the excellent refuge the bay provided in its protected harbor, and according to history, “put in the bay” is what sailors would do when it was too rough to sail on the Lake Erie waters.

According to history, the first people to use the island known as Put-in-Bay were the Indians.

The Indians used the island to protect themselves while crossing Lake Erie as they provided shelter from sudden squalls. Records from early historic times show relics of Mound Builders, pre-historic people. The pre-historians inhabited North America and their remains were uncovered when the soil was turned by plows. The Senecas, Eries, Shawnee, Iroquois, Miamis, and Ottawas were among the mainland tribes coming to the Lake Erie Islands. In Indian, Ottawa is translated into the English word “trader”.

The first large vessel to ply the great lakes, the Griffon, was sailed by Robert LaSalle

He and his thirty-two men in 1679 crossed the lake just to bring back furs, they sailed in route from Queensland, Ontario to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Stopping at Middle Bass Island, Lasalle and the Belgian missionary Friar Hennepin, celebrated the first Mass in the Mid West. The island was named, Isle des Fleurs, due to all the flowers he found while there. History was made, and for the next 200 years, this name was kept.

In 1803, Pierpont Edwards, a Connecticut U.S. District Judge, and businessman bought a part of the Connecticut Western Reserve tract that included Middle Bass, South Bass (Put-in-Bay), and the Sugar Islands. Becoming a shareholder in the Connecticut Land Company, Edwards was entitled to a tract comprising Lorain County. However, the irregular shoreline did not provide the amount of land to which he was entitled to, so he was also given the Lake Erie Islands to offset the deficiency.

The Islands stayed in the Edwards family for over 50 years and saw much history. However, Pierpont himself never saw them. Edward’s agent, Seth Done, who organized many French Canadian squatters to clear and improve the land was sent to the Lake Erie islands in 1811. One hundred acres of wheat had been planted but then destroyed when the Indians, supported by the British, ran them out in the War of 1812.

The only time in history a British fleet had ever been defeated was Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory against the British on September 10, 1813.

The 352 foot high Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial erected at Put-in-Bay commemorated the victory. Between 1913 and 1916, the massive Doric column was constructed for the centennial celebration. Three British and three American officers killed during the battle lie beneath the floor of the rotunda in the center of the monument on this Lake Erie Island.

Jose De Rivera St. Jurgo, a wealthy Spaniard, bought South Bass, known as Put-in-Bay, and Middle Bass in 1854 from Edwards. De Rivera built a sawmill, brought in hundreds of sheep, and had Put-in-Bay surveyed into 10-acre plots. In 1860, De Rivera introduced grapes as a crop for making wine. By then, German Rhine-landers had arrived bringing Catawba, Niagara, Concord, and Reisling grapevines. Land prices raised from $10 to $1500 an acre within ten years of the wine proliferation.

William Rehburg, a German Count, later bought Middle Bass from DeRivera and brought experts in winemaking from Germany to help with the industry. The Golden Eagle winery was the largest wine producer in the U.S by 1875. In 1844, The Lonz family acquired the winery and would make history many times in the coming years. After a disastrous fire, George Lonz built a two-story castle-like building with the addition of a marina. This building is still easily viewed from the Put-in-Bay harbor.

On North Bass Island, winemaking was also a big money maker. French Canadians Simon and Peter Fox bought 500 acres for grapes from island owner Horace Kelly in 1853. With two large wineries and ships to Detroit, Cleveland, and Toledo, success peaked in 1890. The island is virtually controlled by Meier Wine Company of Cincinnati, Ohio; wine is the main industry. North Bass Island’s first inhabitant, a hermit named George, was honored with being the reason North Bass was once called Isle St. George. More recently, the island was purchased by the State of Ohio for a future state park.

The Put-in-Bay History Behind The Trurth Of Perrys “Don’t Give Up The Ship Flag

When many of us think of The Battle of Lake Erie, we typically conjure images of Commodore Perry making his famous longboat crossing from the Lawrence to the Niagara, through a hailstorm of cannon and musket fire, his motto flag draped across his shoulder. Dont Give Up The Ship. We see this blue flag flying all across the South Bass Island today, but do any of us really know the origin, or the myth, behind it? The truth may surprise you!

The phrase originated on June 1, 1813, when Captain James Lawrence was mortally wounded aboard the USS Chesapeake in a ship to ship action against the HMS Shannon on the Atlantic. As the wounded officer was being carried below, Captain Lawrence was heard to say “Don’t give up the ship. Fight her until she sinks.” His wishes were that the British not capture the Chesapeake, for if they did, it would become theirs and they could use it against the American navy. Unfortunately, his crew was unable to comply with these wishes and surrendered the Chesapeake minutes later. After languishing for three days, Captain James Lawrence died, but his final orders were echoed across nearly every newspaper in the U.S.

To Honor the fallen officer who’d been a friend of Commodore Perry, Perry’s flagship, being constructed in Erie, PA, was christened Lawrence. On July 30, 1813, Samuel Hambleton, the purser for the Lawrence, recorded in his journal: “I have just been given private orders for the making of a flag for the Lawrence, to
be hoisted when we sail or when we go into action. I suggested the motto, which Capt. Perry, after a night’s reflection, approved – Don’t give up the ship. These are said to have been the last words of the gallant officer whose name our ship bears & they struck me as peculiarly appropriate to the purpose.” Margaret Foster Steuart of Erie, PA, her sister Dorcas Bell, and their daughters are credited as being the women who stitched the motto flag, which measures 8’6” x 10’ and is made of wool.

At Put-in-Bay, a few nights before the Battle of Lake Erie, Commodore Perry summoned his commanders to the Lawrence, where he gave his final battle plans.
Also revealed was his motto flag, which had been kept a secret until that time. This, he told them, would be his signal for close action. On the morning of the battle, after finally catching a fair wind that would give his fleet the advantage, Perry had his flag brought to the quarter-deck of the Lawrence and unfurled it saying: “My brave Lads! This flag contains the last words of Captain Lawrence! Shall I hoist it?” At this, the crew burst into cheers and the flag was raised on the fore-royal mast of the Lawrence. From there, it rallied the American squadron to a legendary victory over the British. Following the battle, the Lawrence was converted into a medical vessel and was sent back to Erie, PA with the sick and wounded. The schooner Ariel became Perry’s new flag ship and his motto flag was transferred to that vessel, where it remained until Perry left the lakes and returned east. At this, the motto flag and captured British flags were sent
to Washington D.C. In 1849, these flags were put on display at the Naval School Lyceum in Annapolis, MD. In 1912, a blue fabric treatment was added to the flag and it was briefly displayed at the Toledo Museum of Art. Upon its return to Annapolis, it was folded, set in a glass case, and put on display in Memorial Hall at the Naval Academy. It remained there until 2002, at which time it was again restored and moved to Preble Hall at the Naval Academy. A replica of the flag hangs in Memorial Hall.

Interestingly, during the most recent restoration, the blue treatment was removed from one side of the flag. It was discovered that the original wool flag beneath had faded to brown. A test was done of the fabric and no trace of indigo, which would have been used to dye the flag blue, could be detected. It was determined
that the flag had been black all along, and not blue. This fact is reinforced by a newspaper article that describes the flags when they first went on display at the
Naval School Lyceum in 1849. That article describes the flag by saying: “It is black (the death color) with Lawrence’s last words ‘Dont Give Up The Ship’ inscribed on it in white letters.” Something else that we accept as fact is the idea that Commodore Perry transferred his motto flag to the Niagara when he made his famous crossing during the Battle of Lake Erie. This, surprisingly, may not have been so of Commodore Perry’s second in command, Jesse Duncan Elliott, during that battle. Elliott had been placed in command of the Niagara and was to have engaged at close action the HMS Queen Charlotte.

For reasons still debated to this day, Elliott kept his vessel more than a mile away for most of the battle. Eventually, Commodore Perry brought Elliott up on charges, most of which were in regards to Elliott’s positioning of his vessel during the battle and his conduct that followed. In the third specification of his first charge, Perry states that Elliott was making claims in Erie, PA that in a fit of fear or despair, Perry had thrown his motto flag overboard and that another officer had saved it. This, Perry states, Elliott knew to be false, as “said flag was still flying on board of the Lawrence when Capt. Perry left that vessel.”

This claim is reinforced by a man named Ezekiel Fowler. Following the Battle of Lake Erie, many men were seeking extra notoriety by claiming that, not only had they been at the famous battle, but they had also been one of the men who rowed Perry from the Lawrence to the Niagara. These claims reaching Perry’s ears, he set the record straight by naming the five men who actually rowed him. These names were left with his family and are preserved in the Perry Papers. Ezekiel Fowler was one of these men claimed by Perry. Mr. Fowler passed away in September of 1852 at the Alms House on Blackwell’s Island in New York and was buried in a potter’s field on Ward’s Island. Fortunately, three months before he passed away, Ezekiel Fowler recorded his account of the battle. This account was only recently discovered hidden away at the Buffalo History Museum in Buffalo, NY.

The account is titled Memorandum on the Battle of Lake Erie and is four pages long. In it, Fowler describes the morning of the battle, what time the vessels sailed from Put-in-Bay, and even describes what Perry was wearing, that being a regular plain blue jacket, dark pants, and his tourniquet (or cravat) tucked into his pocket. Ezekiel Fowler states further that: “The Comd. reached the Niagara – but the Comd. carried no fighting or other flag with him.” Initial reports stated that Commodore Perry transferred his flag from the Lawrence to the Niagara. This was a figure of speech. Transferring one’s flag means simply that they transferred their command. The phrase was taken literally. The fact that Perry may not have brought his battle flag with him to the Niagara doesn’t lessen its significance. In all honesty, after the large U.S. Flag that flew over Fort McHenry, which inspired The Star Spangled Banner, the Dont Give Up The Ship flag is regarded as the most revered flag in the government’s possession. After all, it was that flag that inspired and rallied the American sailors in Perry’s squadron to a victory over the British that glorious September day, which we still honor more than 200 years later on the Put-in-Bay Historical Weekend.

Five luxury hotels were built along the beautiful shores of South Bass Island Put-in-Bay by 1888.

Opening July 4, 1892, The Hotel Victory symbolized the pinnacle of the luxurious 1890’s. It was the largest summer resort in U.S. history at the time, and it operated 27 years prior to being destroyed by a fire on August 14, 1919. If you visit the South Bass Island State Park today, you can see that the remains of some of the foundation and its swimming pool are still visible.

South Bass Island soon became a port where cedar logs could be taken on as fuel for the vessels with the introduction of steamboats. Although Cedar trees once covered the Island, only a few can be found today. Tour boats from Detroit, Toledo, and Port Clinton brought tourists for daily outings of wine and sunshine in the early 1900’s. The Put-in-Bay steamer served Detroit, Put-in-Bay, and Cedar Point and carried approximately 150,000 passengers a season. The steamer operated from 1911 to 1950, and at one time twelve steamers stopped at Put-in-Bay a day. Steamers are now history on the Great Lakes.

1918 was an affluent year on South Bass Island with the great arrivals of new people. However, the following year prohibition took effect, and the Lake Erie Island economy took a plunge. The Great Depression followed, tour boats stopped, and the Lake Erie Islands remained inactive.

The prohibition was repealed in 1933 and in 1939 World War II was just starting. The war helped deflect the grasp of the depression, labor was scarce, and more money became available. After the war, people started to travel and spend money more freely, private boats began to visit the Lake Erie Islands like no time before in history, and real estate started to move. The area near the state park on South Bass Island was developed as Saunder’s Resort with cottages, a motel, swimming pool and golf course in the mid-fifties.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, harsh lake pollution kept many people away from Put-in-Bay. However, college students and adolescents were persistent visitors. By the late 1970s, water quality had improved dramatically and Lake Erie fishing became a strong attraction. To this day, Put-in-Bay attracts and draws avid fishermen for some of the best Perch and Walleye fishing in the world.

Because of its location near major metropolitan areas, Put-in-Bay attracts many people.

Whether you’re on a daily excursion by ferry, car, camper, on a boat, or even by plane, Put-in-Bay is always a place where you can enjoy the atmosphere and unique attractions of the Islands. Over the last few years, Put-in-Bay has seen the addition of Luxury hotels and resorts. Visitors also can enjoy a wide array of vacation home rentals. Visitors coming for a day trip can ride the Jet-Express ferry boat from either Sandusky Ohio or Port Clinton Ohio with late-night service on the weekends.