Reverend Zachariah Ragan established the True American at Steubenville, the seat of Jefferson County, Ohio, on January 4, 1855. The motto read “A Weekly Journal, Devoted to American Interests, Literature, Science, and General Intelligence.” From 1855 to 1858, the paper supported the Know-Nothing or American Party, which sought to limit the influence of immigrants, Roman Catholics in particular, on American politics. Ragan stated his political views clearly in the first issue: “Roman Catholicism is diametrically opposed to American Republicanism and dangerous to civil as well as religious liberty…. The influence of foreigners in our government, a thing to be dreaded by every American, has been fearfully on the increase. ….Americans should rule America.” In addition to supporting the Know-Nothing Party, Ragan was also opposed to slavery.
Political editorials and news were supplemented by items of general interest, as Ragan also sought to “devote a large portion of our paper to that kind of reading matter which is calculated to enlighten and instruct; and at the same time to gratify and amuse, making it at once a welcome visitor to the domestic circle…[and] avoid whatever is contrary to sound morals and good taste.” The True American printed works of poetry and literature; local news and business advertisements; international and national news provided via telegraphic reports; and information about train schedules, community meetings and markets. The paper also featured domestic and agricultural sections that appealed to a wider audience.
In 1858, the True American began to support Republican interests. The Know-Nothing Party had started to decline after 1855 because it was divided on the issue of slavery. After the Dred Scott v. Sandford case in 1857, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that African Americans were not citizens and lacked the right to sue in federal court, most antislavery members of the Know-Nothing Party joined the Republican Party. Just three years later, in 1861, the paper ceased publication after Ragan enlisted as a chaplain in the 25th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment.