Massie's Station & the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge

In April 1791, a group of surveyors and pioneer settlers traveled a few miles upriver from Limestone (now Maysville) in Kentucky to the northern shore, to a spot once known as the Three Islands. Only two remain today to mark the general location of Massie's Station, and since 1990, these islands have been managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

Thanks to the construction of dams on the Ohio, the once wild Ohio, which frequently ran too shallow for parts of the year, became a slackwater canal, allowing year-round commerce. "Over 40% of historic island acreage disappeared," according to the U.S. Wildlife Service, "some simply covered by water, others dredged away or used as sites for dam construction."

In spring of 1791, Nathaniel Massie, the lead surveyor who organized the enterprise, already held title to the lands opposite the islands, and it was Massie who recruited the original settlers and established his station as the first American settlement in the Virginia Military District (VMD). This distinction meant the site of the nearby, modern-day town of Manchester has long been regarded as the fourth permanent American settlement in what would become the state of Ohio.

According to the official Manchester historical marker, "this bank of the Ohio River provided a secure site for the last civilian stockade built in Ohio. The natural protection of this fortification included marshland to the west and north and the river on the south. The nearby three islands provided a safe place for retreat in dangerous circumstances and also supplied an area to raise food in its rich bottomlands."

At the time of the settlement, a Federal Army under Gen. Josiah Harmer had led a largely uneventful campaign through the Scioto Valley in an effort to end Shawnee and Cherokee attacks on American settlers traveling down the Ohio to Kentucky. The warriors had retreated and Massie and the Virginians took the opportunity to begin their surveying of the VMD. Nathaniel Massie of Virginia planned and organized the settlement as an armed outpost, or beachhead of sorts, for the surveying of the VMD, the lands between the Scioto River in the East and the Little Miami to the West. At first it was little more than a stockade and thus took the name of Massie’s Station, similar to the armed settlement practices of early Kentucky and Tennessee.

As the Treaty of Greenville (1795) had not yet been signed with the Shawnee and other Northwestern Indian nations, Massie and his team of surveyors, chain carriers, and hunters operated under the constant threat of Indian attack. From here, near the Three Islands, Massie and his associates launched clandestine surveying parties deep into the Scioto Valley. And by doing so, Massie was able to secure title to prime lands for planting settlements that he speculated would one day emerge as major centers of commerce and government.

As more settlers arrived at the Three Islands, Massie would survey lots and plat the town of Manchester, and the settlers would clear the islands for farming. Manchester's earliest inhabitants planned for it to become the seat of justice for the new county of Adams when it was created on July 10th, 1797. Briefly the county court met here, but as a result, first, of the political maneuvering of Gov. Arthur St. Clair and his allies, and second, the frequent flooding of the village site, Manchester would be denied the permanent seat.

Unlike the Villages of Washington and Adamsville (that also briefly served as county seats), Manchester survived and was never abandoned. Today one finds what is commonly called "a sleepy Ohio River town," whose golden years seem to have coincided with the height of the steamboat age, over a hundred years ago in the mid-nineteenth century.

The town of Chillicothe, Massie's settlement to the north, near the confluence of Paint Creek and the Scioto River, would quickly eclipse Manchester and Massie would build a new residence on Paint Creek, along Zane's Trace.

Although the Ohio River islands have returned to forest there is no doubt, thanks to invasive species, the woods look different today than in the 1790s, when the trees were first cut by American settlers. Nevertheless, whether they be Old Growth or Second Growth, the two remaining islands represent two excellent examples of forested Ohio River bottom lands, a rare item these days in a region where valuable bottom lands sell for top dollar and yearly produce large quantities of corn, soybean, and tobacco.


Satellite view of the Manchester Islands #1 and #2, Ohio River Islands Wildlife Refuge, via Google Maps (2012).

Satellite view of the Manchester Islands #1 and #2, Ohio River Islands Wildlife Refuge, via Google Maps (2012).

Image courtesy of the Scioto Historical Collection, Digital History Lab, Clark Memorial Library, Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, Ohio. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D., “Massie's Station & the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge,” Scioto Historical, accessed June 24, 2017,
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