Settling the Scioto Valley

Tour curated by: Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D.

"Come all ye likely lads that have a mind for to range, Into some foreign country, your fortunes for to change; In seeking some new pleasures we will all together go, An' we'll settle on the banks of the pleasant Ohio." So went the old song, which James Keyes used in 1880 as a preface to his collection of sketches detailing the lives of pioneer settlers near the mouth of the Scioto River.

For many, the Scioto Valley was an American Promised Land and it filled rapidly with men, women, and children, a seemingly restless people who were chasing their fortunes in the newly opened lands of the Trans-Appalachian West.

The signing of a peace treaty with the leaders of the Northwestern Indian alliance in the fall o f 1795 opened the Scioto Valley to settlement. Learn about pioneer life and the political struggles that shaped the settlement patterns and commercial development of the valley in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

As pioneers poured into the valley, federal law and land surveying methods would shape much of the settlement patterns in the region. The Valley had already been cleaved into two parts by the creation of the Virginia Military District (VMD) in 1783, when Congress set aside 3.8 million acres of land for the Revolutionary War veterans of Virginia.

Bounded by the Scioto in the East and the Little Miami in the West, the VMD made the Scioto River a major administrative boundary line, shaping the future development of the whole region. It's impact can even be seen in the shape of the land surveys - the district was exempt from the new federal grid surveying system, which laid out a checkerboard pattern throughout the American West. Thus the East Side of the Valley is cut into squares and other rectangular shapes, while on the West Side, within the VMD, the older metes and bounds (or Virginia system) carved up the lands into odd, gerrymandered shapes, ensuring that the best bottom lands were surveyed first, while the ridges were settled and claimed later, if at all.

One of the keys to understanding the history of the valley is found in appreciating the difference between the so-called West and East Sides of the Scioto. Congress’s division of the valley created the “Congress Lands” on the East and the “VMD Lands” on the West Side. The VMD lands on the West Side were the first opened to settlement, while the Congress Lands were held off the market until 1801. Surveying in the VMD began in 1787, but would soon be halted by Congress to avert conflict with the Native Americans who still claimed the valley as their own. Other financial and political considerations may have also play a role in the decision to stop the surveying of the VMD, and such considerations perhaps even explain the failure of the Federal government to establish a fort at the Mouth of the Scioto.

Setting aside the problem of Indian resistance to American land claims in the region, there were also significant vested interests in Congress and the War Department who wished to ensure the greatest return on the sale of Federal Lands in the eastern and western portions of Ohio. Surveying and settling the VMD threatened to bring down the price of lands in the east and west, additionally, the VMD might become the basis for a Democratic-Republican majority in the territory, one that might move to create a new state government. And such a government, with its new presidential electors, ran the fears of Federalist Party adherents, might align itself with the insurgent opposition party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

For men like Territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair, and his allies in Congress, some of whom who may have had a financial interest in the sale of non-VMD lands in Ohio, the halting of surveying and the undermining of the market in VMD lands could only benefit them politically and financially, while also helping raise Federal revenue from western land sales.

Whatever financial and political machinations that may have occurred, Indian resistance near the Mouth of the Scioto, the gateway to the Virginia Military District, would largely keep surveyors and immigrants out until Indian land cessions were made and peace established following the Northwest Indian War in 1795.

Once the VMD was re-opened for surveying in 1791, Nathaniel Massie and a handful of other Virginian surveyors would make daring expeditions into the heart of the Scioto Valley to lay claims to what they hoped would be the best lands of the VMD.

It was only after the peace that immigrants began settling on both sides of the river, some having titles to their lands, such as those on the West Side, and others on the East Side who simply squatted on Congress Lands. In 1799, these squatters petitioned Congress, asking "that protection might be afforded to actual Settlers," to ensure that the lands they had improved would not "pass into the hands and become the property of such as have undergone no toil, nor run no Risk to improve it, nor probably will ever plow, sow, or contribute to improve or to support society in that part of the world." Congress refused to recognize the so-called "tomahawk rights" of the squatters and many were ultimately forced off their improvements.

Visit the graves of Samuel Marshall, Sr. and John Lindsey, two legendary squatters, who rest in the Scioto Furnace Cemetery, which is today memorialized in stone as the "burial site of the first two permanent white residents of Scioto County."

The first American towns in the Valley would be platted on the West Side. From Manchester on the Ohio to the now abandoned town of Alexandria at the Old Mouth of the Scioto, and then onto Chillicothe to the north, where Paint Creek flows into the Scioto, the majority of the first settlers of the valley settled on the West Side.

Explore the history of the Adams County Seat Fight, which played a key role in the politics of the Ohio Statehood movement, pitting Nathaniel Massie and other Virginian Democratic-Republicans against Territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair and his Federalist party allies.

Explore the history of the abandoned town of Alexandria. Contemplate its utter failure as a permanent location for a town or villages. Study the old terminus lock of the Ohio & Erie Canal, which was built into the Old Mouth of the Scioto and learn about how the completion of the Ohio & Erie Canal to Portsmouth in 1832 led to a new era of prosperity for the townspeople and farmers of the Scioto Valley, bringing an end to the pioneer age.

Visit the old Treber Inn on Zane Trace, the valley’s first Federally funded road project. The Trace began as little more than a marked foot path and would, in time, be improved into a stage coach route fit for the pedestrian, horseback rider, and wagon team. On one end, it connected the communities along its route to the east coast via Wheeling, Virginia and the old Cumberland Road. On the other end, Zane’s Trace connected travelers, such as United States Senator Henry Clay, to the center of settlement in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, via an Ohio River ferry at Aberdeen, which took its passengers to what was then known as Limestone (modern-day Maysville). Here, once across the Ohio, travelers would follow the famous Maysville Road, what is today US-68, to Lexington and beyond.

Locations for Tour

Buckeye Station, the one-time home of Nathaniel Massie and his brother-in-law, Charles Willing Byrd, lays in ruins, marked now by a cell phone tower on what was once known as Hurricane Hill. An inescapable reference to what local historian Stephen…

Today, the largest Yellow Buckeye in the State of Ohio stands near the Mouth of Turkey Creek, next to the United Methodist Church in Friendship, Ohio. How old the tree is is hard to determine, but it could date to pioneer times. Captain Larkin…

The confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers has long been the site of human habitation, from the ancient Adena and Hopewell to the Shawnee and, lastly, to the Americans of today. The mouth of the Scioto has seen the rise and fall of many villages,…

The lives of David Gharky and Dr. Thomas Waller are forever intertwined. These two pioneer settlers first made their home at Alexandria, on the West Side of the Scioto's Old Mouth, but when that village's fate became clear, these two men…

Zane's Trace, the first Federally funded road through frontier Ohio, ran from Wheeling, in modern-day West Virginia, across the Hocking, Muskingum, and Scioto Valleys, to Limestone, (now Maysville), Kentucky on the Ohio River. Authorized by…