Settling the Scioto Valley

Southern Ohio, in the minds of many Americans, was part of a larger "Promised Land," whose settlement followed quickly on the heels of the United States' victory over the alliance of Indian nations at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

The Treaty of Ft. Greenville ceded Shawnee, Miami, and other Indian land claims to two-thirds of the future state of Ohio and officially opened the pioneer era of the Scioto Valley. From the campaigns of Dunmore's War in 1774 through those of the Northwest Indian War in the 1790s, many of the region's future settlers had traversed the forested hills and crossed the rich, flat bottom lands. They liked what they had seen and many would make plans to cast their lot and seek their fortunes along its banks. Other early settlers, having read or heard glowing accounts of the region, would hail from Pennsylvania and the states of the Northeast. Still others, such as the French settlers at Gallipolis and the French Grant, had crossed the Atlantic with their sights on the Scioto country, hoping to escape the dangers of Revolutionary France in exchange for a new life on the American frontier.

As these 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.

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 in 1795 that immigrants began settling on both sides of the Scioto 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.

The first American towns in the Valley would thus 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.

Chillicothe, located at roughly the geographical center of the Ohio lands secured by the Treaty of Ft. Greenville, emerged as the capital of the Northwest Territory and, once statehood was achieved, the city would become the first state capital. Ultimately, the seat of state government would be located in Columbus, some forty miles to the north on the eastern bank of the Scioto.

Meanwhile, as Chillicothe (and then Columbus) grew in population, Alexandria declined and gave way to a new town, known as Portsmouth. Located on higher ground and thus less prone to the annual flooding that fills the bottoms at the Mouth of the Scioto, Portsmouth was first platted in 1803.

Learn about pioneer life in southern Ohio when the lands were first surveyed and settled; when speculators and residents fought over the location of county seats; and when the region's churches were first organized in the wake of the Great Revival that swept the region in the first decade of the Nineteenth Century.

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