From its height and location on a bend in the Ohio River, Raven Rock offers views of modern-day Portsmouth at the Confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers. In frontier times, Shawnee and Cherokee warriors could look up and down the Ohio River for miles, in search of American flat boats and canoes. The distance by which they could observe the unwanted intruders, allowed time for Indian warriors to set ambushes on the riverbanks below.
As the historical marker atop the rock notes, “Whether or not settlers died after having been first spotted from Raven Rock can never be known. However, it is almost certain that warriors stood in this very spot and watched the endless stream of settlers with a sense of foreboding over what it would mean for their families and their future.”
Stories vary as to the origin of the site’s name. Some claim it is named for an Indian warrior named Raven, who jumped to his death, rather than submit to his foe. Others, such as Timothy A. Snyder, claim the name comes from “the imagined resemblance of the cliff to a large bird, Raven Rock itself being the head and beak, and the cliff walls on either side representing the outstretched wings.” And, according to Charles V. Wertz, whose collection of American Indian artifacts are on exhibition at the Southern Ohio Museum, the name actually originates from an effigy pipe in the shape of a raven that was found during an excavation of a 15-foot-high rock cairn burial mound, which had long stood on the crest of the hill, just north of the lookout point.
Dr. G.S.B. Hempstead and other “older settlers” had told Wertz that when the Mound had first been opened, they had found “a large stone pipe shaped like a bird … among the rock at this point.” According to Wertz, the effigy pipe was found in a burial chamber, which included “eight badly decayed skeletons,” along with “some 30 rough spears or digging tools made of pieces of obsidian or volcanic glass. These were rough and showed signs of usage. Forty-two flint knives and arrows were also found scattered among the burials in the mound.”
While the obsidian blades and tools have all been lost in the looting of this burial mound, eighteen of the “leaf-shaped” flint pieces are believed to have been preserved in the Wertz Collection and are now on exhibition at the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center in Portsmouth, Ohio, and available for viewing in Scioto Historical’s image gallery.
Hempstead and Wertz believed the Rock Cairn Mound had also been used since its first construction for signal fires. Wertz explained that “on the summit of the mound for a space of some 12 or 15 feet had been leveled off and in a depression near the center on the top of this mound of rock showed evidence of having been subject to a great deal of heat. Evidently it had been used for signal fires as a view of the river, both above and below, could be seen for many miles.” Unfortunately, Wertz also tells us that “many of the rocks used in building this mound later were taken down the hill and used in making a fill on the farm.”
The Raven Rock Nature Preserve is also the site of rare rock arches, the most prominent taking the name of Raven Rock Arch, as it is located less than 30 feet from the famous lookout point. From atop or below this small arch, visitors can enjoy views of the Ohio River and the hills of Kentucky, rolling off into the distance. Immediately below, on the Ohio River bottoms, one sees the Earl Thomas Conley Riverside Park with its picnic shelters, bike track, and splash park, and the campus of the Washington-Nile School District, where the Portsmouth West Senators make their home.
In 1996, Charles Asa Brown donated 95 acres of land surrounding Raven Rock to the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, thus protecting for generations to come this natural and historic landmark.
A permit is required to access Raven Rock State Nature Preserve. For more information on obtaining a permit, visit the ODNR Division of Natural Areas and Preserves website at State Nature Preserve Access Permit.
Timothy A. Snyder, Rainbows of Rock, Tables of Stone: The Natural Arches and Pillars of Ohio (McDonald and Woodward Publishing, 2009).
Charles V. Wertz, “Ancient Man and His Works in and Around Scioto County,” Ohio Indian Relic Collectors Society Bulletin, No. 24 (June 1950): 20-29.