Mason County Memories: First come, first serve

All of us know about the French and Indian War and the Battle of Point Pleasant, but which Europeans actually “discovered” the Ohio Valley? The first documented British colonist to see La Belle Riviere was Christopher Gist, who was surveying the region for the Ohio Company in 1750. However, the British crown soon realized that they were extremely late to the game.

The first Europeans saw the mighty Ohio in 1669, when a 25-person expedition set out from Lake Ontario, crossed Lake Erie, and then traveled over land to the Ohio Valley. Continuing downstream, La Salle documented the course of the river while one of his cartographers made the first map of our valley. This continued until the Falls of the Ohio, at Louisville, where his men deserted him and returned home. This gave the French Empire full control of the valley, until the British King allowed the Ohio Company to explore the region in 1749.

In an effort to try and solidify their control of the region, the French authorized another expedition. This time, they would make a show of force and leave a more permanent claim.

On the 15th of June, Celeron de Bienville and 245 men set out from Canada on the Lead Plate Expedition. From Canada, they crossed Lake Erie, and then continued over land to the Allegheny River. Thinking this was the true Ohio River, they began to bury their lead plates. The first was buried at the present site of Warren, Pa. From here, the continued down the Allegheny and Ohio, burying the second plate at Franklin, Pa. The next two were buried at the mouths of Wheeling Creek and the Muskingum River. From here, they continued south, burying a fifth plate at the mouth of the Chinodaista River. Today, we call this the Great Kanawha. The sixth and final plate was buried at the mouth of the Miami River.

Overall, this expedition did little to protect the French claim to the Ohio River. The British explorers and fur traders continued into the area, and the French and Indian War began just four years later. That war would see the French completely removed from the Ohio Country.

As for the plates, each one bore the same inscription. Without typing out the lengthy diplomatic engraving, each one basically said, “In the year 1749, in the reign of King Louis the XV, we have buried this plate at [enter location here] in order to reestablish peace with the local Native Americans and renew our claim to the Ohio Valley. Our claim is supported by multiple treaties.” We only know this because Celeron’s journal survived, and one of the lead plates has been found intact. The first plate was left above ground and found by the Seneca Indians. It was later lost. The second plate has never been found. The third plate is thought to be under the Wheeling Island Suspension Bridge. The fourth plate was found by two young boys and melted down for bullets. The sixth plate has never been found. That leaves the fifth plate…

As I said, it was buried at the mouth of the Kanawha River, now the site of Point Pleasant. It stayed buried until 1846, when it was found by three boys playing along the riverbank. Two of these boys were sons of John Beale, and the third was a Wilson. They dug it out of the riverbank, and the discovery was later announced in the newspapers of the state. Remember, at the time, we were still a part of Virginia. For the sake of preserving the plate, it was taken to Richmond and left with the Virginia Historical Society. It is still there today.

Information from the journal of Celeron de Bienville, the West Virginia State Archives, and the Virginia Historical Society.

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First come, first serve

By Chris Rizer

Special to the Register

Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society. More information on the organization found on Facebook at Mason County Historic Preservation. The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be held at the County Library, in Point Pleasant, at 6:30 p.m. The date will be announced soon.