It has been 351 years since Europeans first visited the river called Mosopeleacipi by the Miami, Spelewathiipi by the Shawnee, and Ohi:yo’ or “Great River” by the Seneca. Christened la Belle Rivière or “Beautiful River” by the French in 1669, formally designated the Ohio by both the French and British not long after, and hailed as the River Jordan by slaves escaping to freedom in the North, our river has a long and storied history.
Home to the mound-building Adena before Rome was founded, the center of a Native American commercial network that stretched from the Great Lakes to Florida, relics of an ancient past fill the Ohio Valley. A single reason drove that power, and the Native Americans knew it as well as we do today. Whoever controls the Ohio River, by restricting or allowing travel, controls everything from central Pennsylvania to the Mississippi.
The European empires understood this. The French, who had colonies in Canada and Louisiana, jumped as soon as they heard rumors of a great river near the Great Lakes that flowed south and west to the Mississippi. Could this link their colonies and unite New France? The British, who realized the danger posed to their own westward expansion by French control of the Ohio Valley, sought to stop them at any cost.
The French arrived first. René-Robert Cavalier, better known as Robert La Salle, claimed to have explored as far as the Falls of the Ohio at present-day Louisville in 1669. No records to survive to verify his account, but his expedition became the basis for the French claim to the valley. In the following years, French fur traders began moving into the valley.
The first known Englishman to see the Ohio River did not arrive for another five years. During an exploration of southwestern Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia in 1673/74, James Needham was killed and Gabriel Arthur taken into a local tribe, probably either the Yuchi or Cherokee. With them, he participated in raids against the Shawnee in Ohio, visited Monyton villages in the Kanawha Valley, and finally made his way back to Virginia.
Now, the race was on. Though the records are either long lost or buried in some dusty vault in England or France, I have no doubt that hundreds of fur traders traveled through our valley over the next fifty years. By the 1740s, it was clear that there would soon be a war for control of the Ohio Valley. Both empires were forging alliances with Ohio Country tribes, and though we don’t have many documents regarding the French influence, we know that several notable English traders were in this area by this time. William Trent at Lower Shawneetown and George Croghan near Pittsburgh were two of the most well-known, though this group also included James Le Tort at our own Letart Falls.
In 1749, concerned that their control over the valley was weakening, the French launched a massive expedition to rebuild their relationships with local tribes. 271 strong, 216 French Marines and 55 Native Americans all led by Captain Pierre Joseph Céloron de Blainville, the Lead Plate Expedition set out from Montreal on June 15th. Their mission, to renew the peace with Natives, reaffirm French claims to the region, and remove British settlers.
Though mostly ignored by both the Natives, who viewed the French as a show of force, and the English, who rightly recognized that the French had any real power in the region, Celoron did at least manage to reclaim the Ohio Valley for France. At each stopping point, six in total, the expedition affixed the French coat of arms to a large tree and buried a lead plate at its base. These were at the mouths of Conewango, French, and Wheeling Creeks and the Muskingum, Great Kanawha, and Great Miami Rivers.
Of those six lead plates, three have never been found. As for the three that have, the first (Conewango) was dug up almost immediately and destroyed by Native Americans, the fourth (Muskingum) was discovered in 1798 and melted down into bullets, and fifth (Point Pleasant) was found sticking out the riverbank in 1846 and sent to Richmond for preservation, where it remains today at the Virginia Historical Society.
The following year, in 1750, the English sent Christopher Gist to mark their claim to the Ohio Valley, beginning the series of sparks that would ignite the French & Indian War and begin the permanent settlement of our area.
Information from the WV State Archives, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, and Ohio History Connection.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at [email protected]