Monday, December 31, 2007

Belli's Town: Alexandria and the Virginia Military District

To answer the question, "Why was Alexandria, the first American settlement in Scioto County, situated in a flood prone location on the west side of the Scioto River," we needed to look back at the founding of Lower Shawnee Town. Picking up from my last post on the demise of this Native American village at the mouth of the Scioto, I will now carry the story forward with a look at the role of federal land policy and the creation of the Virginia Military District on where the first American settlements in the Scioto Valley were located.


Imagine, if you can, floating down the Ohio, or pushing a keel boat up the river in 1796. When you reach the mouth of the Scioto, the Westside is overgrown, but is not covered with the massive sycamores, oaks, poplars, and black walnut trees that you see on the eastside peninsula, which also appears lower and especially prone to flooding. About a mile above the mouth, on the eastside, one would see the land rise, heavily forested and rimmed with pawpaw thickets; if you were to disembark and explore the eastside, swampy ground would have slowed your trek. While on higher ground, the high ground on the eastside, where Portsmouth is now located, was covered with mosquito breeding pools of stagnant water.

At first glance, it appears that the decision to locate the first American town of the region on the site of the old Lower Shawnee Town was primarily based upon three factors: 1) the land was already cleared of large timber; 2) the location was at the actual confluence of the two rivers; and 3) the site did not appear to be as subject to flooding as it would later prove.

While all of these factors undoubtedly played a role in the decision to locate the first American town on the Westside, the most influential factor actually had little to do with these considerations. The creation of the Virginia Military District (VMD) and the opening of the region to surveying and land sales led to the platting of Alexandria on the Westside of the Scioto River. And it is the same reason why the American town of Chillicothe, to the north, was located on the Westside of the river.

The VMD was a massive tract of land (over 3.8 million acres) that Congress had reserved for Virginia Revolutionary War veterans. In an effort to recruit and pay for the service of Virginians in the Continental Army, the government of Virginia had promised land grants in the west, upon lands that Virginia’s colonial charter had assigned to the colony – these lands included Kentucky and much of the land north of the Ohio River. The size of Virginia bounty lands were awarded according to one’s length of service and final rank at the end of the war.

In the fall of 1783, soon after Independence had been achieved a major compromise was worked out between the member states of the Confederation. In exchange for transferring ownership of lands north of the Ohio River to the control of the Confederation Congress, a tract of land in the territory would be held in reserve for Virginian veterans. Thus, the Confederation Congress created the Virginia Military District, which included all of the lands north of the Ohio River and between the Little Miami River in the west and the Scioto River in the East.

Historic Land Divisions of Ohio

The VMD sliced the Scioto River Valley in two. Lands on the eastern side of the Scioto would become known as Congress Lands. And these Congress Lands would not be opened to settlement until the spring of 1801. Before 1801, settlers living on the eastern side of the river were squatters – they had no legal title to the lands.

In other words, even if some land speculator had wanted to develop a town on the eastside, on the location of modern-day Portsmouth, they could not do so until after 1801. The platting of Portsmouth would not happen until 1803, and then it was nearly three years later in 1806, after another major flood in 1805, which inundated Alexandria, that settlement at Portsmouth began to take off.

Settlement on the Westside of the river was also delayed. The legislation creating the VMD, though passed in 1783, did not immediately open the region to settlement. For one, the legislation stipulated that the district be held in reserve until all of the valuable land in Kentucky had been claimed by Virginia veterans. Another reason for the delay was that the US government had not yet extinguished Indian claims to these lands. On the last day of January 1786, a handful of Shawnee leaders signed the Treaty of Fort Finney, which ceded Shawnee lands in Southern Ohio. This treaty, however, was immediately repudiated by a number of more influential Shawnee leaders, which essentially nullified the treaty. In short, any surveying and settlement of the VMD would meet violent resistance until the US had secured the acquiescence of the Indians. And it would be through war that this would be achieved.

In the meantime, the mouth of the Scioto became one of the most dangerous points on the Ohio River, with Shawnee and Cherokee warriors attacking American flatboats, as they made their way to Limestone (Maysville), which was the gateway to the frontier settlements in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky.

The legislation that created the VMD authorized Gen. Richard C. Anderson, the Principal Surveyor of Virginia Bounty Lands, to decide when the Kentucky bounty lands had been depleted, and upon such a declaration the VMD in Ohio would then be opened to surveying and settlement. Anderson did not wait for the final extinguishment of Indian land claims. On the 1st of August 1787, he recorded the first deed in the VMD, thereby opening the region to settlement. His decision appears largely to have been triggered by the passage of a new piece of national legislation known as the Northwest Ordinance, which was passed two weeks prior, on 13 July 1787.

Richard C. Anderson, Principal Surveyor of Virginia Bounty Lands

The Northwest Ordinance began the process of opening up the non-VMD land north and west of the Ohio River to settlement. Among other things, the legislation banned slavery in all of the Northwest Territory and established a system for surveying and selling land that would shape settlement patterns outside the VMD. The NW Ordinance quickly (two weeks after its passage) led to the sale of a huge tract of land (1.5 million acres) to the Ohio Company of Associates, who then, in April 1788, established the town of Marietta, the first authorized American settlement in all of the Northwest Territory.

A group of the Ohio Associates also formed a second speculative venture, known as the Scioto Land Company, which took out an option on 3.5 million acres of land between the western border of the Ohio Company purchase and the eastern bank of the Scioto River. For various reasons, in one of the greatest financial scandals of the Early Republic era of American history, the Scioto Company failed and the lands on the eastern side of the Scioto remained in the hands of Congress. These Congress Lands would finally be auctioned off in 1801, a good five years after the first American settlements had been established on the western banks of the Scioto.

In addition to the Ohio Company’s purchase in the summer of 1787, John Cleves Symmes also petitioned Congress for the purchase of 1 million acres in south-western Ohio. Although Symmes’ purchase was not finalized until the next fall, in October 1788, discussion of speculative schemes such as Symmes’ were rampant among members of Congress in the summer of 1787. There is no doubt that Gen. Anderson and other speculators in VMD lands were aware of these plans. Ever since the creation of the VMD in 1783, Virginians and others had been speculating in Virginia land bounties – numerous financially strapped veterans, during a post-war economic depression, when hostile Indians were blocking settlement, had sold their land warrants to their more wealthy neighbors, many of whom were also entitled to land by their own service in the Revolution.

Anderson’s decision to open the VMD appears to have been triggered by the passage of the Northwest Ordinance and the speculative schemes of the Symmes and the Ohio and Scioto companies. Unless the VMD was opened to surveyors, settlers, and speculators, the value of its land and its future development might be irrevocably harmed. The flow of settlers and capital would be directed towards eastern and western Ohio, while south-central Ohio – the VMD – would be left behind, their property values depressed.

Anderson’s decision led to the first official surveys in the Scioto River Valley in the summer and fall of 1787. However, before any extensive surveying was completed, the Continental Congress brought a halt to the surveys, shutting down the district and nullifying those surveys that had been completed. The Congress, which had a financial interest in the sale of federally controlled lands, wished to hold back the surveying and settlement of the VMD. The national government would not make a dime off of land sales in the VMD; settlers and capital would be siphoned off to the VMD and the beneficiaries would be the owners of Virginia military bounty land warrants, not the federal treasury.

There were other concerns influencing Congress. As mentioned above, American claims to the lands in the VMD were not yet fully accepted by the various Indian nations of the Ohio country. Diplomatic efforts at securing title to the land were proving difficult and relations with the Indian nations of the Northwest were tense. Survey teams in the VMD risked igniting a war with the Indians, particularly the Shawnee.

Before Congress shut down the VMD in July of 1788, the land at the mouth of the Scioto, on the western side of the Scioto, had been surveyed. Operating out of the Limestone settlement in Kentucky, John O’Bannon led a team of chain-carriers, markers, and hunters to the south eastern corner of the VMD and recorded a number of surveys that ran up the Scioto, and down the Ohio, including surveys of the mouth of Turkey Creek.

In mid-November 1787, while the inhabitants of the US were in the midst of their debate over the ratification of the proposed Constitution, John O’Bannon surveyed 900 acres for Thomas Parker of Virginia. O’Bannon’s survey, number 508, included the lands at the mouth of the Scioto River, the future location of Alexandria.

Another surveyor, who would become the most famous and wealthiest of land speculators in the VMD – Nathaniel Massie – did not participate in these first surveys. From extent records I have been able to examine, it appears that Massie made an exploratory trip across the Ohio into the District in the summer of 1788. Contrary to some published claims, Massie did not make the first entries in the District. So, where was Massie in 1787? According to his correspondence, it appears that he was busy in Kentucky attempting to cut a road from Lexington to the Kanawha River in western Virginia. This project, however, had fallen through by 1788 and, at that point, Massie turned his attention to the VMD.

Nathaniel Massie - Surveyor, Speculator, and Founder of Manchester and Chillicothe

Massie’s first excursion into the VMD occurred about the same time that Congress closed down the district with legislation in July of 1788. By early August 1790, over two years later, Congress agreed to reopen the VMD and allowed the original surveys, such as those by O’Bannon, to be recorded.

Pressure from the Virginia Congressional delegation was intense. Indian claims to the lands had still not been extinguished and in October of the same year, American armed forces under the command of General Josiah Harmar suffered a major defeat at the hands of an Indian alliance bent on blocking the American settlement of the Ohio Country. Harmar’s Defeat, however, did not deter Nathaniel Massie; that fall he began recruiting settlers for what he planned to be the first permanent American settlement in the VMD.

In light of the hostilities, Massie’s plans were bold and provocative. He selected a site 11 miles up river from Limestone, his original base of operations. Here there were three islands in the middle of the Ohio River, upon which he would build a blockhouse, known as Massie’s Station. With his surveying crew he would layout a town on the banks of the Ohio, which he ultimately named Manchester. By April of 1791, Massie had completed the island stockade and would soon begin leading surveying parties deep into the VMD.

Although Massie’s Station never came under direct attack, a handful of its first settlers were captured and taken hostage by the Indians. And Massie’s surveying parties fought a number of skirmishes adding to the tensions between the Ohio Indians and the United States. After a series of humiliating losses at the hands of the Indian alliance, the US military, with the assistance of volunteer militia from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky, finally achieved a decisive victory over the Indian alliance at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in the late summer of 1794.

Although a peace agreement – the Treaty of Greenville – would not be reached for another year, the victory at Fallen Timbers encouraged surveyors such as Nathaniel Massie and Lucas Sullivant to extend their surveying work deeper into the VMD and up the Scioto River Valley, thereby threatening to disrupt the peace negotiations. In November 1794, Sullivant who would later plat the town of Franklinton (from which Columbus was born) was the first surveyor to enter the VMD lands above modern day Chillicothe. With the earlier O’Bannon surveys covering much of the lands in the southeastern corner, Nathaniel Massie would focus on the central region and Sullivant on the northern.

In 1795, Massie would survey the lands around Paint Creek and the Scioto River, where he would later plat the town of Chillicothe. These lands on the eastern extremity of VMD were considered the most valuable – the Scioto River ran south, dividing Ohio nearly into two equal parts. Chillicothe was located about midway between the Ohio River and the Greenville Treaty Line to the North, which separated Indian land from that which had been obtained by the US. At the time of Chillicothe’s founding in 1796, the two other major Ohio settlements (besides Manchester) were located at Cincinnati in the west and Marietta in the East. Chillicothe was located at the center of the part of the Ohio country that had been cleared of Indian claims and opened for settlement.

Chillicothe’s rapid rise as the center of Ohio settlement immediately spurred the development of land at the mouth of the Scioto River. The overland route from Wheeling, Virginia, in the east – what became known as Zane’s Trace – was not cut until 1797 and for at least a decade, the Trace was little more than a bridle trail, not wide enough for large wagons. In the late 1790s, if you were to immigrate to the vicinity of Chillicothe, you would more than likely come via flatboat, down the Ohio to the mouth of the Scioto, or up river from Limestone on a keelboat. From there your belongings would be taken northward either by boat or over land. Narrow ancient Indian paths led north on both sides of the Scioto. One, on the Westside, ran through what is now West Portsmouth roughly along modern-day State Route 104. On the Eastside, an ancient Indian trace (the Warrior’s Path), which became known as the Scioto Trail (modern-day US 23), ran north along the river until modern-day Piketon, where a river crossing took the immigrant over to the Westside and into the VMD. There, from what became known as Pee Pee Prairie, the path continued north until it crossed Paint Creek before reaching Chillicothe. With Chillicothe attracting a large share of the western immigrant flow, the Ohio River route to the west naturally encouraged the development of a new American settlement at the mouth of the Scioto.

Thus, in the long human history of the region, a new era of settlement near the mouth of the Scioto began in 1796, coinciding with the platting of Chillicothe. Thomas Parker, the owner of the land on the western side of the Scioto’s mouth, was now in a position to exploit his early speculations in VMD lands. Parker was an absentee landlord, a speculator in Virginia Military District lands. A Revolutionary War veteran from Frederick County, Virginia, Parker had been awarded bounty lands for his own service and he had actively purchased warrants from other veterans.

Major John Belli, Agent of Thomas Parker, the Absentee Proprietor of Alexandria

The development of Parker’s VMD lands was left in the hands of his brother, Alexander Parker, and a close confidant, Major John Belli. Although Alexander Parker undoubtedly spent some time in the area, John Belli ended up serving as the Parkers’ primary agent. Alexandria, for all intents and purposes was Belli’s Town.


  1. Dear Mr. Feight:

    I enjoy your blog and I hope you continue it.

    Imagine, if you can, floating down the Ohio, or pushing a keel boat up the river...

    Could you explain how a keel boat was pushed up the river? Sounds like quite an endeavor.

    Also, perhaps you could comment on the current controversy over the Indian Head Rock in your blog.


  2. Your post explaining the location of Alexandria was invaluable to me. Thanks very much for this detailed explanation! I hope you'll continue to post information on the Lower Scioto.

  3. My ancestor, John Watson, purchased part of the Thomas Parker survey of 1500 acres, no. 732, "on the waters of Rattlesnake." Is this the survey that you refer to?

    Also, do you know anything about a Col. [John?] Watts from VA, who apparently cut a deal with both John Watson and Thomas Moorman (of Bedford Co., VA) to act as land agents in Ohio?

    I am doing genealogical research & am interested in anything you might offer.