Monday, December 24, 2007

Lower Shawnee Town and the Flood of 1753

Why was Alexandria, the first American settlement in Scioto County, situated in a flood prone location on the west side of the Scioto River?

My answer to this question begins with the story of Lower Shawnee Town, the last Native American settlement at the Mouth of the Scioto, and ends with an examination of the history associated with the creation of the Virginia Military District.

This blog entry is the first in a two-part series, which in a re-worked and expanded form, will ultimately become part of my book project, Southerners in the Promised Land: The Lower Scioto Valley in the Early American Republic.

I’d like to thank the Scioto County Genealogical Society for giving me the opportunity to present a preliminary version of these posts at their annual Family History Day, which was held this past September at the Scioto County Welcome Center in downtown Portsmouth.


The confluence of the Scioto and Ohio rivers has long been the site of human habitation. The remains of the ancient earthworks created by the Adena and Hopewell sometime between 700 BC and 500 AD remind us that ancestors of the modern Eastern Woodland Indians called this place home. For hundreds of years they lived and died along these waters – long before Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo, and other Ohio Indians made their home here – long before Americans pushed the Native Americans aside and founded their own villages at the mouth of the Scioto. Taking the long view, it appears that human communities at the site of modern-day Portsmouth have risen and fallen like the waters of these two rivers.

The Return of the Shawnee

Beyond the archeological record, the first historical records that document a modern Indian settlement at the mouth of the Scioto point to the mid-1740s as the founding decade of a Shawnee Indian settlement, which became known to the English as Lower Shawnee Town. The Shawnee inhabitants probably called the village “Chillicothe,” the name for the Shawnees’ principle town, wherever it might be located. From its inception, Lower Shawnee Town was a cosmopolitan settlement, which large numbers of Delaware, Mingo, Delaware, and other Ohio Indians called home. Located on the western side of the mouth of the Scioto River, as well as a smaller settlement on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, Lower Shawnee Town would later become the site of Alexandria, the first American town platted in what became Scioto County.

The Site of Lower Shawnee Town, viewed from US 52, looking South-East towards Kentucky (September 2007)

The founding of Lower Shawnee Town coincided with the return of the Shawnee, who had been expelled from their homeland by the Iroquois in the mid-1600s. Once back in Ohio, the Shawnee aligned themselves with the English colonists on the East Coast, opening their settlement to English merchants, who traded manufactured European goods for animal furs and skins. Lower Shawnee Town was strategically located on the rivers, as well as near the Warrior’s Path, a Native American trail that ran from the Great Lakes region, south, across the Ohio River, and over the Appalachian Mountains into the upcountry of the Carolinas. Lower Shawnee Town was sufficiently west, down into the larger Ohio Valley, that few Europeans, whether English or French, were ever seen. Yet, it was also far enough east, up the Ohio River, to make trade with the English practicable and profitable. Game was plentiful; the bottom lands of the Scioto and the Ohio ideal for corn fields; and the English and French were still at arms length.

The Flood of 1753

The location of the village, despite its strategic and economic advantages, proved to be problematic for the Shawnee and other Indians who called it home. In 1753 a massive flood overflowed both the Scioto and Ohio River banks, carrying away their log cabins, warehouses, public buildings, and undoubtedly much personal property. Having themselves only recently returned to the region, at least three generations since their ancestors had been expelled, the Shawnee were apparently unfamiliar with the occasional massive floods that can make the annual, predictable floods, which inundate the area’s bottom lands, seem unremarkable. The Flood of 1753 would undoubtedly compare with the devastating flood of 1937, which swallowed much of Portsmouth and many other towns along the Ohio River.

In the aftermath of the Flood of 1753, some Shawnee relocated to the eastern side of the Scioto, to where Portsmouth is now situated, but this settlement was also abandoned in the 1760s, when the Shawnee relocated northward, up the Scioto River, to a new town site just north of modern day Chillicothe.

In light of the periodic flooding that hit the site of Lower Shawnee Town and the future demise of Alexandria as a result of the flooding, it has long been an issue of speculation as to why the American settlers who first came to the area would have located their first town in a location so prone to flooding.

The Old Mouth of the Scioto

At this point, I should point out that the original mouth of the Scioto, the location of Lower Shawnee Town and Alexandria, is not where it is today. Those who try to imagine Alexandria in the bottoms – about where Boone Coleman has his dirt race track – are looking in the wrong place – on a number of occasions I have had people tell me that is where Alexandria used to be. In the nineteenth century a new mouth for the Scioto was cut as part of the construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal. Originally, the Scioto flowed south towards the Ohio and just before their waters met, the Scioto made a hard right and then receded, forming a narrow, short isthmus and then a wide peninsula, nearly a mile long, before finally entering the Ohio.

Lower Shawnee Town (Alexandria) and the Original Mouth of the Scioto River

The land located on the westside of the original mouth – the land between Carey’s Run and the original mouth of the Scioto – was and is higher than the bottom lands that now sit on the current westside of the modern Scioto’s mouth. In other words, the flooding that we see today, every winter and spring, which fills the bowl of Coleman’s race track and turns these bottom lands into a lake, would not necessarily reach the higher ground upon which Lower Shawnee Town and Alexandria were located.

The site of Lower Shawnee Town is prone to flooding, but it is not an annual event. The location, however, proved to have another serious problem. The northern bank of the Ohio, on which the town fronted, was also subject to erosion. Over the course of the 19th century, after Alexandria had been essentially abandoned, the northern bank of the Ohio would erode and sections collapse into the river. The handful of houses that once fronted the river eventually crumbled into the water.

In 1795 and 1796, when Americans began arriving at the mouth of the Scioto, when the threat of Indian attack had been ended with the Greenville Treaty, the location of Lower Shawnee Town had not been permanently inhabited for over forty years; the smaller Shawnee village that had been located where Portsmouth now stands had been abandoned for around thirty years. Whether any of these original American settlers knew of the Flood of 1753 is unclear; whatever the case, they possessed visions of wealth and happiness, believing that the confluence of these two rivers would soon form a nexus, where people, money, and goods would pass and fortunes would be made.


  1. What evidence have you researched on the location of Lower Shawnee Town and Alexandria? It appears the X on the map is a little further West then it should be. Also, Careys Run Creek is in between where you have Alexandria marked and the Old Mouth.

    I doubt they would settle on the other side of this creek, when it was the confluence of the river that was important. You're placing the old site of Alexandria behind the park.

    Unless Careys Run Creek once ran in another direction, however, I have one map that shows Alexandria directly on the westside bank of the Scioto, and when the French planted their lead plates they had to camp across the Scioto River, east bank, because of the Shawnee's hostile disposition.

    Just some thoughts I wanted to point out.

    I live on Slab Run in West Portsmouth, and love our local history. Great blog! I'm glad you started it.

  2. Thanks for writing. I see why you think I misplaced Alexandria. The map is confusing and I now see that I need to change it. You are correct that Alexandria and Lower Shawnee Town were located up river from Carey's Run. You'll notice that there are two Xs on the map; the one on the west side of the "Old Mouth" of the Scioto is where Alexandria was located. The other X, was meant as a legend, explaining what the red X was. Now, that's confusing. Thanks again. - ALF

  3. Thanks for your article, Im a lifelong scioto county resident, and have always been fascinated by my homes history. From the Ancient earthworks of the Adena/Hopewell to the Shawnee, anything after that and its less about history and more about the destruction of it.