Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Scioto River Valley: "Keeping Promises in the Promised Land

We here in Scioto County live in the Scioto River Valley. It is a locale rich in natural resources and rich in American history. From the dramatic river confluence of the Scioto and the Ohio rivers in Portsmouth to the wide bottoms north of town, the valley – framed by lush native hills – offers a gorgeous landscape that should never be taken for granted.

A pertinent question for locals is “How much do you know about your homeland?” According to historian Andrew Lee Feight, the need to know is extremely important. He recounts a famous song that echoed that very notion:

“'Come all ye likely lads that have a mind for to range, Into some foreign country, your fortunes for to change; In seeking some new pleasures we will all together go, An' we'll settle on the banks of the pleasant Ohio.' So went the old song, which James Keyes used in 1880 as a preface to his collection of sketches detailing the lives of pioneer settlers near the mouth of the Scioto River.

“For many, the Scioto Valley was an American Promised Land and it filled rapidly with men, women, and children, a seemingly restless people who were chasing their fortunes in the newly opened lands of the Trans-Appalachian West.”

Allow me to shed a little light on the valley we call home. It is my hope that this exposition may reward you with a new understanding of our land and our forefathers.

The Formation

The geologic history of the Scioto River is tied to the destruction of the Teays River network during the Ice Ages and consequent creation of the Ohio River. As the Ice Age began to cool the earth, and large glaciers began to creep south from modern-day Canada, many landforms and features were changed or destroyed. The Teays River's path once traveled through modern-day West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiania, and Illinois, finally emptying into the Gulf of Mexicto, which at the time extended to southern Illinois.


The north flowing Teays River was dammed by glaciers, and damming of other rivers led to a series of floods as lakes overflowed into adjacent valleys. These Pre-Illinoisan (Early Pleistocene) glaciations brought an end to the Teays River.

The advance of ice sheets eventually dammed the Teays resulting in the formation of glacial Lake Tight. Glacial Lake Tight is estimated to have been two-thirds the size of modern Lake Erie. The lake extended into portions of Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky and covered approximately 7000 square miles. Valleys beyond the reach of glaciers were reorganized to create the Ohio River, and the Scioto River replaced the Teays River. The Scioto River flows through segments of the Teays River valley but opposite the direction the Teays River flowed.


The Scioto River then ran in a channel about 100 feet below its present bed. All its tributaries near their months were 100 feet lower than now. This made their flow much more rapid, and the growing process was very active. Every flood carried out of the tributary valleys an immense amount of eroded debris. Thus was the valley formed and fashioned into its present size and shape.

Had it not been for the upheaval there could have been no erosion; and without erosion the geological and stratigraphical formation of the valley would not have occurred. This glaciers gave birth to the valley, with all its living organisms.

Human Habitation

The Scioto River is fully 231 miles in length. Humans have inhabited the region for thousands of years. The river valley was home to many Native American cultures. The best known group was the Mound Builders of the Hopewell tradition. Of course, water is essential for life, but the Scioto also offered fertile land for homesteading pioneers – both Indian and white.

Here is a poetic view of the Scioto in the History of Lower Scioto Valley, 1884 ...

“Drainage is not the entire object of our river systems. Irrigation and exposure of deep and otherwise hidden treasures are evidently had in view by the Author of Nature with all is elementary combinations. He that makes eyeless fishes where no light can every penetrate would not upheave and plow down the earth's crust without having in view some special object. Scioto Valley is not, by any means, destitute of the foot-prints of the Deity, but is proof of his handiwork ...

“But, aside from the ancient denizens of the Scioto Valley, let us view the inhabitants of the valley when first seen by the Caucasian. Not a tree had yet fallen before the ax of the white man. Among the waving branches of the heavy timbered bottoms, and on the stately oaks of the hills, were heard the notes and cries of birds of various plumage, new and strange. The Indian whoop, the panther's cry, the hoarse growl of the bear, the howl of the wolf, mingled with thousands of notes of animated beings of a new world. Is he dreaming? Or, does he behold the animated beings of a literal country, like the ones left behind him?”

Yet, why, as a rule, did most early inhabitants of the Scioto Valley settle in the hills, some distances from the river instead of in the rich bottoms?

Despite the resources offered by the valley, both natives and whites had to deal with one persistent threat in the idyllic setting – flooding. Floods posed problems for habitation. Some were particularly devastating. For example, in 1753, a massive flood overflowed both the Scioto and Ohio River banks and completely destroyed the native village of Lower Shawneetown.

Andrew Feight wrote this about the event …

“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.”

Not only did the river valley present threats of flooding waters, but also it harbored other serious health hazards.

According to James Emmitt, one of Waverly's prominent fathers ...

“Vegetation in the bottoms, in those days, was absolutely rank. Sycamore, black walnut and hackberry trees grew abundantly and to splendid proportions, and the vines of the wild grape clambered up in a dense and tangled mass to their very tops, interlacing their branches, and often uniting many trees in a common bond of clinging vines.

“The growth of weeds and underbrush was wonderfully dense, and when the floods would come and cover the bottoms, several inches of water would remain in those brakes of weeds for months after it had receded from less densely overgrown ground.

“As a matter of fact, the water would stand almost the year around, in lagoons, over a large portion of the bottoms, converting them into huge marshes, and causing them to closely resemble much of the swamp land now so abundant in the South.”

The bottom lands were called “immense tracts of poison-breeding land, marshy in nature, and wholly unfit for the agreeable habitation of man.” The lowlands were “reeking with malaria” and “ague” that was described as “almost as malignant as yellow fever.” Reports say “when a man was seized with the shaking ague, as it manifested itself in 1818-20, he imagined that a score of fiends were indulging in a fierce warfare over the dismemberment of his poor person.”

Emmitt wrote:

“Oh, what torture it was! After the terrible quaking ceased then came the racking, burning fever, that scorched the blood, parched the flesh, and made one pray for death. Torture more absolute and prostrating could not well be conceived of. And when it is remembered that no one who dared brave the dangers of the bottoms was exempt from ague, in some one of its many distressing forms, during the entire spring and summer seasons, and often year in and out, it is not surprising that the early settlers shunned what was to them a plague-stricken district.”

Thus, the hill country bordering the bottoms was first settled by whites. Then the bottoms were “gradually conquered” as residents worked from their outer boundaries clearing away timber, vines, and underbrush. Once the land was cleared, the sun converted it into “workable condition.” And, fever and ague grew less prevalent as the land was cleared up.

The pioneers turned up rich bottom lands since the debris – once an impediment that had kept floods from receding quickly – also produced a positive consequence. At every rise in the river, the water was held on the bottoms until “they had become enriched by a heavy deposit of the soil carried down from the hilltops.” However, once cleared, the bottom lands suffered more soil loss from the currents of flood waters. It seems nature provides and also takes away.

The Scioto River Valley remains one of the most fertile and beautiful areas of the country. Often people overlook the bountiful nature of their own environment, preferring to revel in memories and images of faraway places. The gem we in Scioto are intrusted to protect rivals any other natural wonder. Perhaps we should do much more to enjoy this gift and to enhance its being. These are promises that would benefit all who here dwell.


James Emmitt. Chillicothe Leader. 1886. Found at “Pike County” on

Andrew Lee Feight Ph.D. “Lower Shawnee Town and the Flood of 1753. Lower Scioto Blog. December 24, 2007.

Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D. “Settling the Scioto Valley.” Tour curated by: Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D.

R.P. Goldthwaite. "The Teays Valley Problem, a Historical Perspective", pp. 3-8 in Wilton N. Melhorn, 1991, Geology and Hydrogeology of the Teays-Mahomet Bedrock Valley Systems, Geological Society of America Special Paper

Kay L. Mason. History of Lower Scioto Valley Ohio.

Ohio Statewide Files – History: Chapter 4, History of Lower Scioto Valley. Chicago. 1884.

No comments: