When settlers from the newly formed United States began crossing the mountains in large numbers after the American Revolution, many decided to stay at a place where two rivers came together.
Many early settlers shrewdly wanted to live at a place where other people previously had lived successfully.
It was quite clear that the land at the forks of the Scioto was one of those places.
It was a rich and bountiful land. The topsoil often was more than three, four and even five feet deep. Water from streams and springs was plentiful. Free from most major predators, central Ohio was home to immense numbers of native wildlife.
Herds of buffalo wandered the Pickaway Plains to the south and the Darby Plains to the west. Flights of passenger pigeons literally blotted out the sun during their passing. And central Ohio was home to more deer than a newcomer thought possible to be present in one place.
And all these animals were drawn to the river.
The Shawnee people called the great river in the heart of Ohio “Scioto,” which means “Deer River.”
A later writer noted that it came to be called “Hairy River.” It was coined by local people in recognition of the large amount of deer fur left in the river by the deer of central Ohio during molting season.
The Olentangy was a different story.
For many years, it was called the “Whetstone” in reference to the translation of a hard-to-pronounce term that meant “river of the sharpening stones.”
It actually was a term that described a local creek where red clay could be found. The power of latecomer privilege was seen in 1834 when the Ohio General Assembly decided to give some Ohio rivers Native American names. Unable or unwilling to call Whetstone Creek by its original name, the stream was called Olentangy instead. And Olentangy it remains.
In a time when wilderness roads were little more than dirt footpaths, the river was the primary way many people traveled from place to place.
Having settled themselves in the new land, the settlers looked to the river as a means to bring the crops and livestock they possessed to markets where they might be sold.
Other rivers in the Ohio Country had been wide enough and deep enough to support this sort of traffic.
By the 1840s, steamboats were moving up the Muskingum River.
Early settlers tried to match that success on the Scioto. They built large flatboats called “broadhorns” and launched them into the river.
A Pickaway County historian described the boats – 30 of which had been built in Circleville in one year. Most of them, “had a triangular bow, while others were square in the front and the rear. There were three oars on deck-one in the rear called the steering oar, and two side-oars called sweeps.”
The boats were 50 feet wide and 100 feet long and were launched full of goods to the Ohio and then the Mississippi.
There the goods would be sold and the boat would be torn down and its wood sold for scrap. Carrying the money made in the venture, the pioneer would return north along the Natchez Trace, hopefully avoiding the pirates, thieves and other reprobates haunting the road.
At least that was the theory.
In reality only a few of the great boats made the arduous journey. Unlike the Muskingum, as it moved below its Forks with the Olentangy, the Scioto was not a wide river in many places.
This meant that the journey by broadhorn could only be made in a brief window of time when the river rose in the wake of the spring thaw in Ohio. The river at that time was high and deep – but not always all that navigable.
Only the most able and most fortunate of boatmen were able to successfully make the journey. The Day of the broadhorn was a relatively brief one in central Ohio.
But some people did use it to get out of town. An early local history recounted, “Mr. John Ransburgh who settled in 1809 on the west side of the river, near the present termination of Moler Street, and there erected a three-story frame mill. At a later date, Mr. Ransburgh sold his property to his son-in-law, Rollin Moler, from whom Moler Street takes its name, put all of his chattels, even to his domestic animals, on a large ‘broadhorn’ of his own building, floated down the Scioto and Ohio to the Mississippi, and settled near New Madrid, Missouri.”
The arrival of the Ohio and Erie Canal and the National Road in the 1830s opened central Ohio to the world, successfully completing a journey begun by the broadhorns many years before.
Meanwhile, the modern Scioto River – especially in the vicinity of the various downtowns along its path – is a much different river than it once was.
In Columbus, the river was widened to twice its previous width in the wake of the Great Flood of 1913.
Now, as part of the Scioto Mile project, the river has been restored to its original width.
The deer that gave the river its name, however, seem to have gone elsewhere for a drink of water.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.