Settlement by French and English colonists began in earnest in the early 1600s in what many Europeans had come to call the New World.
Of course, it was not new at all. Spanish and Portuguese settlements had been established in much of what is now Central and South America for more than 100 years, to say nothing of the Native Americans who had been in the area for generations.
French coureur de bois, or “woods runners,” and English “long hunters” began to cross the Appalachians and make their way along the Great Lakes in the late 1600s. When they reached the Ohio River Valley, they were often astonished by what they found.
Here was a land with fertile soils, prairies with grass reaching 6 feet in height and old-growth forests with trees of immense height and girth.
They saw herds of elk and buffalo and large flights of ducks, geese and pigeons.
Beaver dams with their rodent occupants stretched for hundreds of yards. Colonial explorers recognized that the skins of those beavers would bring wealth to the men who brought them to Europe.
Native American villages were scattered across what is now Ohio. The Wyandots – sometimes called Hurons by their enemies – had come down into northwest Ohio and were living as far south as what is now Columbus. The Miami had entered Ohio from the west and settled in the river valleys bearing their name. And the Shawnee and Delaware had come from the east and settled the valleys of the Scioto and Muskingum rivers.
In all, the total Native American population of Ohio was perhaps 15,000 to 20,000. For the most part, what is now Ohio was devoid of humans.
Gen. William Henry Harrison, in his “Discourse on the Aborigines of the Ohio Valley,” wrote that “this interjacent country between the Indians of the South and those northwest of the Ohio, was kept as a common hunting ground or field of battle, as the resentments or inclinations of the adjoining tribes prompted to one or the other.”
Samuel Hildreth in his early “Pioneer History” reported that “a belt of country from forty to sixty miles in width on both the north and south banks of the Ohio River seems to have been appropriated by the tribes who laid claim to the territory, almost exclusively as hunting grounds.”
This rich land once was home to thousands of prehistoric people. They came to be called the Mound Builders from the characteristic earthen structures they crafted for religious, funerary and defensive purposes. The simple presence of hundreds of these mounds was ample evidence of how many and influential they had once been.
But by the 1600s, they were gone, for reasons not fully clear to this day. Their place was taken by others – and some of these people did not like each other very much.
Along the southern shore of Lake Erie, from what is now Cleveland to Ashtabula, stretched the home of the Erie, or Cat, nation who gave Lake Erie its name. To the east, along the Mohawk River Valley in New York, were five nations of Native Americans who also had their differences.
Then in the mid-1600s, these five tribes – the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga and Seneca – combined to form a new confederacy. They called themselves Haudenosaunee, or “People of the Long House.” Others called them “Iroquois.”
In 1656, the Haudenosaunee – in a life-and-death struggle – annihilated the Erie nation and took the Ohio Country to be its own. Establishing the Ohio Valley as a hunting ground, they set aside and intentionally left empty a large part of what is now Ohio and Kentucky as a buffer between them in the north and the Cherokee and other tribes to the south.
For more than 50 years, the buffer held.
Then, in the early 1700s, the Haudenosaunee began to feel invasive pressures from the French, who were moving down the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes. At the same time, the English had displaced Dutch control of the Hudson River and were moving north toward the Mohawk River. The Ohio Valley was open to others.
At the end of the American Revolution, the new United States had immense debts, unpaid soldiers and no money. But it did have land: all of the Ohio Valley. That land began to be surveyed, divided and either granted or sold.
One of the surveyors was a man named Lucas Sullivant. In 1795, he began surveying the upper reaches of the Scioto River near the eastern boundary of a tract called the Virginia Military District. Native Americans once had lived there but were gone by the time Sullivant arrived.
Taking his pay in land, Sullivant laid out a town in 1797 at the forks of the Scioto River and Whetstone Creek – now the Olentangy River. He called it Franklinton.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.