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A Moment In History--Lewis and the Ohio River

Milestones Vol 25. No. 4

By Denver L. Walton

On the last day of August, 1803, Captain Meriwether Lewis passed through Beaver County in a keel boat on his way from Pittsburgh to Missouri, where, on May 14, 1804, he would start up the Missouri River on the beginning of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Lieutenant William Clark wasn't with Lewis in Beaver County. He joined the expedition in Louisville, Kentucky.

Lewis brought with him ten recruits, a river pilot and a dog named Scannon. In Louisville, Clark would bring with him nine more recruits and his black slave "York." In Missouri, additional recruits would round out the party of 47 men who comprised the Corps of Discovery.

While passing through Beaver County, Lewis would stop only at Georgetown, where he bought a canoe from the residents. Good canoes were difficult to find and they would buy many of them on this expedition.

What was Beaver County like in 1803? The only village of any size was Beaver, built around the deteriorated Fort McIntosh, where the treaty was signed in 1785 to purchase land from the Indians. Beaver was the seat of the new county of Beaver, formed March 12, 1800. For the first three of four years, county business was handled in Pittsburgh, until Beaver County could build a courthouse and elect officers. Thus it would have been when Lewis and his expedition came through. The old fort was gone, its timbers used in local houses. The town was laid out as it is today, with parks in the center and at the four corners of town. The only link with civilization was the old military road, "Brodhead's Road," which led to Pittsburgh and of course, the river. A vastly different river than today, the Ohio could often be waded across in the summertime and frequently walked across on the ice during the winter. Traffic was busy on the river, with flatboats, keelboats and canoes carrying settlers and trappers to the west. A majority of travelers to the west followed the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, thus making Beaver County the true gateway to the west. Many travelers stopped at Beaver, but Meriwether Lewis did not.

The other town in Beaver County in 1803 was Georgetown, named for an early settler, George Dawson. In 1802, the imposing structure on the bluff above the Ohio, "The River Hotel", was built. It remains today, no longer a hotel, but certainly one of the oldest public buildings in the county. Georgetown would become an important town known for the many riverboat captains and employees in the steamboat trade, beginning ten or twelve years after Lewis' visit. Still a river town, a barge repair facility is located in Georgetown today.

Not long before 1803, the Southside of Beaver County belonged to Virginia and some of the early settlers founded their homesteads as citizens of that state and the county of Yohogania. (The boundary was resolved in 1779 and the Southside was awarded to Pennsylvania.)

The Dungans and the Bakers were among the earliest settlers on the Southside, arriving before the Revolutionary War. During that conflict, some Indian tribes sided with the British and harassed the settlers, taking them prisoner and often, killing them. By 1803, the Southside had become well settled, with much of the canopy of big trees that covered the county felled to make room for home sites and cornfields.

The Northside was a different story. It wasn't until 1795 that it was possible to safely settle north of the Ohio River because of continual Indian harassment. In that year, General Anthony Wayne signed the treaty of Greenville with the Indians, defeated a year earlier at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. After 1795, nearly all of the Indians remaining in the area had moved west, making the north side of the Ohio safe for settlers.

The Dawsons, moving north from Georgetown, were among the first to venture into the fertile country north of the river. Other settlers moved north and west out of Beaver. In 1803, many farms had been established, but most of the land was still heavily forested compared to that on the Southside.

Primitive roads were built, connecting the isolated farms, largely on the paths of early Indian trails. One of the most important trails was the "Great Path," or Tuscarawas Trail, by which the Indians went westward seeking flint for their arrowheads in the center of Ohio.

The trail today is covered by Tuscarawas Road and, to the west, Lisbon Road. A trail along the river heading west from Beaver called "The French Way" is now the path of Route 68. North along the Beaver River, settlers followed the old Indian path called the Mahoning Trail. Brodhead's Road, crossing the Southside, followed an old Indian trail called "The Glade Path."

Most traffic, however, was on the river. Travelers entering the new Beaver County from the southeast would pass the site of Economy (to be occupied by the Harmonists in 21 years). Then the ruins of old Logstown would appear on the right. A very important Indian village, Logstown was for many years the meeting place for traders, emissaries to the Indians and army officers, such as George Washington. The young lieutenant met here with such Indian chiefs as Tanacharison and Monacatocstha on his way north to confront the French army at Fort LeBoeuf warning them on behalf of the colony of Virginia that they were trespassing on Virginia soil.

In its heyday, Logstown boasted of many log cabins and cornfields on both sides of the river. By 1803, not a trace remained. Further downstream, the traveler would pass the site of Crow's town at the mouth of Crow's Run and the one-time home of Chief Crow, now long gone. On the left was Crow Island and Hog Island, both now victims of the steel industry and no longer visible. Eventually, the traveler would come to what would become Rochester, onetime home of Chief Logan and called for him, Logan's town. Chief Logan was a friend to the settlers until his family was slaughtered by renegade whites, when he vowed to wreak a terrible vengeance on the colonial settlers.

The point of land at the mouth of the Beaver River has long been called Beaver Point. A few years after 1803, the point opposite would be known as Stone's Point. Downstream, passing Beaver on the right (but surely stopping here for water, supplies, news and gossip) the traveler would pass the northernmost point on the Ohio River where it turns westward. A few settlers would be on hand to greet the traveler at scattered farms along the riverbank, but in 1803, the way west was mostly wilderness.

We mustn't tend to underestimate the importance of the Ohio River. As a transportation route, it made Beaver County the true Gateway to the west. It brought the steamboats to Beaver County, and in time, the towboats with their barges loaded with coal and other goods making the Ohio a very important highway. Heavy industry came to Aliquippa, Midland and other towns because the river provided the necessary transportation and cooling water. The same advantage brought the power plants to Shippingport.

Today, the 1803 traveler would be amazed to see the changes. No longer a free flowing river, the Ohio is a series of reservoirs created by the many dams along its route. Necessary for reliable barge traffic, the Ohio is a mecca for recreation boating, water skiing and even some swimming, made possible as the river slowly cleans itself of the terrible pollution which ran rampant for many years.

Meriwether Lewis, the traveler of 1803, would never recognize the river which carried him west, through Beaver County, to perpetual fame and respect as one of the leaders of The Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery.

Presented at The Lewis & Clark Festival at Rochester, Sept.2, 3, & 4, 2000