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History in the Hills: Consider Ohio River’s role

Whether we realize it or not, our history is tied to the Ohio River. Flowing through our community over millennia, the river cut the Ohio Valley deeply, giving us the landscape we are all familiar with.

Looking back to the earliest history of this area, we can assume that there has been human habitation here in the Ohio Valley for a really long time. Not more than 30 minutes away, following Cross Creek, the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Avella interprets the incredible story of the discovery of the encampment that early prehistoric people used in our area.

Because datable evidence was found on the floor of the shelter, archeologists can date the earliest finds to more than 19,000 years ago. This is one of the oldest sites of human habitation in North America, and it’s right here in our Ohio Valley.

Not quite so far back, Native Americans still used the valley for hunting, gathering and living. Just right across the river from Historic Fort Steuben, high upon the hill overlooking the city on the West Virginia side, is what is known as the East Steubenville Site. This is the location of a Native American encampment of a people known as the Panhandle Archaic Culture. It was primarily a group of people who drew their food from the Ohio River in the form of freshwater mussels which they then carried up 300 feet to the ridge top.

Many artifacts were discovered there, including six prehistoric burials, all dating this encampment back to more than 4,000 years. If you visit Highland Hills Memorial Gardens, there is a monument dedicated to the reinterred Native Americans who were found at this site. Similar artifacts and mussel shells were found when excavating for the reconstruction of the fort.

During the mid-18th century, the Ohio Valley was the subject of one of the very first world wars fought in history. The control of the Ohio Valley was hotly contested by the French from the north and the English from the east. The French argued that the upper Ohio River belonged to the French King, but the English fought to protect their claim of the area as well. What resulted was a very bloody conflict known as the French and Indian War in the new world and the Seven Years war in Europe.

Battles took place from the Ohio Valley to Quebec, New York and Nova Scotia. Fighting ended in 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. After the war, the English having prevailed, taxes were imposed on the colonies to pay for the conflict. Of course, taxation without representation was one of the central grievances leading up to the American Revolution. Truly the eyes of the world were on our valley in the 1750s and 1760s.

The river was an important reason settlement came to the valley in the late 18, 19 and 20th centuries. The site of Fort Steuben was chosen for its vantage over the river, and the subsequent town that developed around the area was in no small part chosen for its proximity to river traffic — the major highway through our region.

E.T. Weir, founder of Weirton Steel, chose the community around Holliday’s Cove to establish his plant after droughts brought a lack of water to their Clarksburg mill, enticing them to locate a new factory where there was a body of water that surely would not dry up. It takes a lot of water to make steel.

The river has always attracted people to this area. From prehistoric hunter-gatherers, to early 20th century industrialists, not to mention the countless settlers, statesmen, frontiersmen and immigrants, the river continues to draw travelers and impact our history.

On Oct. 22, 1770, George Washington passed by via canoe and stopped in Mingo Town, writing about his experience touring the Ohio Valley. The river was “swift” and “without shallows,” according to his journal, giving him and his companions considerable difficulty on their journey.

Today’s river is considerably less “wild” due to the locks and dams that make it navigable for large river traffic. However, as we use the river we still can get a little taste of what our forbearers experienced. The next time you cross the Veterans Bridge or visit the various marinas in our region, take a moment to reflect on just how important our river is.

And be sure to stop by Fort Steuben Oct. 14-24 for our exhibit, “From Canoes to Riverboats: A Century of Change.”

(Zuros is the director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben.)

(Zuros is the director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben.)

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