The confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers has long been the site of human habitation, from the ancient Adena and Hopewell to the Shawnee and, lastly, to the Americans of today. The mouth of the Scioto has seen the rise and fall of many villages, some no doubt completely lost to history.
In the fall of 1783, soon after American Independence had been achieved, a major compromise was worked out between the member states of the Confederation. In exchange for Virginia’s ceding its claims to lands north of the Ohio River, a tract of land in the proposed Northwest territory would be held in reserve for Virginian veterans who had been promised western lands for their service in the Revolution. And thus, the Confederation Congress created the Virginia Military District (VMD) by setting aside the lands bounded in the East by the Scioto River, to the South by the Ohio, and to the West by the Little Miami.
The VMD was a massive tract of Indian land – over 3.8 million acres that the Shawnee and other Native Americans still believed to be rightfully theirs (and for good reason). Not until 1795, with the defeat of the Western Indian Confederacy at Fallen Timbers and the land cessions of the Treaty of Greenville, did the newly independent United States succeed in conquering these lands and opening them to American settlement
Yet, when the first settlers began arriving in late 1795 and early 1796, only lands on the West Side of the Scioto could be bought and sold, with a clear title. The East Side, where Portsmouth now stands, lay in what was then known as the Congress Lands, a tract of land that ran north along the east side of the Scioto River. These lands would not be sold at public auction until the spring of 1801. Thus, for nearly five years, just as pioneer settlers began pouring into the Scioto valley, only squatters could take up residence on the East Side. Clear title to the land, whether for a lot in Alexandria or for a mill site on nearby Carey’s Run, ensured that the first American settlement would be on the West Side. In June of 1799, when it was officially platted, Alexandria was laid out upon the former site of Lower Shawnee Town, an Indian village, which like Alexandria, had been previously abandoned in the 1750s due to flooding.
Thomas Parker, a wealthy Virginian veteran of the Revolution who speculated in VMD lands, was the first American to claim ownership of the western side of the Scioto’s mouth. Parker was an absentee landlord, from Frederick County, Virginia. It was Thomas’ brother, Alexander, however, who appears to have first managed his brother’s properties in Ohio. Alexander (for whom the village may have been named) was granted power of attorney to dispose of his brother’s property in the VMD and it was Alexander who arranged for Elias Langham to survey, plat, and sell lots in the village in June of 1799. Langham, acting on behalf of the Parkers sold seventeen lots on the appointed day, including one for himself, No. 20, a prime corner location, fronting both the Ohio and the Scioto Rivers. The lots ranged in price from $15.50 to $100, with Langham’s No. 20 taking the highest price.
Langham would begin construction of a one storied, frame house, but he does not appear to have settled in Alexandria. As one pioneer recollected, “Langham remained there but a brief period. He did not possess the faculty of wearing like leather.” Instead Langham cast his fate elsewhere and hired David Gharky, a new arrival, to finish the house, in partial exchange for rent. With Langham pursuing other business affairs to the north, Major John Belli took over the Parker’s interests in Alexandria. He too would purchase lots in the town, but resided downriver, first at Washington in Adams County, at the mouth of Ohio Brush Creek, and then at his country estate, Belvidere, at the mouth of Turkey Creek in Scioto County.
Contrary to some accounts that place the county’s first celebration of the 4th of July at Isaac Bonser’s farm near modern-day Sciotoville, Alexandria clearly deserves the honor and recognition. We find an account in the Freedman’s Journal & Chillicothe Advertiser, dated July 11th, 1800, in which Alexandrians celebrated the anniversary at the house of Thomas Hart, who hosted a well-attended ball.
The Advertiser published a list of toasts, which were answered with cheers. After the standard toasting of George Washington and the current administration, they raised their glasses to “the Liberty of speech, the Liberty of the Press and Liberty of Conscience.” They prayed that “the North Western Territory become great, and wealthy, and the inhabitants thereof, unanimous to support the rights of Independence under a Republican flag.” And, ultimately the toasts concluded with: “May Alexandria prosper & flourish and its inhabitants ever retain a Republican spirit. … 3 Cheers.”
Nearly three years later, in March 1803, when the legislature created Scioto County, the law stipulated that Alexandria should be the “temporary seat of Justice,” with the county court conducting its business there “at the house of John Collins.” The law, however, provided for the appointment of special commissioners to determine the best location for a permanent seat, which was quickly accomplished by the court’s first meeting in August.
The platting of Portsmouth in early April 1803, coincided with the creation of the new county, and it clearly was promoted by Henry Massie with an eye towards securing the permanent seat of justice. The first court session was held in Alexandria on August 9th and 10th, at which time the Grand Jury returned four indictments, three for assault and battery and one for selling liquor without a license. The county seat commissioners (David Selby, John Chenoweth, and Reuben Abrams) also submitted their recommendation in favor of Portsmouth. The court accepted the Commissioners’ Report and set its next session for the new town of Portsmouth. Thus, beginning in December, 1803, and ever since, the Scioto County Court of Common Pleas has conducted its affairs on the East Side of the Scioto. Only one session, the first, was held at John Collin’s tavern in the now Abandoned Alexandria.
According to David Gharky, who came to Alexandria in the fall of 1799, the years before the county seat fight were a golden age. “Until this time the inhabitants of Alexandria, lived in peace and harmony, like one great family; though nowise related by the ties of blood, but by christianlike neighborship. They would aid and assist each other in times of need; ameliorate the wants, distresses and misfortunes of those who smarted under Fortune’s lash, by sympathy, benevolence and charity; thus all of the residents of this town, as well as strangers who came among us, received that aid which is due from humanity to the afflicted and oppressed.”
The county seat contest, however, brought an end to the harmony and unity. With “the majority of the humane portion [of Alexandrians] “moving off, the new comers” neglected the virtues of solidarity, brotherhood, or what Gharky referred to as “unity.” Instead, he claimed, another rule was “brought in vogue,” one of “every man for himself.” It was to be a dog-eat-dog world at the mouth of the Scioto and Alexandria would earn the nickname, Hardscrabble, for the meager reward residents wrung from its flooded streets and fields.
Yet, at first, Gharky and others, like Dr. Thomas Waller, refused to abandon neither their investment in Alexandria, nor their vision of the town’s ultimate success. As Gharky later explained in his autobiography, “the hope of getting the County seat located here, kept up a lively anticipation of the superiority of our place over Portsmouth.” Only after the seat “was permanently established there,” explained Gharky, did Alexandria begin “to dwindle into that nothingness which our feuds brought us to.”
The Alexandrians, however, did make one last ditch effort to save their dreams. In November, 1803, William Lucas, Sr., hosted a gathering of West Siders, where petitions were signed and depositions taken regarding, what Lucas termed the “corruption in the execution of [the county seat commissioners’] offices.” They asked the state legislature to set aside the corrupt decision and affix the seat as the legislature “may conceive most proper to secure the interest of the said county, and restore peace and tranquility.” In other words, they asked the legislature to set aside the original Commissioners’ Report and make Alexandria the permanent seat. Their petition campaign failed, their memorial and depositions were tabled in January 1804. Then, in 1805, any doubts were removed, when the legislature officially affixed the seat to Portsmouth. That same year another major flood inundated the homes and businesses of Alexandria, and many residents began to sell out.
The county’s first historian, James Keyes, noted that “it was with a great deal of reluctance that they abandoned their comfortable dwellings, and improvements which they had spent so many of the best years of their lives in building up, and remove to other fields and begin life again.”
Dr. Waller and his family sold out in 1810. Gharky held out until after he returned from service in the War of 1812, selling his Alexandria property for $450 in May 1814. “Some went further west, some went to the country, and others moved up to Portsmouth,” noted Keyes. “Portsmouth was not a lovely place at that time,” he explained. “There was nothing inviting about it. It was covered with dense forest. Full of swamps, and wet marshy ground filled with croaking frogs. It was heart rending to have to give up the toil and labor of ten years, and commence again in the woods. But Portsmouth had the advantage of high ground, and that carried the day.”
In 1817, Samuel Brown’s Western Gazetteer noted the moral decline that accompanied the death of the village: “There are fifteen old buildings, and a tavern well supported by the votaries of Bacchus. Indolence and dissipation characterize the inhabitants.” As the original settlers left, the village decayed and eventually what had not yet been carried off would be washed away by the waters of the Scioto and Ohio.
The last remnant of Alexandria washed away in the Flood of 1884. As reported in the Portsmouth Times, on February 16th, 1884, “The remaining land-marks of Alexandria have at last passed away, and the spot where that early inhabited village once stood will only be marked by the crumbled freestone which will be strewn along the bank after the river abates.”
The last house to go was known at the time as the “Old Haunted Stone House,” because “many relics were hidden within its walls. It was shunned by all on account of … a skeleton having once been exhumed from over a cupboard under the second story floor.”
The Portsmouth Times concluded that “time had come” for the last vestiges of Alexandria and “on Monday [February 11th, 1884] it sank to the bottom of the river to be seen no more.”
“Alexandria Swept Away. Capt. Wm. R. Smith’s Residence en-route for the Gulf Stream and the old ‘Haunted’ Stone House crumbled beneath the water,” Portsmouth Times (16 February 1884).
Samuel R. Brown, “Scioto County” in the Western Gazetteer; Or Emigrant’s Directory: Containing a Geographical Description of the Western States and Territories (1817): p. 300.
Barbara Keyser Gargiulo, editor, “Early Reminiscences of Portsmouth,” in Scioto County, Ohio Newspaper Abstracts and Historical Reminiscences, 1866-1869 (Milford, Ohio: Little Miami Publishing Co., 2006).
David Gharky, The Life of David Gharky, as written by himself: Also, a Record of the Gharky Family; … with his Last Will and Testament (Portsmouth, Ohio: John Gharky, 1852).
History of Lower Scioto Valley, Ohio, Together with Sketches of Its Cities, Villages and Townships, Educational, Religious, Civil, Military, and Political history, Portraits of Prominent Persons, and Biographies of Representative Citizens (Chicago: Inter-state Publishing Co., 1884).
James Keyes, Pioneers of Scioto County: Being a Short Biographical Sketch of Some of the First Settlers of Scioto County, Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1880).
William Lucas, Sr., “Corruption in the execution of their offices,” Scioto Gazette (29 October 1803).
“Ohio Legislature: Extract from the Journal of the House of Representatives, April 8th, 1803,” Scioto Gazette (30 April 1803).
“The Pioneer Reviewed,” Portsmouth Times (30 August 1873).
“Toasts,” Freedman’s Journal & Chillicothe Advertiser (11 July 1800).