Two boys swimming in 1798 discovered a relic that recalled a time not long past when two countries contended for ownership of the Ohio country. The boys, swimming and playing at the mouth of the Muskingum River where it enters the Ohio at Marietta, found a lead plate projecting from an eroded bank. They took it home and had melted some of it down to make bullets before a local historian heard about the find and rescued what remained. That plate is now in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society
The lead plate had been buried in 1749 by Frenchmen under the leadership of Capt. Pierre Joseph de Céloron de Blainville. The Marquis de la Galissoniere, governor-general of New France, commissioned Blainville to lead an expedition to the Ohio Valley, burying along the way engraved lead plates reaffirming French ownership of the entire Ohio River drainage and ordering English traders to leave French soil. The plates included blank places to be engraved in the field with the date and location. The plate buried at the mouth of the Muskingum River, on the downstream point of land at the river’s mouth, was the fifth plate buried by the expedition.
Blainville left Montreal with 272 men on June 15, 1749, ascended the St. Lawrence to Lake Ontario, followed Ontario’s southern shore to the mouth of the Niagara River, and reached Fort Niagara (then a French post) on July 6. That post had been erected more than 70 years earlier. They began the portage around Niagara Falls on July 7 and relaunched their canoes above the falls just above the mouth of Buffalo Creek, site of present Buffalo, N.Y. They followed the south shore of Lake Erie about 60 miles and on July 16 went upstream on Rivere aux Pommes (Apple River) but quickly had to portage. The terrain rose from Lake Erie to 1,000 feet above the level of the lake over the divide between the Great Lakes and Ohio drainage. They completed the five-mile portage on July 22, when they reached the head of Lake Chautauqua. They paddled down Lake Chautauqua, out Chautauqua Creek, to Cassadega Creek and to Conewango Creek. They buried the first plate on July 28 along the Conewango. That plate has never been found.
They reached the Allegheny River, which the Indians and the French considered the upper Ohio, on July 29 at present Warren, Pa. (The Senecas still consider the Allegheny the upper Ohio.) They buried the second plate opposite the Conewango Creek mouth. That plate too has never been found. They buried the third plate along the Allegheny nine miles below French Creek, where a large rock bore ancient pictographic writing. Historians have never found this plate despite an accurate description of the site. They buried the fourth plate on Aug. 13 near the mouth of Wheeling Creek at present Wheeling, W.Va., and it has never been found, being perhaps buried under a railroad building. Next was the future site of Marietta, and they buried the sixth plate on Aug. 18 at the mouth of the Kanawha, site of present Point Pleasant, W.Va. A boy digging for worms for bait found this plate in September 1846. Two copies were made, but a stranger took the original, which has disappeared. They buried the seventh and final plate at the mouth of the Great Miami River near present Cincinnati, and that too has never been found.
They traveled upstream on the Great Miami to Pickawillany, the principal village of the Miami Indians, reaching it on Sept. 12. English traders were firmly established at that town, and the French left quickly, feeling threatened by the Indians. They portaged to the St. Marys River and followed it to its confluence with the St. Joseph River, which formed the Maumee at present Fort Wayne, Ind. The French Fort Miamis stood at that junction, but the garrison was sick, so they camped outside and left soon after, reaching Maumee Bay and Lake Erie on Oct. 2. They paddled to Detroit (Fort Ponchartrain) on Oct. 6, followed the north shore of Lake Erie to the Niagara River, portaged, reached Fort Frontenac at the mouth of Lake Ontario on Nov. 3 and returned to Montreal on Nov. 10 after 148 days and about 2,400 miles.
It was an impressive expedition, but it did nothing to further French claims, and less than two decades later those claims were forever forfeit after the British defeated the French in the French and Indian War, part of the greater worldwide conflict called the Seven Years’ War.
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