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Curious Cbus: Are Ohio's Highways Based On American Indian Trails?

Map depicting American Indian trails in Ohio from the book "Archeological Atlas of Ohio," by William C. Mills
Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society
Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Map depicting American Indian trails in Ohio from the book "Archeological Atlas of Ohio," by William C. Mills, 1914.

Before Europeans settled here, Ohio was home to many different indigenous cultures. From the Adena and Hopewell people, who constructed massive earthworks such as the Serpent Mound, to the Lenape or Delaware people, who were forced from their lands on the East Coast by expanding colonies.

That history inspired Karen Wolford to ask WOSU's Curious Cbus project if the highways we drive in Ohio today follow the same path as American Indian trails from centuries ago.

The short answer is yes. Many of Ohio’s major roadways lie on American Indian trails that were later used by white settlers.

Renowned Ohio Archaeologist William C. Mills stated the fact plainly in his 1914 publication "Archeological Atlas of Ohio."

“The importance of the aboriginal trails of Ohio to the settlement and development of the state, can hardly be overestimated," Mills wrote.

Before Europeans arrived, many American Indian trails crisscrossed the state, but one particularly significant trail cut a north-south path directly through the heart of present-day Columbus.

Much of what we call U.S. Route 23 was once known as the the Scioto Trail, which was the great highway of the Shawnee Tribe. From the fishing waters of Sandusky Bay and Lake Erie, it led south along the Scioto River to present-day Portsmouth. From there, crossing the Ohio River gave access to the hunting grounds of Kentucky.
There the route connected with another American Indian trail known as the Warrior’s Path. Together, they were among the most traveled routes of the pioneer days.

One famous American frontiersman who knew the trail well was Daniel Boone. He was captured by the Shawnee in 1778 in Kentucky. They brought him north into Ohio, where he lived with the tribe for several months before escaping to warn settlers of an imminent attack.

After the Revolutionary War, white settlers used the trail to travel north from Portsmouth. In 1796, land surveyor Nathaniel Massie and a small band of settlers founded the town of Chillicothe, which would become Ohio’s first capital city.

Settlements in Franklinton and Worthington soon followed. In the next couple decades, the cities of Circleville, Columbus and Delaware were founded along the trail.

Illustration of Shawnee men with a white captive from "Ohio Indian Trails," by Frank N. Wilcox, 1933.
Credit Frank N. Wilcox / archive.org
Illustration of Shawnee men with a white captive from "Ohio Indian Trails," by Frank N. Wilcox, 1933.

In the 1820s, Colonel James Kilborne, the founder of Worthington and a representative in the Ohio General Assembly, lobbied heavily for a proper road to connect Columbus to Lake Erie. The legislature approved the creation of the Columbus & Sandusky Turnpike Company to build a highway in 1826.

The 106-mile long turnpike was open for business in 1834. People who paid a toll might have expected a gravel road, but the turnpike was a compacted clay construction that often became a muddy mess in the rain.

In protest, disgruntled travelers reportedly destroyed the tollgates on more than one occasion. The complaints grew so strong that the company’s charter was revoked in 1843.

Learning from those mistakes, the Columbus and Portsmouth Turnpike was constructed in 1847 out of gravel, completing a route that led from the Ohio River to Lake Erie.

In the early 1900s, as automobiles became more and more popular, Ohio invested in its highway system, paving roads and adding clearly marked lanes. At that time, drivers could zoom up and down the state at 35 miles per hour without breaking the speed limit.

In 1926, the road was incorporated into the United States Numbered Highway System and became U.S. Highway 23.

By that time, the route changed slightly to open up travel north into Michigan, but other than that, US-23 is nearly identical to the trail American Indians blazed centuries ago.

Are you curious about Columbus, its history or its people? Submit your question below.

Michael De Bonis develops and produces digital content including podcasts, videos, and news stories. He is also the editor of WOSU's award-winning Curious Cbus project. He moved to Columbus in 2012 to work as the producer of All Sides with Ann Fisher, the live news talk show on 89.7 NPR News.