The word Chillicothe comes from the Shawnee Cha-la-gaw-tha. The Shawnee people used this term as a name for the settlement that was home to their principal leader--as Chillicothe literally means "principal town." Many Chillicothes were settled and later moved, including communities near Frankfort and Piqua, Ohio, as well as just north of present day Chillicothe in Hopeton. The Shawnee and their ancestors lived and sustained themselves and their culture for thousands of years on this land prior to European contact.
Before the arrival of the Shawnee people, modern Chillicothe was the center of the ancient Hopewell tradition, which flourished from 200 BC until 500 AD. This Amerindian culture had trade routes extending to the Rocky Mountains. They built earthen mounds for ceremonial and burial purposes throughout the Scioto and Ohio River valleys, many of which are still visible and sacred to this day.
Until the Seven Years War or "French and Indian War" ended in 1763, the Ohio valley was a part of the French territory of Louisiana. Following the British victory, France ceded its North American possessions from Québec City to New Orleans, and the region west of the Ohio river became an Indian territory not open to European settlement.
It wasn't until after the American Revolution and the incorporation of the Northwest Territory that Ohio received significant amounts of European settlement. In 1796, Nathaniel Massie laid out the town on the Scioto River. Massie, a Virginian, originally laid 456 lots on his own land to establish Chillicothe, promising free plots to the first 100 settlers. Chillicothe became the center of political life in the Northwest Territory, attracting prominent politicians and later Governors of Ohio; Thomas Worthington and Edward Tiffin. In 1800, Chillicothe became the capital of the Northwest Territory and in 1802, hosted the Ohio Constitutional Convention, later becoming the first capital of Ohio at statehood in 1803.
Ohio's first Statehouse (1803)
Now the site of the Ross County Courthouse
Chillicothe remained Ohio's capital until 1810, when it was briefly moved to Zanesville, only to return to Chillicothe two years later. In 1816, however, the capital of Ohio was moved permanently to Columbus in order to be closer to the geographic center of the state.
Despite losing its position as the seat of Ohio's government, Chillicothe's economy did not slow down. Throughout the 19th century, Chillicothe grew off of its agricultural backbone to become an industrial city. In 1831, the Ohio and Erie Canal connected Chillicothe to the manufacturing economy of the great lakes region, whilst making its connection to the Mississippi River watershed more robust and efficient. In 1852, the British-financed Cincinnati and Marietta railroad connected Chillicothe to the ever expanding US railway network, bringing new capital--and people--to the region.
The First World War contributed greatly to Chillicothe's growth. In 1917, the United States government established Camp Sherman northwest of town along the banks of the Scioto River. Seemingly overnight, Chillicothe's population exploded from around 16,000 to 60,000. The economic capital brought in by Camp Sherman helped grow and strengthen Chillicothe's economy--bringing theatres, restaurants, taverns, and more.
Camp Sherman in September of 1917 | Library of Congress
The Ohio and Erie canal closed in 1907 after a flood damaged it beyond repair. In 1921, Camp Sherman was officially decommissioned. In 1981, Chillicothe officially lost its connection to the continental passenger rail network after decades of decline when Amtrak discontinued its Shenandoah service between Cincinnati and Washington.
Fire Insurance Map from 1900, depicting the location of the Ohio and Erie Canal as well as a railway line in Downtown Chillicothe | Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, Sanborn Maps Collection.
Despite many setbacks, Chillicothe and the surrounding region continue to thrive. Old industries such as papermaking are still an important part of the city's economy, while newer endeavors like truck manufacturing, medical services, hospitality, and more propel the City of Chillicothe into a future just as prosperous and exciting as its past.
- Click here to view a historical timeline of Chillicothe.
- Visit the following links to discover more of our rich history:
- To view the locations of several historical sites, please visit the Amenity Map.