Editor’s Note: Each Wednesday for 12 weeks The Daily Sentinel will be publishing articles of Township Tales and Tidbits as told at the recent Chester Shade Historical Association Banquet. This is the second in the series of articles.
LETART TWP. — Imagine floating down the Ohio River in the late 1600’s-on either side are tall virgin trees, scattered through the river are islands and sand bars. The journey has been relatively easy, and until suddenly, there is an obstacle in the river.
Depending on rainfall, the water could be high and the juncture easier to navigate, or low, and almost impossible to maneuver. You would have just encountered rapids, or what would become known as LeTort’s Rapids.
Winter usually found the river sufficiently frozen to allow the safe passage of people, or even support horses and wagons.
Native Americans had inhabited the Ohio Valley and traveled the river they named Ohio, meaning beautiful river, for thousands of years before French Trappers and Indian Traders found their way to the the French area. The French called the river La Bell Riverian, which also means beautiful river.
After the American Revolution, the newly formed United States gained control of the area known as the Northwest Territory. Governments and boundaries were established to put the regions on a path to statehood. The area that would become the state of Ohio included Southern Ohio, and Letart Township was formed in 1803 as part of Gallia County. In 1819, the township was reallocated to form part of Meigs.
The towns of Apple Grove, Antiquity, and Letart Falls were established along the river, and farming became the leading industry, along with riverboat commerce and construction.
The town of Letart Falls was established in 1796, so it follows that the township was named after the town, but the origin of the name Letart has long been a mystery.
Local legend states someone found a dead body at the “falls” with the name LeTart or Letart tattooed on his arm, or scratched on a rock by his body, but is there more to the story?
Let’s explore a few other theories: the first about a man of French descent who was an Indian Trader in the Northwest Territory named James LeTort.
His father Jacques, a fresh Huguenot, came to American in 1686 along with James’ mother Anne. The couple became Indian Traders, and James received his license in 1713.
According to the “History of the Indian Village and Place Names”, he was known as “one of the first white men to enter the great wilderness beyond the mountains.”
The name LeTort became known in the western regions and numerous places in Ohio are named for him. Documents show he traveled as far west as the Miami River, so it might follow that he also found his way to the Ohio River, and what is now Letart Falls.
The falls, or rapids in what is now Letart Township were originally named LeTort’s Rapids and the island above LeTort’s Island on early journals and maps. As more explorers came west, the rapids became a landmark for navigation on the Ohio River. Depending on water levels, it was reported as either hazardous or navigable, but a definite impediment to river travel.
The author of “The Allegheny River” writes that in 1727 the impediment in the river was known as Letart’s Rapids, and as LeTart’s Falls on Evans Maps 1755, so we know that the name was used very early in the areas’ history.
The name LeTort seems to have morphed into LeTart and then Letart as the English claimed and settled the area, as noted on later maps.
Lewis and Clark passed the area on Sept. 18, 1807, and described Letart’s Rapids in their journal: “the decent was four feet in 250 yards”.
If James LeTort didn’t visit the area, why were the rapids and island named for him?
Another theory involves the “Rock of Antiquity”. This large rock, just down river from the Rapids, was marked with figures and inscriptions in a “language not English”, according to early settlers. They named their settlement Antiquity after the rock.
Dr. Fuller Elliot, a man of great learning in the Letart area, thought the markings were made by the Frenchmen who came down the river after the evacuation of Fort Duquesne, (Pittsburgh) in 1758, as the date on the rock seems to coincide with the evacuation.
Another suggestion for the markings on the rock is that they were made by a Canadian expedition force. The Governor of Canada sent a party in 1748 to mark areas along the Ohio River that were claimed by France, fearing British encroachment.
Perhaps there was a LeTort in one of the two parties who was found dead at the falls or wrote his name on the rock or upriver at the Rapids or decided to stay and founded a town.
Without additional documentation, the definitive source of the name will remain a mystery, but its always fun to research and speculate, and to add a Tidbit or Tale to the conversation.
The information on Letart Township was written, researched and presented at the Chester Shade Historical Association Banquet by Loran Hart.