One can’t—or at least, shouldn’t—visit the Ohio River without a ride on a riverboat. After a mid-morning visit to Tim Horton’s (yes, they have those in Parkersburg), we made our way back upstream to Marietta, Ohio: the first permanent American settlement in the Northwest Territory, and home of the Valley Gem sternwheeler. It took us on a 1½-hour cruise from its dock on the Muskingum River, around Buckley Island and back, 7 or 8 miles altogether.
The captain gave some educational commentary for the first 20 minutes of the journey. Perhaps the most interesting comment he made concerned the jurisdiction of the river. In most cases where a river or lake divides two countries or states, the boundary runs down the middle. The Ohio River is different: from the point it leaves Pennsylvania until it joins the Mississippi (at the triple point between Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri), the entire river—across to the low water mark on the opposite side—is within West Virginia or Kentucky.
The story of how this came to be goes back centuries. As noted by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History (who knew?), it starts with the Second Charter of Virginia in 1609, which defined the colony’s territory from a specific point on the Atlantic coast “up into the Land throughout from Sea to Sea, West and Northwest …” which, as we now know, is quite a lot! In 1784, at the request of congress, Virginia conveyed to the United States “… all right, title and claim, as well of soil as of jurisdiction, which the said commonwealth hath to the territory or tract of country within the limits of the Virginia charter, situate, lying, and being, to the northwest of the river Ohio…”. Chief Justice John Marshall (who held that post from 1801-35) interpreted this as follows:
“When a great river is the boundary between two nations or states, if the original property is in neither, and there be no convention respecting it, each holds to the middle of the stream. But when, as in this case, one state is the original proprietor, and grants the territory on one side only, it retains the river within its own domain, and the newly-created state extends to the river only.”
Thus, the state of Ohio does not include the river for which it is named.