Buffington Island is situated in the Ohio River near Ravenswood. Its first inhabitants, prehistoric Indians, favored the island for its unusually high elevation above the river. It first appeared in written records in the late 1700s under the name Amberson Island, probably from an association with the squatter John Amberson (or Emerson), whose attempts to establish a government for local settlers were ended by the use of American troops in 1785. The island’s permanent name derives from its first resident owner, Joel Buffington. In 1797, Buffington purchased the island, which is 150 acres and one and a half miles long. Tradition holds that the island was an Underground Railroad station.
During the Civil War, Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s daring 1863 raid across Indiana and Ohio came to an end at Buffington Island. To escape back across the Ohio, Morgan chose nearby Buffington’s Ford, one of the river’s finest crossings. Overtaken there by federal troops, local militia, and three U.S. Navy gunboats, on July 19 he turned and fought his pursuers on the Ohio mainland adjacent to the island. The Battle of Buffington Island scattered Morgan’s forces and spilled over onto the island when a number of his men crossed its head to reach the ford leading to the West Virginia shore. The deployment of the gunboats was the only naval action involving hostile fire ever to take place in West Virginia waters.
Buffington Island also served as the base of operations for the last of the Ohio River pirates, John Lockwood. He robbed vessels wrecked or stranded on the island’s treacherous shoals, a practice that ended in 1863 when he was arrested for murder. Buffington Island’s subsequent history has been quieter. Mostly it has been used for farming. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a popular picnic spot, and it entered the news in the late 1970s as one of four islands briefly misplaced into Ohio by a U.S. Geological Survey map. In 1993, Buffington Island’s preservation, long threatened by sand and gravel dredgers, was assured when it became part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
This Article was written by Ray Swick
Hayes, E. L. Illustrated Atlas of the Upper Ohio River and Valley from Pittsburgh, PA. to Cincinnati, OH. Philadelphia: Titus, Simmons & Titus, 1877.
Justice to Whom Justice is Due. Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, February 25, 1863.
Robinson, Bob. Shifts in Ohio River Start Paper War over Islands. Charleston Daily Mail, April 16, 1979.
Smith, Myron J. Jr. Gunboats at Buffington. West Virginia History, (Winter 1983).
Cite This Article
Swick, Ray "Buffington Island." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 20 January 2012. Web. 27 March 2017.