Athens is located in what was once the eastern region of the two major Native American mound-building groups, the Adena culture from c. 1000 B.C. to A.D. 200 and the Ohio Hopewell tradition, c. 300 B.C. to A.D. 700. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Shawnee, an Algonquian tribe, were the primary tribe of Native Americans living in what would become Athens County. No settlement is shown in the Athens area during the time immediately prior to the founding of Athens, according to a 1794 map by Thomas Kitchin. The first permanent European settlers arrived in Athens in 1797. In 1800, the town site was first surveyed and plotted, but it was not incorporated as a village until 1811. In the meantime, Ohio had become a state in 1803 and Ohio University was chartered in 1804, the first public institution of higher learning in the Northwest Territory. Previously part of Washington County, Ohio, Athens County was formed in 1805, named for the ancient center of learning, Athens, Greece. The establishment of Ohio University in Athens would mark the first federal endowment of an educational institution in the United States. In July 1787, the Congress of the Confederation gave to the Ohio Company of Associates “two townships of good land for the support of a literary institution” in the newly created Northwest Territory.
During The First Session of the Second Territorial General Assembly, held in Chillicothe from November 23, 1801 to January 23, 1802, the General Assembly passed an act establishing the “American Western University” at Athens. The act was approved by Arthur St. Clair, Governor of the Northwest Territory on January 9, 1802. However, no university with the name of American Western University would be established. Ohio became a state in 1803 and on February 18, 1804, the state legislature passes an act establishing the “Ohio University” in the town of Athens. Athens received city status in 1912 following the 1910 census showing the population had passed 5,000 residents, the requirement for city status in Ohio.