Athens is the county seat of Athens County, Ohio. Members of the Ohio Company of Associates sent the first settlers into the area in 1797. At first, the newcomers cleared and farmed their land and made no attempt to build a town. After more settlers arrived in 1798, local residents established Athens.
According to the federal government's requirements, the Ohio Company of Associates had to establish an institution of higher education within its land grant. The company leaders chose Athens as the site for the school that eventually became known as Ohio University. On February 18, 1804, the Ohio legislature approved an act, establishing Ohio University at Athens. Ohio University first offered classes in 1809. Originally, Ohio University offered more of a high school course of study than a full college education. The main reason for this was the lack of a skilled faculty. Rather than consisting of specialists in their respective fields, the instructors at Ohio University generally had a basic education in a wide variety of topics. In 1822, Ohio University began to offer a traditional college program. By 1886, the university had 496 graduates, with twenty-six men and eleven women then currently enrolled.
Despite Ohio University's presence, Athens grew relatively slowly. It became the county seat in 1805. As late as 1840, the community had only 710 residents. The town had three churches and eleven stores to meet the residents' needs. Over the next forty years, Athens' population increased to 2,457 residents. In 1880, Athens was thriving town with six churches, three newspapers, and two banking institutions. During the twentieth century, Athens continued to grow and reached a population of 21,300 people in 2000. Ohio University, with an enrollment of more than twenty-eight thousand students and 276 different undergraduate degree programs, was the city's largest employer in 2002.