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Our Rich History: 18th Century Cincinnati — ‘The Appearance of a Town of Some Respectability’

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

Cincinnati in its early years was not the cultured “Queen City” we know today. It was the tip of the spear in regards to the settlement of Ohio and the Old Northwest. With the 1783 signing of the Treaty of Paris, America won her independence and doubled in size.

John Cleves Symmes (Source: Charles Greve, Centennial History of Cincinnati (Chicago, IL: Biographical Publishing Co., 1904), p. 304)

The fledgling United States also increased her population, albeit it was an increase of Native-American tribes unhappy with Euro-American encroachment on their land. This included many upset and upended tribes in the Ohio River valley. As a result of this encroachment, open hostility resulted, with back-and-forth raids between settlers and warriors.

The newly independent country did not have a large enough military to protect the settlers flooding over the Appalachian Mountains. Josiah Harmar, Commander of the First Infantry Regiment, the only regular army unit in existence, had only a little over 300 soldiers at his disposal to protect the whole of the Northwest Territory, some 260,000 square miles. This area encompassed the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Within those 260,000 square miles were also numerous tribes of Native Americans who mostly sided with the British and still received aid from them. These same tribes never signed the Treaty of Paris, ending their war with the colonies. In their minds, they ceded no land to anyone, nor were they “conquered.”

John Cleves Symmes, original owner of all the land in the Miami Purchase including Cincinnati, had hoped to make North Bend a major port city on the Ohio River. He purposely picked out and kept the land for his own residence, believing it was the best site for a settlement. The United States Military had other ideas.

North Bend blockhouse. (Source: Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Ohio. Cincinnati, OH: C.J. Krehbiel & Co., Vol. 1, p. 862.)

In an effort to adequately defend the three settlements of Columbia, Cincinnati, and North Bend, plus keep watch on the Licking River, Major Doughty of the First Regiment of the United States Army decided that the third terrace of land up from the Ohio River, in present day downtown Cincinnati, would be the “most proper position.” This did not sit well with Symmes. By building Fort Washington in this location, the military assured that the center of Southwestern Ohio would be Cincinnati. Symmes preferred the location of North Bend and campaigned vigorously for new settlers to his settlement.

The construction of the fort seemed to spur settlement of the area first called “Losantiville” — a mishmash of Latin, Greek, and French that was supposed to mean “city opposite the Licking River.” Territorial Governor, Arthur St. Clair, hated the name. In 1790 he arrived to make the town the seat of government for Hamilton County, and he changed the settlement’s name to Cincinnati in honor of the Society of Cincinnati, to which he and most revolutionary war officers belonged.

By November of 1790, even Symmes had to admit that Cincinnati was growing more quickly than his settlement at North Bend. In a November 4, 1790 letter, Symmes wrote that “the advantage is prodigious which this town [Cincinnati] is gaining over North Bend…” He goes on to describe Cincinnati as having “upwards of forty framed and hewed-log two story houses…” And that it “…assumes the appearance of a town of some respectability. . .”

Fort Washington, Cincinnati. (Source: Charles Cist, Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1851. Cincinnati: Wm. H. Moore & Co., 1852, opposite p. 44.)

The first settlers to the area were always under threat of Indian attack. In 1790, the population of what would become the Queen City consisted of no more than 250 people. Of the 40 buildings mentioned by Symmes, at least nine of them were taverns.

The main feature of the small village was the whitewashed walls and blockhouses of Fort Washington. It was garrisoned by a small force of soldiers, that endured a love/hate relationship with the city’s inhabitants. Alternating between drinking in public establishments and fighting the public in those same taverns, the only uniting factors of many of the soldiers were alcohol and the threat of annihilation by marauding bands of Indians. Indians prowled the city at night, even stealing horses tied up to the fort. It was so dangerous that churchgoers were fined for not bringing a firearm to services. Kentuckians derisively called the area the “Miami Slaughterhouse.”

The ground that would become Cincinnati was only grudgingly given up by the Shawnee in the 1786 Treaty of Fort Finney, also known as the Treaty at the Mouth of the Great Miami.

Arthur St. Clair (Source: Ohio History Central)

George Rogers Clark, Richard Butler and Samuel Parson essentially coerced the area Shawnee to sign this treaty or be destroyed by the United States Army. Most Shawnee stayed away from the proceedings. Those who signed did so out of fear. Despite the dubious nature of this treaty, a fragile peace held. Still the settlement was not safe from violence…from Indian, soldier, or settler alike.

Frontier towns such as early Cincinnati were filled with two types of people. There were those who were affluent, such as former officers of the American Revolution who were given large tracts of land for their service. Some, like John Cleves Symmes, were favored by the fledgling government and were able to purchase large quantities of land for resale at a profit.

Below these gentlemen and speculators were those who were escaping the yoke of a tough life back East. The promise of affordable land and a fresh start was quite attractive to those trapped back East seeking upward mobility. While everyone knew their social place in much of the “genteel” East, here on the frontier everyone was equal, and land was available to anyone who had the cash or a land grant. Cultures soon clashed. This clash is no better represented than in the interactions of Winthrop Sargent, Northwest Territory Secretary, and the enlisted men of the fort and the townspeople.

Winthrop Sargent was the product of upper-class New England stock. He attended Harvard University and rose steadily through the officer ranks in the Continental Army. After the war, he helped survey land in the eastern part of Ohio. In 1787, he became secretary of the Ohio Company, a group set up for the sale and settlement of eastern Ohio. Later that same year, he was appointed Secretary of the Northwest Territory by Congress. When the Territory Governor, Arthur St. Clair, was away, the Secretary was acting governor. He lamented that the citizens of Cincinnati were “licentious” and “extremely debauched.”

Winthrop Sargent (Source: Ohio Pix )

Sargent is described as “cold and arrogant” and “despised by the rank and file.” He did little to improve his relationship with either when, in 1790, he issued a proclamation banning “the Sale of spiritous and intoxicating liquors to soldiers…” Sargent gave an almost incredulous reason for this proclamation, stating it was “…to prevent selling or pawning of their Arms, Clothing or Accoutrements…” Sargent went on to ask the local civilian authorities to regulate the numerous taverns and houses of ill-repute. These businesses were plentiful in the frontier town, and they profited greatly from the soldiers at the fort. Not surprisingly, nothing was done to regulate business.

In a move that proved extremely unpopular with the local inhabitants, Sargent found himself on the wrong side of a white versus Indian conflict. Native-American raids had reduced the people of the village to hating any Indian. So, when a rumor spread through town that some peaceful Indians camping nearby held a white captive, the town wanted payback. Though the rumor was unsubstantiated, an unruly, drunken mob attacked the Native-American group, injuring several seriously. Sargent demanded that the mob disperse and ordered soldiers to stand guard at the Indian campsite. While he was still tending to the Indians, the seething crowd broke into his home and shot two holes above his bed as a message. No witnesses to the event could be found, and the newspapers began to attack him for his policies.

While garrisoned at Fort Washington, a Lieutenant Pastern was involved in a court case. The verdict went against him. He and 30 enlisted men set about beating the lawyer and bystanders, causing a near riot in the streets. The soldiers’ violent nature was not just exercised against the citizenry but also against each other. Northwest Territory Secretary and military officer, Winthrop Sargent, was so despised by his own men that his home was the subject of artillery practice while he was away. While much of this might be explained by the daily wear of having to live in such close proximity to each other for so long, still it’s obvious that early Cincinnati was not for the faint of heart.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

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