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Our Rich History: ‘Appearance of a Town of Some Respectability’ — part two on 18th-Century Cincinnati

Part two of a series.

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

The relationship between civilians and the military in Cincinnati was so bad that in May 1793, when General Anthony Wayne arrived with 1,000 troops to fight the Indians, he refused to garrison the fort. Instead, he set up a military camp near the mouth of Mill Creek, about a mile south and west of the fort. He called it “Hobson’s Choice.” Webster’s defines this as: “…the necessity of accepting one of two or more equally objectionable alternatives.”

Fort Washington, Cincinnati. Source: Cincinnati Views

Wayne justified his choice of campsite and name to his boss, Secretary of War Henry Knox, in a letter dated May 9, 1793, that Cincinnati was “. . .filled with ardent poison and Caitiff wretches to dispose of it…” That there was no good ground within the Miami Purchase for the army to camp “. . .except near some dirty Village.”

While Wayne may have had nothing but contempt for the village, his enlisted men found it a virtual paradise of “illicit” activities to take their mind off being on the edge of civilization. Despite Wayne’s best efforts, less than two days after arriving, men under his command managed to be drunk on duty.

Drunkenness was not only a common vice of soldiers garrisoned at Fort Washington, it was also financially lucrative to the many tavern owners in the village. Wayne was so taken aback by the drunkenness that was so pervasive of the soldiery when visiting the village that he banned all passes to it. Even locals going to the camp to sell their goods or produce were searched for alcohol. Eventually Wayne relented. But even then, he only allowed one enlisted man from each company to go to town at a time, and they had to be recommended by their commanding officers. Jail and the threat of the lash did little to quell the drunkenness.

General Anthony Wayne. Source: philalandmarks

By basically confining his troops to Hobson’s Choice, Wayne inadvertently contributed to the poor sanitary conditions in and around the camp. Trash, animal bones, and bodily waste littered the site. Even the parade ground was used as a trash dump. The most egregious violation of sanitation was the fact the location chosen for the camp was downstream from the army’s cattle yards and slaughterhouse. The banks of the Ohio near camp were not conducive for gathering water. In fact, the water was deemed unfit for use. The cattle yard and slaughterhouse were then moved downstream of the encampment, and outbreak of disease was thereby avoided.

Conditions in the village and fort were not much better, due to most settlers “forting up” after the slaughter of St. Clair’s troops in November 1791. After St. Clair’s Defeat, the second suffered by the U.S. Army at the hands of Ohio tribes, many newcomers, instead of settling on their purchased land, believed in safety in numbers and cloistered around the protectives forts at Columbia, Cincinnati, and North Bend.

Despite this effort, the depredations by local tribes continued to occur. Emboldened by beating the United States Army twice, warriors ventured into areas they might have normally avoided. Early settler Benjamin Van Cleve recalled: “The Indians had now become so daring as to skulk through the streets at night and through the gardens around Fort Washington.” Horses were stolen right outside the gates of Fort Washington.

Because of the close living arrangements, sanitation practices suffered. The inside of the fort would have been a mess of mud, animal waste, and trash, and foul puddles of water. Settler homes were just a few hundred yards from the fort. With everyone living so close together and in such conditions, it’s no wonder a smallpox epidemic swept rapidly through Cincinnati in 1791, killing nearly one-third of the population.

Cincinnati in 1800. Source: Heritage Village Museum

When looking at the settlement of Southwest Ohio through the lenses of today, we tend to see a romantic picture of noble settlers appearing in our minds. This was a rough place for anyone to live in during the first six years of Cincinnati’s existence. There were those of the American upper-class here, as is illustrated by Winthrop Sargent. But there were many more who came to this hardscrabble life, who were hardscrabble themselves.

Unlike Sargent and his ilk who had financial and professional mobility, these tenacious people, who were fond of fighting, whiskey, carousing, and the promise of a fresh start, stayed here and tamed the land. It was they who withstood the daily threat of death from Indian attacks, disease, starvation, and the elements. Perhaps the stress of this “captive” living, mixed with alcohol and fear, were cause for all the unpleasantness.

As new landowners, in a new part of the country, they ironically gave the small village of Cincinnati its gradual “respectability.” Rather than the gentrified aristocratic style of respectability, it was the respectability of being a person hardy enough to survive and flourish in a frontier town.

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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