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Our Rich History: Ohio Valley land in demand; four flags flew over Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky

By Steve Preston
Special to the NKyTribune

Did you know that Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have been considered French, British, Québécois, and United States territory?  Throughout American history, the Ohio Valley was a much-desired area of land.

René-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle (1643-1687). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

If the Ohio Valley was the heart of the Midwest, then the river systems draining to Lake Erie and the Ohio River were its arteries.  Fertile soil, plentiful water, navigable rivers and access to regions west and south, such as St. Louis and New Orleans, made our region quite sought after by European powers colonizing North America.

As far back as 1669, French explorer, René-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle (1643-1687), floated down the Ohio River, making it as far as present-day Louisville.  He claimed the land on both sides for the French crown.  La Salle and his group found the area populated by native peoples willing to trade furs for French trade goods.  With furs such as beaver and deer in high demand back in Europe, French traders grew wealthy.

For about the next 50 years, the French enjoyed exclusive trade with Ohio Valley Native Americans. Their good relationship stemmed from seeking only furs and trade networks.  Land was not a priority to the French.  The only land occupied by the French west of Lake Erie was for trading posts.  French and Indian relations were at their apex during this time.  Many French traders lived with the tribes they traded with, going so far as to marry Indian women to ensure a stronger trading bond.  This period of good feelings would soon end with the emergence of another suitor for the attention of the Ohio Valley tribes.

The British had made their way over the Allegheny Mountains as early as the 1720s, reaching the eastern edge of the Ohio Valley.  As more settlers came over the Alleghenies, the frontier and fur trade was pushed farther west into the Eastern Ohio Valley.  Pennsylvanian traders saw how lucrative the Ohio fur trade was to the French and sought out Ohio tribes as trading partners.  The British, led by the colony of Pennsylvania, began encroaching on what had been an exclusively French market and territory.

Lead Plate dating from the 1749 expedition of Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville. Source: Virginia History.org (click to enlarge).

Supply lines for the British and colonial traders were much shorter, and by comparison, made them able to provide greater amounts of quality goods at much better prices than did the French.  Seduced by better quality trade goods at a better price, tribes in the interior of the Ohio Valley began to gravitate eastward towards the English trading posts.  This did not sit well with French traders or the French Royalty.

In an effort to maintain their monopoly on the Ohio Valley fur trade and its sphere of influence, Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville (1693-1759) was ordered by the French government in Canada to visit the Ohio tribes, chastise those who were wavering from French influence and trade, drive out British traders, and physically mark the boundaries of French territory in the Ohio Valley.  Céloron traveled south from Lake Erie and proceeded down the Ohio River.  He and a small force of French troops stopped at Indian villages along the Ohio River checking for fealty.  The group was also burying lead plates and nailing copper sheets to trees at the mouths of all the major tributaries to the Ohio.  These lead plates and copper sheets informed whomever stumbled upon them that they were in territory claimed by the French Crown.

The Quebec Act of 1774 put what would be the state of Ohio under its third flag of influence.

Celeron and his little group buried the last lead plate at the mouth of the Great Miami River, downriver from present-day Cincinnati.  French control of the Ohio Valley would come to an end with their defeat at the hands of the British in the French and Indian War, 1754-1763.

At the end of the French and Indian War, the Ohio Valley came under the control of the British Crown.  With the royal coffers empty, the crown had no way to pay soldiers needed to protect the settlers who began pouring over the Appalachian Mountains into the newly won territory.  Hungry for land, not furs, the British colonists did not enjoy the same relationship with the Ohio tribes as the French had.

Native Americans were wary of these people from over the mountains who seemed intent on taking their land.  Conflicts arose between them. Raiding parties from each side began a cycle of conflicts that forced the British Crown to forbid settlement of the colonies beyond the Appalachian Mountains.  This was attempted by the Proclamation of 1763.

The Proclamation of 1763 did little to stop conflict and illegal settlement in the Ohio country.  The fertile lands of the Ohio were too tempting to pass up.  By 1774 the Crown and Parliament were at their wit’s end to avoid conflict between settlers and Native Americans.  In an audacious move that became known collectively as the Intolerable Acts to colonial Americans, Great Britain moved to stop the frontier slaughter and made the Ohio Valley an Indian Reserve, incorporating it and other future midwestern states into the British Province of Quebec.  The Quebec Act of 1774 put what would be the state of Ohio under its third flag of influence.

The Ohio Valley’s addition to the Province of Quebec was one of many reasons the colonies declared independence from Great Britain.  The loss of these fertile lands to settlement was as intolerable as the closing of Boston Harbor to many land speculators back East, such as Ben Franklin and George Washington.  As those embattled farmers stood at Lexington and Concord fighting for their principles and freedom, others in Pennsylvania and Virginia joined the cause with possibly other reasons as well, namely land and the right to settle it.

The Colonies’ victory over the British in the American Revolutionary War not only gave them their independence, it also doubled the size of the original thirteen colonies.  The Ohio Valley now was part of the sovereign territory of the United States of America.  The “Old Northwest Territory” was now open to settlement, regardless of what the native inhabitants thought.  The newly formed country found itself broke financially but rich in land.

Virginia Military District and U.S. Military Survey

With its currency nearly worthless, the United States used land grants as a preferred form of payment to the veterans of the recent war.  Our local history reflects this.  The tract of land east of the Little Miami River that encompasses all or parts of 23 Ohio counties, including Hamilton (part), Clermont, and Warren, was the Virginia Military District.  These lands were awarded to Virginians who fought in the Revolution.  Adjacent to this tract of land was the United States Military Survey.  This land was set aside by the Federal Government for the same purpose.  That tract made up an additional 12 Ohio counties.

Despite the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the ownership of the Ohio Valley was still highly in question.  As many as five Native American tribes called this area home, Wyandotte, Delaware, Mingo, Miami, and Shawnee.  None of these tribes were defeated in the American Revolution, and they were very much willing to defend the area from settlement.  The United States spent the first half of the 1790s trying to claim the Ohio Valley from a confederacy of Native Americans intent on keeping out settlers.  The Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794) and subsequent Treaty of Greenville (1795) allowed the United States to resume settlement of the area.

The Ohio Valley was a valuable prize during colonization and early settlement—so much so that several wars were fought over it by three different countries and indigenous peoples.  The French, British, Native American, British again in 1812, and Americans all fought for possession of the land.  The area changed hands several times.  Lead plates were buried, royal flags flown and battles fought to maintain possession of this wonderful land we all call home.

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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