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Our Rich History: Griffin Yeatman’s Square and Compass Tavern, the heart of early Cincinnati

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

Griffin Yeatman arrived in Cincinnati on June 20, 1793. He was born on March 8, 1770, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. From this genteel area of the Northern Neck of Virginia, birthplace of George Washington, came 23-year-old Yeatman to the fledgling frontier town of Cincinnati.

When he arrived, he found eight dirt streets lined with 20-30 log cabins, 30 stores, and nine taverns. Just to the east of the hamlet was Fort Washington, the military installation charged with the protection of the settlers. Griffin Yeatman, and his business, would be at the center of events as Cincinnati became the “Queen City.”

Newcom Tavern (1796) Carillon Historical Park, Dayton, Ohio, would have been similar to Yeatmen’s Tavern. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Yeatman purchased land adjacent to the public landing and on the banks of the Ohio River built the first large tavern in Cincinnati. Located on the northeast corner of Front and Sycamore Streets, he called it the Square and Compass. Yeatman’s tavern, replete with hardware from the East Coast, was a two-story log structure consisting of tap-room, dining hall, ballroom, and rooms upstairs for meetings. A wooden sidewalk out front kept the river mud at bay. A stable and courtyard were also part of the tavern. One of the first buildings to be seen by those coming by boat, it proved economically advantageous. Its location helped to make it a popular meeting place for locals and soldiers on pass.

Because of its location, size, and popularity, Yeatman’s Square and Compass became the center of Cincinnati socially and civically. When citizens wanted to meet, they almost always met at Square and Compass. A rye whiskey by the name of “Old Monongahela” was a local favorite of customers. Townspeople gathered here for celebrations such as the Fourth of July. However, these dinners were attended only by members of the same political party once Griffin Yeatman entered politics. Citizens often gathered there to discuss local matters.

One of the more exciting meetings at Yeatman’s tavern occurred in March 1801. At this particular meeting, the residents discussed the use of a new invention capable of allowing boats to go against the river current using steam engines. Yeatman’s courtyard was also the scene of the first theater performance in Ohio.

As the influx of new people to Cincinnati increased, so did the size of Yeatman’s investment. By 1800, he had expanded his tavern to include the “Hotel de Ville” or “Yeatman’s Inn.” His establishment was not just the favorites of locals. Prominent figures visited as well, including General Andrew Jackson, Vice President Aaron Burr, The Marquis de Lafayette, and Territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair.

Yeatman’s signature on an 1824 land deed. (Photo by Steve Preston)

Civically speaking, the Square and Compass and Griffin Yeatman became vital to early Cincinnati. It was the location for Cincinnati’s first post office. It was a makeshift hospital; it even housed an early Cincinnati museum. More importantly, a room in the upstairs of the tavern served as the meeting place for the first territorial legislature. In 1802 the tavern was the site of the first session of the territory’s Supreme Court. Griffin Yeatman entered politics. He served in several political offices, such as Justice of the Peace and County Clerk. He is most well-known for serving 27 years as the Hamilton County Recorder.

Yeatman would marry twice as a resident of Cincinnati. First, he married Jane Winton in 1795. With her passing in 1808, he married her sister Margaret in 1814. Griffin Yeatman died in 1849 at the age of 79. He was well-respected in the community and has not been forgotten. He was the first initiate of the N.C. Harmony Masonic Lodge of Cincinnati. In fact, the Yeatman Masonic Lodge is named after him. The park and area where his inn was located are known today as Yeatman’s Cove Park. The Hamilton County Recorder’s office commemorates Yeatman with the “Griffin Yeatman Historical Achievement Award.” This award recognizes excellence in historical preservation, research and other actions dealing with Hamilton County History.

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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One Comment

  1. Bonnie Jeanne Speeg says:

    Perfect paper of Yeatman history. Thanks for being a part of Heritage Village and studying early Cincinnati history.

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