A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Cincinnati and the Fourth Estate — getting the news on the frontier through today

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

Getting the news on the frontier in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky was a challenge.

As settlers returned from visits back East or from the South, the latest information they relayed could be days or even weeks old.

Believe it or not, that was relatively fast when compared to news from overseas. Foreign news could take upwards of four and a half months to reach the Cincinnati area. This usually took one of two forms: word of mouth or old issues of newspapers that were dated by the time that they were printed. In this age of 24-hour news, it’s perhaps difficult for us to comprehend.

On November 9, 1793, an engraver who had moved to Cincinnati earlier in the year to be its postmaster, printed the first edition of the very first newspaper of Cincinnati, The Centinel of the Northwest Territory. Its motto was “Open to all parties; influenced by none.”

William Maxwell’s weekly newspaper consisted of four, 9.5×12-inch pages of news. This first issue’s news consisted of 15-month-old reports from France. There were only a handful of advertisements and editorials or local news. One could buy a weekly copy for seven cents or pay a yearly subscription for two dollars and fifty cents. Unfortunately for the populace of Cincinnati, the Centinel’s pages were soon filled with local accounts of loss of life from Indian attacks.

Prior to Maxwell’s newspaper, the nearest city with a paper was Lexington, Kentucky’s Lexington Gazette. As Cincinnati’s population increased, so did the Centinel’s circulation. In 1796, Maxwell used his wooden printing press to produce The Laws of the Territory of the United States North-West of the Ohio, the first book published in the Northwest Territory.

The masthead and first page of the Philanthropist, May 6, 1836, Volume 1, No. 19.

William Maxwell sold his newspaper to Edmund Freeman in that same year. Freeman moved the paper to Chillicothe in 1800 when the Territorial capital moved there. Cincinnati, however, was not left without a newspaper.

May 28th, 1799 saw the inaugural edition of the Western Spy and Hamilton Gazette. It was founded and printed by Joseph Carpenter.

As the century turned, the wait time for news decreased as well. President Thomas Jefferson’s address to Congress on December 15, 1802 was “quickly” reproduced in the Western Spy on January 5, 1803. Carpenter’s paper changed owners and names several times. The paper became political when known as The Whig, and again as The Advertiser. By September 1810, it was back in Carpenter’s hands and was known as the Western Spy. Joseph Carpenter’s second ownership did not last long. Carpenter was the Captain of an infantry company in the War of 1812. He died from exposure while marching with his troops in the winter of 1814. Two men by the name of Morgan and Williams kept the paper going through 1815, when it had 1,200 subscriptions.

The last of the “frontier” newspapers was the Liberty Hall and Cincinnati Mercury. This weekly newspaper was literally started in a log cabin. The Reverend John Browne began publishing on December 9, 1804.

Beginning in the loft of a log cabin at the southeast corner of Sycamore and Third Streets, the Reverend Browne produced the first large-size paper in the city, measuring 18×24 inches in size. Browne’s trouble was simple—with a larger paper comes the need to fill more space. According to the historian Henry A. Ford, “Apart from ‘leader’ and marriage notices, editor Browne plied the pen but little.”

To take up space, Browne enlarged the advertisements on the pages of his paper. By 1815, Browne had sold his newspaper, and the new owners increased the content and size. They also grew the circulation rate to more than 1,400 subscribers.

Also in that year, Liberty Hall merged with another newspaper, The Cincinnati Gazette. The newly merged Liberty Hall and Cincinnati Gazette became the first paper to have a more modern look to its pages, with such touches as columns and modern typeset.

By 1819, there were three newspapers in existence in Cincinnati: Liberty Hall and Cincinnati Gazette; Western Spy and Cincinnati General Advertiser; and The Inquisitor. The number of newspapers in the city would greatly increase through the 1820s, with 12 newspapers in existence by 1833.

The waves of immigration that had begun in the Queen City, as well as politics, contributed greatly to the growth of newspapers. In 1836, the first German-language paper was started, the Volksblatt. By the 1840s, it had over 1,400 subscribers, a testament to the popularity of newspapers and the large influx of German citizens.

The Chronicle, an 1836 paper, took on an anti-slavery tone and later was so opposed to alcohol that it refused to run advertisements for the product. Political newspapers supporting the parties of the day, Whigs and Democrats, also sprang up. The aforementioned Chronicle endorsed the Whig Party platform, and papers such as The Advertiser went with Democratic support. To muddy the water further, local foreign language newspapers got into politics. The Volksblatt turned Democratic and new German newspapers such as the Unabhaengige Presse also were Democratic. Another paper, The Times, stayed a neutral evening newspaper. Not to be left behind, religious denominations also began printing newspapers in the city. They included the Western Episcopal Observer, Catholic Telegraph, and Christian Advocate to name a few.

Early social activism appeared in the Queen City in the form of James G. Birney’s Philanthropist. Abolitionist James G. Birney arrived in the Cincinnati area in 1834. He originally started publication slightly upriver in New Richmond, Ohio. In 1836 he moved his paper to downtown Cincinnati. His controversial paper was not welcomed by many in the city.

Other newspaper editors treated him coldly and he was constantly under threat from those in the area who did not like his views. On July 14, 1836, a mob destroyed Birney’s printing office. Printing equipment was defaced or destroyed, and the place was left a mess. Undaunted, Birney continued to print his newspaper. Two weeks later, his office was again visited by an unruly mob. This time the destruction of his paper and press was complete, with part of his press being thrown in the river. Birney would later run for President of the United States of America in 1840 and again in 1844. Coincidentally, his running mate in 1844 was Clermont County’s Thomas Morris.

New publications continued to spring up in Cincinnati. At the end of the 1850s, there were 9 daily papers and 21 weekly papers. The Cincinnati Enquirer, still publishing today, arose out of the ashes of several newspapers before it. One 1867 observer of journalism here in Cincinnati, Atlantic Monthly’s James Parton, stated that we rivaled New York — that “The conditions of the press here are astonishingly rich.”

Those conditions remained astonishingly rich through the close of the 19th century. Even today, we have publications that have survived the test of time and technological changes, including the non-profit Northern Kentucky Tribune.

Our Rich History proudly celebrates its 175th weekly column today, with appropriately, a history of early Cincinnati newspapers.

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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