Selected Papers From The 1989 And 1990 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences
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The History of Fort Washington at Cincinnati, Ohio: A Case Study
James E. Westheider
University of Cincinnati

Fort Washington at Cincinnati, Ohio, was one of the more important frontier fortifications of its day. For more than a dozen years, from 1789 to 1804, it served as "the Pentagon, the capitol, and the White House of the West." [1] From its southeastern blockhouse, Arthur St. Clair transacted his official duties as governor of the Northwest Territory. Through its gates marched the regulars and militia who would subdue the Ohio country and would open it to settlement. It was a structure of such "superior excellence," that Josiah Harmar "thought proper to honor it with the name Fort Washington." [2]

The series of events culminating in the fort's construction began, not in Ohio, but rather in Trenton, New Jersey. There, on November 26, 1787, Judge John Cleves Symmes issued "To the Respectable Public" a pamphlet advertising the rich lands between the two Miami rivers in the Ohio country, [3] which he and his partners had for sale. The speculators quickly sold two large tracts of land along the Ohio River to outside interests, but Symmes was not content just to speculate idly on the territory's future. This former Continental congressman and New Jersey Supreme Court justice turned pioneer. In January 1789, Symmes and 60 settlers established the settlement of North Bend on the Great Miami River. [4]

Two other groups of settlers already had preceded Symmes into the area. The first group was led by Benjamin Stites, an early explorer of the region who also had been Symmes' original source of information concerning the Ohio country. On November 18, 1788, Stites established Columbia, about one mile due west of the Little Miami River. [5] A little more than a month later, 22 settlers led by Mathias Denman and Colonel John Patterson landed at the foot of present-day Sycamore Street in Cincinnati. On December 28, 1788, they established the settlement of Losantiville. [6]

The future of these three tiny settlements, and even that of most of the Northwest Territory, was still in doubt in 1789. The treaties signed by Native Americans at Fort Stanwix in 1784, Fort McIntosh in 1785, and Fort Finney in 1786, technically had opened southern Ohio to white settlement. But the Indians who had signed these agreements had been bribed or had been intimidated into doing so and many of the signees were minor chiefs who had no real tribal authority. At Fort Stanwix, for example. the Iroquois ceded land belonging not to the Six Nations, but rather to the Shawnee. The tribes actually living in the region had no intention of relinquishing their lands so easily. [7]

Because of the Indian threat, all three of the tiny settlements had blockhouses for protection by the spring of 1789. At Columbia, Stites built and garrisoned his own small fort. [8] Losantiville apparently relied on a blockhouse built by George Rogers Clark in 1780. [9] Judge Symmes' hamlet at North Bend originally was protected by a blockhouse garrisoned by Ensign Francis Luce and by 18 regulars. The latter soon were reduced by fevers, two desertions and one death to leave a total of only 12 effectives. Symmes had made arrangements in advance for army protection, but Luce's negligible detachment was not what he had in mind. [10]

After several entreaties to Philadelphia, Symmes finally was sent the requested protection. On August 9, 1789, brevet Brigadier General Josiah Harmar dispatched a full company under Captain David Strong from Fort Harmar at Marietta, Ohio, to North Bend. That company was followed two days later by Harmar's second-in-command, Major John Doughty. Doughty, who had constructed Fort Harmar in 1785, was sent "for the purpose of selecting the site of a fort intended to protect the settlement on the Symmes purchase." [11]

Doughty arrived in the Miami country on August 16 and, by August 21, he had dispatched a report back upriver to Harmar. The major stated that he had spent three days in reconnaissance of the region between the two Miamis. He carefully weighed the advantages offered by various localities, such as safety from flood, a fresh supply of water and a healthy environment for the garrison. He finally chose a spot "opposite the Licking river, high and healthy, abounding in never failing springs." [12]

Doughty's site for the fort was about 550 feet back from the Ohio River, near the present-day intersection of Third and Broadway in Cincinnati. [13] The forest surrounding the site was composed of maple, ash, walnut, oak, sycamore, poplar, and hickory trees, thus providing Doughty with onsite building materials. It was also a strategic location, being only seven miles from Columbia and 15 miles from North Bend.

A local and totally unsubstantiated legend credits Ensign Luce with choosing the fort's location. A farmer from North Bend was jealous of the attention the young ensign was giving his wife, so the farmer moved his family to Losantiville. Luce's orders only were to garrison a blockhouse in the area. To be near the farmer's wife, he chose the one in Losantiville. When Doughty arrived he also agreed it was a superior location to North Bend, but for a different reason; it was a better location for protecting the more populous Kentucky settlements. Ensign Luce was stationed in the area and easily could have been in Losantiville when Doughty arrived. Luce, being more familiar with the terrain than was his superior officer, might have shown Doughty some possible sites. But Doughty never alluded to any suggestions by Luce, never mentioned the "blackeyed farmer's wife" nor even referred to Clark's blockhouse. [14]

Doughty designed the fort, but its future quartermaster, Lieutenant John Pratt, and newly arrived Captain William Ferguson supervised the actual construction. It was a job well done and both men were praised for their efforts in a special report from General Harmar to Secretary of War Henry Knox. [15]

First, the ground on the site was cleared of all underbrush and every tree was cut down for several hundred yards. Next, the blockhouses, or bastions in military parlance, were erected. The faces were parallel to the curtain, or sidewalls, and projected about half their width beyond the curtain. This allowed for raking the curtain With cannon or small arms fire; scaling the walls was next to impossible. The blockhouses were two stories high with the upper story projecting over the lower. In addition, musket holes were cut into the floor for firing downward. Square in shape and about 20 feet wide on each side, the blockhouses were built of heavy hewn logs laid horizontally and notched together at the corners. [16]

The entire fort originally was square in shape. The barracks and storehouses formed the curtain's middle wall with the open spaces covered by a log palisade. This was a typical arrangement for many Kentucky "stations" or outposts throughout the region. [17] The logs of the palisade were about 20 feet in length and placed upright in a four-foot deep trench, forming a 16-foot high wall around the fort.

Each side of the fort was approximately 180 feet between blockhouses. The south barracks, containing the main gate, were divided into six rooms, three of which were on each side of the gate. A triangular extension was added to the western side of the fort in 1791, with a fifth blockhouse at its tip. The new section contained the artificer's yard with its blacksmith's, armorer's, carpenter's and wheelwright's shops. [18] A sixth and final extension was added late in 1791 to the northern side and it, too, was triangular. Built to house the wounded from Harmar's disastrous campaign. It became Cincinnati's first hospital. [19]

There was a flagstaff in the center yard and at least one well. The entire 15-acre military reservation was enclosed by a white picket fence. The fort was whitewashed at first, but when serious campaigning ended after 1795, the fort was painted red. [20]

Kentucky flatboats, 40 or 50 of them, were used as lumber for doors, roofs and floors. Designed for a one-way trip down the Ohio, the boats could be purchased for as cheaply as $1 to $2 a boat, once the trip had been made. [21] The troops provided all the necessary labor including quarrying the needed limestone. The government was only billed for the flatboats, nails, glass and wagon hire. [22]

Almost all of the frontier forts were of a similar design, rectangular with a blockhouse at each corner. What made Fort Washington different was its large size; it covered more than a modern city block and could accommodate nearly 1,500 men. That, plus the excellent workmanship involved in its construction and such luxuries as plastered walls, finished floors and glass windows, all made for rare commodities in other contemporary wooden forts. [23]

General Harmar officially took command of the still unfinished fort and 300-man garrison on December 29, 1789. Among the contingent was military surgeon Dr. Richard Allison. He was the only doctor for the fort as well as for 11 families and 22 single men in Losantiville. He was joined in 1793 [24] by an assistant, Dr. Joseph Strong.

Governor Arthur St. Clair visited the fort January 2, 1790. Though he stayed for only three days, his visit was more than just a routine courtesy call. The steady westward advance of settlement had left his present headquarters at Fort Harmar too far east to govern effectively the vast Northwest Territory. Starting at Fort Pitt, a line of fortifications had crept westward cutting off the Ohio River to hostile tribes and helping to secure Kentucky and western Pennsylvania. Each new stockade, Fort McIntosh, Fort Henry and Fort Harmar, was a step farther into Indian country. With Fort Nelson at Louisville securing the Falls of the Ohio, the tenuous line was completed. St. Clair and Harmar both wanted to stab deeper into the wilderness, to destroy the hostile, threatening villages and to burn the Indians' crops. To accomplish this, they envisioned a new line of forts, this line extending north towards the Indians' bases of power along the Wabash and Maumee rivers. Fort Washington, the largest, newest and most powerful fort in the territory, became St. Clair's capitol and the fulcrum from which this new line of forts would grow. [25]

The tall Scottish born St. Clair was quite pleased with the fort and agreed with Harmar that Fort Washington was an appropriate name. The name of the town was another matter. St. Clair had found the name, Losantiville, which was a jumble of French and Latin meaning "Town opposite the Licking River," far too distasteful a name for any capital of his. On January 4, 1790, he officially rechristened the town, Cincinnati, in honor of the Society of the Cincinnati, of which he was a member. [26]

The Shawnee, Maumee, Miami and Delaware Indians had plans of their own. In an attempt to drive the latest intruders off their lands, they launched a series of reprisal raids in the spring of 1790. Kenton's Station, a small post up the Ohio, was attacked and more than a dozen settlers were killed. Shawnee attacked and plundered a small convoy of riverboats on the Great Miami. [27] On more than one occasion hostiles even stole horses tethered to Fort Washington's gates. [28]

The fort itself never was in any real danger of attack; the fort's cannon and the hostiles' lack of necessary patience for a prolonged siege ruled out any attack. Instead, the fort became the staging ground for three major campaigns against the hostile tribes. Two of these campaigns, however, ended in disaster. On October 21, 1790, General Josiah Harmar led more than 600 men into an ambush near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana. He lost more than 182 men. [29]

Harmar's humiliating defeat was soon eclipsed. In early October 1791, General Arthur St. Clair led another expedition out of Fort Washington. During this expedition, St. Clair simultaneously continued in his capacity as governor. More than 3,000 men followed him into the wilderness, but because of disease, desertions and St. Clair's penchant for building forts, his force soon was reduced to about 1,500 regulars and militia. During the early morning hours of November 4, 1791, the governor's makeshift camp was surprised by thousands of braves. This attack led to the worst defeat ever suffered by American forces at the hands of Native Americans. St. Clair lost 37 officers and 593 men, the survivors straggling back in panic to Fort Washington. It was reported that Christmas in Cincinnati was "a gloomy affair" that year. Most of the outlying settlements had been abandoned, so it probably was a crowded holiday in town as well. [30]

The last major campaign to originate from the fort was, however, a victorious one. Washington finally had found a competent Indian fighter in Major General Anthony "Mad Anthony" Wayne. Wayne took command of the fort in early 1793 and by winter he was ready to lead his forces against the enemy. After months of successful campaigning, he defeated the combined tribes on August 20, 1794, at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. This victory led to the Treaty of Greeneville, which effectively ended Indian resistance in the Ohio country. [31]

Though its days as an important staging area for campaigns was ended with this treaty, the fort still was an important administrative center and contained a large garrison. Neither Cincinnati nor Fort Washington appealed much to Wayne. He complained that the town was dirty and that his attempts at instilling discipline into his men were being undermined constantly by "wenches" who were selling whiskey to his soldiers. Drunkenness, typical of many a frontier post, apparently was a major problem. A gallon of whiskey was cheap and was easily obtainable. It sold for only seven shillings, the equivalent of about 91¢. [32] Until the end of 1793, whiskey was issued daily to the men as part of their rations, with an extra half-pint given to them on Christmas and on the Fourth of July. General James Wilkinson even increased it by half for the entire month of January 1793, because of the severe cold. As punishment for quarreling and "shocking his brother soldiers," Private Henry Melory's ration was stopped for a week which was a common penalty for minor offenses. [33] Drunkenness was punished by a loss of one's whiskey ration for up to two months. In some cases, when it led to insolence to an officer, to disobedience of orders or to sleeping on guard duty, the loss was accompanied by a maximum of 50 lashes given in the presence of the offender's company. In 1797, Wilkinson added public intoxication to the list of offenses and no man was to be caught drunk outside of the 15-acre military reservation. [34]

Drunkenness was not confined to the ranks. Captains McPherson and John Pratt both were court-martialed on July 20, 1792, for "drunkenness and character unsuited to an officer." McPherson resigned, but John Pratt had the ignominious privilege of being tried and cashiered out of the army from the fort which he had helped to build. [35] Many of the fort's officers, including Harmar, had well-deserved reputations as hard drinkers. [36] There were some, like David Strong or William Henry Harrison, who were noted for their moderation, but they appear to have been in the minority.

Aside from drinking, there was little else to do for amusement. Despite Wayne's complaint that the town was full of "wenches," the men far outnumbered the women. Those men literate enough to read had to wait until November 1793, for the first local newspaper, The Centinel of the Northwest Territory, to begin publishing. There were few books at first and month-old eastern newspapers were popular items. For the garrison's more religious members, the first church in Cincinnati did not open until 1792. [37]

Hunting and fishing in the area were extremely good. In a letter to General Thomas Mifflin, Harmar described buffalo, turkey and venison in abundance. One-hundred-pound catfish stories, he added, "are by no means exaggerated." [38] The only problem was scarce ammunition. Government issued lead shot was inventoried closely and unaccounted ball cost 13¢ per shot, an amount which was deducted from the soldier's pay. Sentries, when discharging their muskets at the end of a shift, fired at a specially designed target, so the lead could be reclaimed. The best shot, incidentally, was awarded a quart of whiskey. [39]

Gambling always was popular, but tended to lead to fights. In 1797, Wilkinson was forced to ban dice and cards from the barracks due to violence over gambling debts. He did allow the soldiers to keep their backgammon boards, this being considered a more gentlemanly game. By 1802 friendly wagers could be placed over a game of pool, but only by the officers. Cincinnati's solitary billiards table was in their quarters. [40]

The officers stationed at the fort were a varied lot, ranging from incompetents to a future president. Thomas Irwin, a wagoner who served during St. Clair's campaign, claimed that "The officers on that campaign was as good as any that ever carried a gun." [41] Most were Revolutionary War veterans and seasoned Indian fighters and they acquitted themselves well in combat. Few, apparently, were well liked by their men, but many were respected. Major Ferguson's entire command died with him at St. Clair's defeat while others broke and ran despite their officers' commands.

Several of the officers who served at the fort later entered politics. Major David Ziegler became Cincinnati's first mayor in 1802. Captain Ebenezer Denny retired to Pittsburgh and later served as that town's mayor. [42] Many of the officers remained in the area after they retired from military life. Dr. Allison retired and opened a civilian practice in Cincinnati. Captain Harrison went on to become president in 1841. He married Anna Symmes, the judge's daughter, and built a large estate at North Bend. Harmar, Pratt, Strong and Ferguson, among others, all bought houses in Cincinnati and Ensign Cornelius Sedam retired and began the settlement of Sedamsville.

Others survived their tour of duty at Fort Washington only to be killed later in battle. Ensign Asa Hartshorne, one of the fort's original garrison, was killed during Wayne's 1794 campaign. Colonel John Hardin, while under a flag of truce, was killed and scalped in May 1792. Others enjoyed more tranquil fates. Major Doughty, the fort's architect, retired in 1800 to pursue his main interest in life, raising peaches. [43]

But not everyone shared wagoner Irwin's good appraisal of the officers. General Wilkinson considered them "peddlars, others drunkards, and nearly all of them fools." [44] Like Wilkinson, some of them were insufferable egotists. Adjutant General Winthrop Sargent was a cold, arrogant man who considered himself superior to the pioneer types around him. He was despised by the rank and file. Colonel Darke was extremely outspoken and criticized his fellow officers repeatedly. Ziegler was considered obstinate and Captain Mahlon Ford had a violent temper. In June 1790, he beat Colonel Oldham on the fort's parade ground. David Strong, a decent man and a good officer, was illiterate. He barely was able to write his own name and had to have a subordinate read his dispatches to him. [45] Wives and families of officers could live on post, but after 1797, Wilkinson banned mistresses from the officers' quarters because of repeated problems and quarrels.

A lieutenant colonel could live quite well on his $60-per-month pay in 1790. Even the lowest officer, the ensign, made $18 a month. Top pay for a sergeant was only $10. Privates netted only $2 a month and were lucky to get that at times. Secretary of War Henry Knox, in 1791, authorized St. Clair to disburse up to $5,000 to his ill-fated army, but most of the soldiers never were paid. St. Clair feared they just would buy whiskey with it. By March 1793, many of the troops at Fort Washington had not received any pay since the previous August. [46] The men also were entitled to and, after 1794, usually received free food and soap. The army also supplied socks, one new uniform and four pairs of shoes per year.

Life at the post was extremely hard and boring for most of the enlisted men and no edition of The Centinel was complete without the notices of desertions. One notice, which ran from November 3, 1793, to March 1, 1794, listed eight deserters, including a 15-year-old boy. Another on the list, Private John Johnson, apparently was caught. Within a week he had deserted again for the fifth time. [47] Each of the eight deserters carried a $20 reward for recapture. If caught, the offender faced a maximum flogging of 100 lashes, curtailment of all privileges and a sentence to heavy labor. Peter Freeman was not even this lucky. His attempt to desert to the British cost him his life on April 20, 1793, despite his wife's pleas to Wilkinson. [48]

Fort Washington, which was designed to house more than 1,500 men, by 1802 contained only half a company, about 35 men. With the advance of the frontier westward, Fort Washington soon faced the same fate as Fort Harmar; it was too far east to be an effective military or administrative post. Besides, Cincinnati was a boom town and needed to expand. The fort was in the way. Lots had sold for only a dollar apiece when the fort was built. By the turn of the century, these same lots sold for $250. The post sat on some prime real estate. In 1807, John Mansfield surveyed the military reservation at the request of the federal government and staked out 15 lots. By then, most of the structures has been torn down, the palisades being bought and sold as firewood by John Miller. March 17, 1808, was a public holiday in Cincinnati, as the land the fort had occupied was sold at auction. Within a few years, no visible trace of this once mighty and important outpost remained, except the now flourishing town of Cincinnati. [49]


1. Walter Havighurst, Wilderness for Sale, The Story of the First Western Land Rush (New York: Hastings House Publishing Co., 1956), p. 50.

2. William Henry Smith (editor), The St. Clair Papers, Volume II, (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke and Co., [1882]), p. 129.

3. John Cleves Symmes, To the Respectable Public, reprinted in the Quarterly Publication of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, Volume V., 1910, number 3, pp. 71-93.

4. Richard Scamyhorn and John Steinle, Stockade in the Wilderness: The Frontier Defenses and Settlements of Southwestern Ohio, (Dayton, Ohio: The Landfall Press, 1986), p. 122.

5. Ibid., pp. 45-46.

6. Henry A. Ford and Mrs. Kate B. Ford, History of Cincinnati, Ohio, (Cleveland: L. A. Williams and Co., 1881), pp. 30-32.

7. Ray Alien Billington and Martin Ridge, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier, Fifth Edition (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1982), p. 213.

8. Scamyhorn and Steinle, Stockade in the Wilderness, p. 48.

9. George Rogers Clark's blockhouse reportedly was standing as late as 1787, though numerous witnesses failed to mention it. Several veterans of Clark's 1780 expedition placed the blockhouse's location at present-day Third and Broadway or roughly at the same site as Fort Washington. See Ford, History of Cincinnati, pp. 20-24; and Charles Theodore Greve, Centennial History of Cincinnati, (Chicago: Biographical Publishing Co., 1904), p. 162.

10. "Deposition of John Cleves Symmes," February 17, 1809, reprinted in Robert Ralston Jones, Fort Washington at Cincinnati (Cincinnati: The Society of Colonial Wars in Ohio, 1902), p. 79.

11. Jones, Fort Washington at Cincinnati, p. 11.

12. Ibid., p. 12.

13. "Deposition of William H. Orcutt," March 31, 1829, reprinted in Jones, Fort Washington at Cincinnati, p. 94.

14, The main source of the Francis Luce story was Judge Jacob Burnet, who arrived in Cincinnati in 1796 and who had heard the story from some older residents. See Jacob Burnet, Notes on the Early Settlement of the Northwest Territory, (Cincinnati: Derby, Bradley and Co., 1847), p. 55.

15. "Letter from General Harmar to General Knox," January 14, 1790, reprinted in Jones, Fort Washington at Cincinnati, p. 79.

16. Oliver M. Spencer, Indian Captivity (New York: Waught and Mason, 1835), p. 28.

17. Scamyhorn and Steinle, Stockade in the Wilderness, p. 15.

18. Arthur Gustave King, "Cincinnati's Earliest Hospital," Cincinnati Journal of Medicine, Volume 34, 1953, p. 351.

19. Ibid., pp. 351-353.

20, John Robert Shaw, The Life of John Robert Shaw The Well Digger (Lexington: Daniel Bradford Co., 1807), p. 121.

21. Richard C. Knopf, "The Rediscovery of Fort Washington," Bulletin of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, Volume 11, 1953, p. 7.

22. "Letter from General Harmar to General Knox," Jones, Fort Washington at Cincinnati, p. 79.

23. Knopf, "The Rediscovery of Fort Washington," p. 4.

24. King, "Cincinnati's First Hospital," p. 350.

25. James Ripley Jacobs, The Beginning of the U. S. Army, 1783-1812 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 31.

26. Greve, Centennial History of Cincinnati, p. 295.

27. Jones, Fort Washington at Cincinnati, p. 24.

28. The Centinel of the Northwest Territory, #19, March 15, 1794.

29. Harry M. Ward, The Department of War, 1781-1795, (Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972), pp. 219-221.

30. Micheal McDonough, "History Notes, Christmas, 1791," Bulletin of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, Volume 12, 1954, p. 67.

31. Ward, The Department of War, p. 11 and p. 138.

32. Frazer E. Wilson, (editor), Journal of Captain Daniel Brady, (Greenville, Ohio: Frank H. Jobes and Son, 1935), pp. 60-63; and Thomas Irwin, "An Account of St. Clair's Defeat," Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications, Volume 11, 1902, pp. 90-93.

33. Jacob Slough, "Orderly Book of Captain Slough's Company From 1 March to 18 August, 1793," Unpublished manuscript, Cincinnati Historical Society, no page number given, entry for March 1, 1793.

34. Ward, The Department of War, p. 238.

35. Richard C. Knopf, Anthony Wayne, A Name in Arms (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1960), pp. 322-325.

36. Fairfax Downey, Indian Wars of the U. S. Army, 1776-1865, (Derby, Conn.: Monarch Books Inc., 1972), p. 54.

37. The Centinel of the Northwest Territory, #1, November 3, 1793, and #4, November 30, 1793.

38. Jones, Fort Washington at Cincinnati, p. 21.

39. David A. Simmons, "An Orderly Book For Fort Washington and Fort Hamilton, 1792-1793," Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin, Volume 36, Number 2, I978, p. 132 and p. 135.

40. Conteur, "The Modest Origin of a Great City," The Cincinnati Enquirer, December 12, 1920.

41. Irwin, "An Account of St. Clair's Defeat," p. 380.

42. Jacobs, The Beginning of the U. S. Army, p. 142.

43. Greve, Centennial History of Cincinnati, p. 221.

44. Jacobs, The Beginning of the U. S. Army, p. 142.

45. Ibid. and Simmons, "Orderly Book For Fort Washington and Fort Hamilton," p. 143.

46. Jacobs, Beginning of the U. S. Army, pp. 77-78,

47. The Centinel of the Northwest Territory, #1, November 3, 1793, #5, November 30, 1793, and #19, March 1, 1794,

48, Slough, "Orderly Book of Captain Slough's Company," entry for April 12, 1793.

49. Arthur Gustave King, "The Exact Site of Fort Washington and Daniel Drake's Error," Bulletin of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, Volume 11, 1953, p. 140.

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Last Updated: 23-Mar-2011