The Forts of Western Ohio: 1790-1795: Part 1

1790 was a busy time for the Ohio country. Settlers from the East were immigrating into the new country in large numbers. The Northwest Ordinance of July 13, 1787, had set specific guidelines for statehood for Ohio and for the rest of the Northwest Territory. Large areas of eastern and southern Ohio were being surveyed for both present and future land sales. The biggest problem now facing these new settlers were the Indians, who also claimed Ohio.

The Indians made frequent raids upon these new settlers. They attacked the flatboats on the Ohio River and they attacked the outlying settlements along both sides of the river. To successfully colonize this new land, the new United States government needed to protect the settlers from these Indian attacks.

Fort Washington

In August of 1789, General Josiah Harmar sent a detachment of 70 men under Major John Doughty from Fort Harmar (present-day Marietta, Ohio) to a site on the north side of the Ohio River, between the Little Miami and the Great Miami Rivers, to build a new fort. On August 19, at about 80 feet north of the Ohio River's low water mark and directly opposite the Licking River, a suitable site was chosen for this new fort (pre-sent-day Cincinnati). Here, the soldiers built this new fort and named it Fort Washington, after President George Washington. Doughty was chosen to design the fort and Major William Ferguson and Lieutenant John Pratt were chosen to supervise the construction. Fort Washington was a 200-foot square. The walls (palisades or curtains) were laid horizontally and were built with hewed and squared logs and planks. Most of the fort's planks came from 40-50 discarded Kentucky boats. Nearby stones along the Ohio River were used as the fort's foundation.

The interior of the fort consisted of 2-story framed buildings, which had gabled roofs, fireplaces, and chimneys. There was also a 4-sided, underground powder magazine that was about 10-12 feet wide.

Each corner of the fort had bastions of 2-story, 5-sided blockhouses. These blockhouses were 20 feet square and included hipped roofs and sentry boxes. Projecting balconies were later added to the blockhouses for better observation of the grounds. A well and a flagpole were placed in the center of the fort. The main gateway, which was 10 feet high and 12 feet wide, was placed in the center of the southern wall, facing the Ohio River.

On the north and on the west sides of the fort were added 2 enclosed triangular projections (or ravelins). The walls of these projections were made of vertical logs (pickets). At the tip of each projection was a 2-story block-house. The skilled crafts-men (artificers) occupied the interiors of these projections.

In December of 1789, Harmar arrived at Fort Washington with 300 additional men. On January 2,1790, General Arth-ur St. Clair arrived at Fort Washington from Marietta to resume his duties as Governor of the Northwest Territory. Fort Washington became the new headquarters of the Northwest Territory.

On September 30, 1790, Harmar led an expedition from Fort Washington northward into Indian country to defeat the hostile tribes. On October 19 and 22, Harmar engaged the Indians under Miami Chief Little Turtle at Kekionga (present-day Fort Wayne) and was defeated both times. Afterwards, Harmer retreated to Fort Washington and was subsequently relieved of his command.

In 1791, St. Clair was chosen to replace Harmar. St. Clair's plan was to build a chain of forts from Fort Washington northward to the Maumee River. These forts would provide a line of supply and of communication between his army and Fort Washington.

Fort Hamilton

On August 30, 1791, St. Clair sent Major John Stites Gano and a surveying party to a crossing on the Great Miami River to find a suitable site for his first fort. Major Gano surveyed two suitable sites and Major John Francis Hamtramck chose one of them. The chosen site was located on the second terrace of the east bank of the river. It was near a large prairie and was about 25 miles north of Fort Washington.

On September 8, 1791, St. Clair's army left Fort Washington and reach-ed this site on September 11. Here, they began building the new fort. St. Clair named it Fort Hamilton, after Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury. Major Ferguson was chosen to design the fort and Captains John Armstrong and Benjamin Price were chosen to supervise its construction. Fort Hamilton was about 150 feet square, was irregularly shaped, 5-sided, and had 4-sided bastions. Three of the bastions were built along the east wall and the fourth was on the west wall. The southeastern and the southwestern bastions had platforms for mounting cannons. Each of these bastions later had 2-story, gabled-roof blockhouses, along with accompanying fireplaces and chimneys. These palisade walls were double-picketed. Each picket was about 9-12 inches in diameter and was either 15 or 20 feet long. The second row of pickets, which was staggered between the first row of pickets, likely used shorter and narrower logs. The logs were butted and were placed in a 3-4 foot trench. Approximately 4,000 logs were used in constructing this fort.

Due to the higher ground elevations away from the river, the longer logs were placed on the eastern side. This was to prevent spies from viewing the inside of the fort from these higher grounds.

Planks were sawed for the platforms and for the gate. A thin wooden bar, or ribbon, was placed at the tops of these first-row pickets to prevent them from shifting. The outside area had a drainage ditch dug about three feet away from the wall. This ditch, which encircled the fort, was to prevent any erosion from dislocating the walls. The entire area around this fort was cleared for a distance of 200-300 yards.

The interior of the fort had a guardhouse on the east wall, opposite the west side's front gate. Along the north side of the fort's interior was the officers' quarters. In the northwest corner of the fort was one of their two storehouses. Along the interior of the other palisades were barracks with lean-to roofs, which housed 100 men. On October 3 and 4, St. Clair's army again moved northward. He left Captain Armstrong with 100 sick and poorly supplied men with two cannons to both man and complete the fort.

In February of 1792, General James Wilkinson made improvements to Fort Hamilton. He added a 15-foot long powder magazine on the southeast corner and a 21-foot deep well. Wilkinson also added a second 2-picketed enclosure outside of the fort's north side. This second enclosure had stables, a granary, and an artificer's yard. Wilkinson even built a 2-story frame house for himself. This house had a wooden floor, a cellar with a 400-gallon cistern, a front porch and a veranda, a large stone chimney, and glass windows. This new house had many comforts that were not commonly seen in the Northwest Territory.

Fort Jefferson

On October 13, 1791, St. Clair's army reached a small gravel round-top knoll about 44 miles north of Fort Hamilton (present-day Fort Jefferson). Because of a nearby prairie and a nearby spring, St. Clair chose this location to build his second fort. Although it was originally called Fort Deposit, St. Clair named it Fort Jefferson, after Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State. Because of a shortage of tools, building this fort was more difficult. The army only had 80 axes, 1 crosscut saw, and 1 froe, but had sufficient numbers of spades and mattocks.

Fort Jefferson was similar in design to Fort Hamilton. Major Ferguson again designed this fort. It was114 feet square, had 4 bastions (with cannons mounted at the northeast and southwest corners), and had sufficient storerooms and barracks with chimneys and lean-to roofs. Because Fort Hamilton had taken so long to build, Fort Jefferson had most of its palisades composed of horizontally placed hewed logs. This fort also had two underground tunnels. The first tunnel led to an 8-foot square powder magazine that was located 25 feet below the surface. The second tunnel led to the spring located on the southwestern slope.

On October 24, St. Clair's army again moved northward. He left Captain Shaylor and Lieutenant Bradley with 100 sick men and 2 cannons to man the fort.

By November 3, St. Clair's army had traveled 29 miles north of Fort Jefferson, when it stopped for the night along the banks of the Wabash River. Because St. Clair's army was exhausted from their long march, they did not fortify their camp. At dawn on November 4, the Indians attacked St. Clair's army and soundly defeated him. St. Clair's army suffered more than 900 casualties, including his second-in-command, General Richard Butler. Colonel Darke led a charge through the Indian lines, which saved the army from total annihilation. While the survivors fled back to Fort Jefferson, the Indians stayed on the battlefield to loot and to kill the remaining wounded.

At Fort Jefferson, there were not enough provisions there for all of the survivors. However, to avoid another attack, most of St. Clair's army decided to keep moving south to either Fort Hamilton or Fort Washington. After St. Clair returned to Fort Washington, he resigned as commander of the troops but stayed on as territorial governor. The command then went to Wilkinson.

On February 11, 1792, the Indians attacked a hunting party outside of Fort Jefferson. Shaylor and Bradley were both wounded but returned to the fort. Those killed included Captain Shaylor's son and one other person. The rest of the party fled to Fort Hamilton. In April of 1792, a second party of Indians attacked Fort Jefferson. They attacked from a nearby hill and fired into the fort. Captain Mumford, the new post commander, and his attendant were killed in this attack.

On June 24, 1792, a third party of Indians attacked at hay mowing and stacking detail outside of the fort. Of this detail, which numbered more than 12 men, four of the men were killed and the rest were captured. Of those captured, two escaped, four were executed, and the rest remained as captives.

In 1792, Wilkinson fortified Fort Jefferson. He built a corral and two adjacent blockhouses, each with a second story that projected over the first story. One of the blockhouses was built upon the same hill from where the Indians had previously attacked. Wilkinson also clear-ed about 15-20 acres land around the fort and built himself another frame house. This second frame house had dormer windows, a sloping roof, and a cupola upon that roof.

Fort St. Clair

Because Forts Hamilton and Jefferson were 44 miles apart, Wilkinson wanted to build another fort midway between these 2 forts. This new fort would provide a safe haven at night for supply trains that traveled between Fort Hamilton and Fort Jefferson.

On March 17, 1792, while en route to the site of St. Clair's defeat, Wilkinson found a suitable location for this new fort (present-day Eaton, Ohio), which was located on a hill, near a spring, and about 24 miles north of Fort Hamilton. The fort was named Fort St. Clair, after Arthur St. Clair. About 50 acres were cleared and construction began immediately. The officer in charge of construction was Major Gano, who oversaw about 200 workers. The head carpenter and designer was John Thorp, who had built other forts in the area. On March 24, Wilkinson with 100 men returned to Fort Washington. Captain Thomas Cushing with the other 100 men remained to complete the fort. This fort was completed in three weeks.

The fort was 120 feet square with 2-story diamond-shaped bastions at each corner. Each bastion was about 30 feet in height. Unlike Fort Jefferson, Fort St. Clair had its palisades of vertical pickets, using 20-foot trees. The pickets were bound together with strips of slippery elm at the top and with soaked wooden nails at the bottom.

The fort's interior consisted of barracks, storehouses, stables, a powder magazine, and a blacksmith shop. However, there was no known detailed plat of the fort's interior.

The fort's exterior consisted of a drainage ditch lined with gravel. Also outside, 20 acres were cleared and a blockhouse with a puncheon floor and a nearby cattle pen and stable stockade were built.

On November 6, 1792, a raiding party of about 250 Indians under Chief Little Turtle attacked a supply convoy located about 600 feet outside of the fort. The Indians, who were probably more interested in the supplies and the horses than the personnel, attacked the convoy from 3 sides, leaving only an escape route to the fort. The convoy consisted of approximately 100 packhorses under Major John Adair. The supply party unsuccessfully attempted a counterattack but then retreated to a nearby V-shaped, fortified stable and made their stand. The American casualties were: six killed, five wounded, and missing. Only 23 packhorses were recovered. The Indians lost only two warriors.

To be continued…

About the Author

  • Gordon Mitchell
    Gordon graduated from Ohio State University in 1973 with a B.S. in Natural Resources. He is employed by the Columbus Metropolitan Park District in the area of Resource Management where he is involved in eradicating invasive vegetation and restoring prairies and wetlands. He has a strong interest in both natural and cultural history of Ohio and adjacent states and is a contributing writer for the magazine.

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