Fort Steuben

After the American Revolution had ended in 1783, the newly formed United States needed money. At that time, the United States had little money but an abundance of land. To raise the needed money, the United States would sell much of her new land to new settlers. But before this new land could be settled, it had to be surveyed and platted.

The Seven Ranges

On May 20, 1785, the Continental Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785, which designated a new survey system. Under this new system, all land would be surveyed into six-mile square townships, and all townships would be arranged in north to south columns (ranges). Each township would be subdivided into 36 one-mile square (640 acre) lots or sections.

The first line to be surveyed under this new system was the Geographer’s Line (40 degrees, 38’, 02” N). Colonel Thomas Hutchins, our first and only chief geographer of the United States, performed the survey. This line began north of the Ohio River at the Pennsylvania border and would eventually run west into the Ohio territory for 42 miles, which would allow for seven ranges.

On September 30, 1785, Hutchins began surveying the Geographer’s Line.  On October 8, he received word of an Indian attack upon two traders along the Tuscarawas River. Fears of more Indian attacks convinced him and his surveyors to return to Fort Pitt (present-day Pittsburgh) for the winter. That year, only four miles of the Geographer’s Line had actually been surveyed.

On July 20, 1786, Hutchins and some additional surveyors met at Fort Pitt to resume their survey. This time they had requested federal troops for protection. Colonel Josiah Harmar ordered Major John Francis Hamtramck and three companies of the First American Regiment to guard the surveyors.

On August 5, 1786, Hutchins and his surveyors resumed the survey. By August 10, the entire Geographer’s Line was surveyed. The next day, the surveyors began surveying the first range.
Although there were still fears of Indian attacks, the surveyors continued surveying until November. By then, they had surveyed the outside boundaries of the first four ranges.

Constructing the Fort

Because the surveying crews and the soldiers were spread over great distances, it was necessary to build a fort for protection. Aside for protection from the Indians, the fort was also needed to keep any Pennsylvania or Virginia land squatters from illegally settling upon these newly surveyed lands.

On October 11, 1786, Hamtramck chose a suitable site for a new fort, located 150 to180 feet from the Ohio River, upon the second terrace above that river. This location was called Mingo Bottom.

After completing the first of four blockhouses, Hamtramck ordered his three companies to build one blockhouse each. Hamtramck made this construction project into a contest: Six gallons of whiskey went to the company who finished first and four gallons went to the company who finished second. The losing company had to dig the holes for the pickets. On October 27, the contest began. Within two and a half days, except for the roofs, floors, and chimneys, all three of the blockhouses were finished. And by November 4, the roofs, floors, and chimneys were all in place.

This fort was built into a square. Each side of the fort was about 150 feet long and was lined with pickets. Each of the blockhouses was located at the corners and was placed at 45-degree angles from the pickets.

Each blockhouse was 25 feet square on the inside, 28 feet square on the outside, and 11 feet high (or 1½ stories). Their diagonal width was about 39 feet. The interior was divided into two rooms. Each room was 7 feet high (or 1 story) and could quarter 14 men.

During the winter, other structures were built within this fort. The officers’ quarters were adjacent to the back gate, which was located on the side opposite the river. These quarters had barracks, parlors, and kitchens. Along one interior wall that ran perpendicular to the river were the commissary’s store and the magazine. Along the opposite interior wall were the quartermaster’s store and the artificer’s shop.

The guardhouse was built upon two piers and had a piazza facing into the fort. This guardhouse was located upon both sides of the front gate, which was located upon the river’s side. This structure gave the soldiers a good view of the river. One side of the guardhouse had a common store and the other side had a “black hole” for confining prisoners. Adjacent to the guardhouse was the flagpole.

Because the land was forested, securing wood for constructing the palisades and the structures was not a problem. Acquiring enough stones for constructing the chimneys was a problem. Fortunately, there were many stones piled adjacent to the plowed farm fields across the river in Virginia.

On January 2, 1787, Hamtramck gave this fort its name: Fort Steuben. Although commanding officers often name new forts after themselves, Hamtramck decided to name this fort after the great Prussian general, Baron Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand Von Steuben. Hamtramck had greatly admired Von Steuben, who had been the inspector general of the American Revolutionary Army.

Constructing and fitting the front and the back gates were the most complicated tasks in constructing Fort Steuben. Because of the guardhouse, the front gate was even more difficult than the back gate.

On January 8, the construction of Fort Steuben was completed. Because of the harsh weather, it had taken 74 days to complete.

Decline of the Fort

Although Fort Steuben was well constructed, it had a very short useful life. When the surveyors returned in the spring of 1787, they had reached the southern portion of their Seven Ranges.
The surveyors were now closer to Fort Harmar (present-day Marietta, Ohio) than to Fort Steuben. As a protective fort for the surveyors, Fort Steuben had outlived her usefulness.

On May 23, 1787, Major Hamtramck was ordered to evacuate his troops from Fort Steuben. The troops were sent downstream to Fort Harmar, and the stores were sent to Fort Henry (present-day Wheeling, West Virginia).

In 1790, Fort Steuben was destroyed in a fire. She did not play any role in the Indian wars of 1790-1795 and was not involved in the campaigns of Generals Josiah Harmar, Arthur St. Clair, or Anthony Wayne.


In 1797, Bezaleel Wells founded and platted a new town where Fort Steuben had stood named Steubenville. Many of her early settlers were squatters. Steubenville eventually grew to become a highly industrialized city. In 1989, a reconstruction of Fort Steuben was built upon its original site. This reconstructed fort is now a major tourist attraction.

Notes on Skteches

According to Holmes (see reference below), the middle image on this page "is Hamtramck's sketch of Fort Steuben, from December 15, 1786.  the triangle in the upper right, below the wavy line which indicates the Ohio River, is Hamtramck's rendering of the pitched roof of the blockhouses.  The dotted lines from the river to the upper (eastern) wall are explained: "this will be piquests to the River."  Below the sketch Hamtramck notes: 'the Curtains 150 feet long.  The Block Houses are 25 feet square [inside], 11 feet higt making a story and a half.  7 feet from floor to floor. a partition in the middle making two rooms and the chimney in the middle'." Courtesy of William L. Clements Library.

The third sketch is "the Frothingham sketch, drafted some time between Jabuary 8, 1787, when the fort was comepleted, and February 6, 1787, when the drawing was entered into Ekuries Beatty's diary.  The present whereabouts of the original is unknown.  The original publication in the December 6, 1881 Herald included the following legend, corresponding to the numbers on the sketch:
1, block houses;
2, officers'barracks;
a, parlors;
b, bedrooms;
d, kitchens;
3, commissary's store;
4, quartmaster's store;
5, magazine;
6, artificer's shop;
7, quard house built on two piers, a, b, with a piazza looking inwards and a sally port between the piers;
pier a, common store;
pier b, black hole (place of confinement);
8, flagstaff;
9, main gate looking toward the river.
The small squares in the sides and corners of the rooms represent chimneys."


Caldwell, J.A. History of Belmont and Jefferson Counties, Ohio. Wheeling, West Virginia: The Historical Publishing Company, 1880.

Doyle, Joseph B. 20th Century History of Steubenville and Jefferson County, Ohio and Representative Citizens. Chicago, Illinois: Richmond-Arnold Publishing Co., 1910.

Holmes, John R. The Story of Fort Steuben. Steubenville, Ohio: Fort Steuben Press, 2000.

Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Peters, William E. Ohio Lands and Their History (Third Edition). Athens, Ohio: W. E. Peters, 1930.

Sherman, Christopher Elias. Original Ohio Lands Subdivisions. Columbus, Ohio: Department of Natural Resources Division of Geological Survey, 1925.

Smith, Thomas H. The Mapping of Ohio. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1977.

Williams, Gary S. The Forts of Ohio: A Guide to Military Stockades. Caldwell, Ohio: Buckeye Book Press, 2003.

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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