The fertile valleys of the Miami Country in southwest Ohio were largely uninhabited following the disappearance of mound building cultures in the mid-seventeenth century. French fur traders and British and French expeditionary forces visited the Ohio valley in the eighteenth century. Native Americans made temporary camps and used the area for fishing, hunting, and harvesting natural foodstuffs. Following the American Revolution, land west of the Appalachian Mountains became available to European-American settlers. These lands had been ceded by France to England with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and the British prohibited its settlement to protect the rights of Native Americans. When the American colonists defeated the British, the new government opened the old English lands for Americans and created the Northwest Territory. The Land Ordinance of 1785 outlined the rules for territorial purchases, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 created the political structure. There was a problem, however, with this new territory: the Shawnee, Wyandot, and Delaware subsisted on the land of the Miami Valley, and permanent settlements threatened their livelihood.
Pennsylvania trader, Benjamin Stites, first appreciated the beauty and economic promise of the area bounded by the Ohio, Great Miami, and Little Miami Rivers in the summer of 1786. He was doing business in Limestone (Maysville), Kentucky, when he joined the westward expedition of some backwoodsmen pursuing a party of Native Americans who had stolen horses. Enthusiastic about what he saw along the Ohio River, Stites returned east and convinced John Cleves Symmes, a New Jersey resident who had served in the 1785 Continental Congress, to petition the Congress for a land grant. Symmes and his business partners received a quarter of a million acres along the Ohio River in 1788. In September a party of sixty men set out to choose the best locations for permanent settlements within their “Miami Purchase”.
The words of Rebecca Reeder, “My father, mother, and seven children, landed at Cincinnati on the 8th of February, 1789. There were three little cabins here when we landed. They had no floors in these cabins. We lived in our boat until the ice began to run. What few men there were here got together and knocked our boats up and built us a camp. We lived in our camp six weeks. Then my father built us a large cabin, which was the first one large enough for a family to live in. We took the boards of our camp and made floors in our house.” (Charles Cist, Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1859)
The first settlers of 1788 were eager for cheap land, independence, and opportunity. Benjamin Stites and his followers settled at Columbia, below the mouth of the Little Miami River. Mathias Denman established a station called Losantiville – later Cincinnati - across from the mouth of the Licking River. In early 1789 Symmes himself led a group to North Bend, on the northernmost curve of the Ohio River. These first settlers, some accompanied by their families, arrived on flatboats with tools, seed, livestock, and provisions, and they began to clear the land. Some planned to farm corn and wheat and raise livestock while others hoped to make their money in commerce or trades along the river. On January 2, 1790, Hamilton County became the second county in the Northwest Territory. The name honored Revolutionary War general and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
The words of Hezekiah Flint, “I came down in a flat, loaded with corn, and landed in Cincinnati April 7, 1794. There was a pond at the corner of Main and Fifth Streets. This was overgrown with alder bushes, and occupied by frogs. I bought a lot for one hundred and fifty dollars (Walnut below Fourth) and another lot (corner of Fourth and Walnut) for a stud horse valued at $400. I cultivated the square as a cornfield.” (Cist, Sketches)
In the first few years, surveyors and others who left the safety of their stations often clashed with Native Americans. The settlers begged for military protection, and in the fall of 1789, the federal government constructed a military post called Fort Washington on the eastern end of Third Street. Violence continued until the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The ensuing Treaty of Greenville forced Native Americans to the northwest section of what became the state of Ohio. The residents of Hamilton County finally felt secure enough to emerge from their fortified stations.
More settlers arrived, many from the Mid-Atlantic States, Virginia, and Kentucky. They created a vibrant economy and cultural center in the Queen City of the West. The lure of inexpensive land, a moderate climate, and the need for skilled and unskilled workers also appealed to immigrants. In the 1840s, revolutions in Europe and a potato famine in Ireland increased the pace of Irish and German immigration. Between 1840 and 1860 about half of the population of Cincinnati was born in Europe. The growing foreign and Catholic populations led to political and religious clashes. The African-American population was less than five percent in the city, but Cincinnati’s location on the border of the southern states made it an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Hamilton County experienced conflicts, some violent, over religious issues, partisan politics, and slavery.
Cincinnati was the most important commercial center in the west in the first half of the nineteenth century. The settlement along the Ohio River was well-placed to serve the needs of an American population that was expanding rapidly and moving westward. The Ohio canals helped farmers move their products to markets. The invention of the steamboat allowed Cincinnati merchants and manufacturers to move goods up and down the Ohio River, to the west through the Mississippi River, and from New Orleans to markets on the east coast. Hotels, coffeehouses, shops, and entertainment halls sprang up along the Public Landing to serve the flow of steamboat passengers. Job opportunities drew diverse groups to Hamilton County, including farmers, merchants, German craftsmen, and African-American and Irish laborers. Women, in particular African-American and Irish women, worked as servants, laundresses, and seamstresses. Cincinnati became a leading producer of iron foundry castings, furniture, ready-to-wear clothing, meat, whiskey, beer, and soap. The city earned the not-so-flattering nickname of Porkopolis from the herds of pigs led through the center of town to the meat processing houses.
From the small settlements of 1788, Hamilton County grew to a population of 156,000 by 1850. Cincinnati was the most important industrial city west of the Appalachians. The city earned a more flattering nickname, the Queen City of the West, for its well-deserved reputation as an artistic, educational, and cultural center. Many visitors passed through and praised the city’s Medical School, private academies and colleges, the Observatory, Lane Seminary, the art and architecture created by a talented community of artists, and the detailed craftsmanship of local artisans and manufacturers.