The actual site of Fort Washington – now downtown Cincinnati – circa 1789

If you’ve read the Allen Eckert books, or studied the expansion of the American frontier in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, then you’ve read about Fort Washington. It was located in an important spot. And because of that, it’s completely gone, with a large city built over it: Cincinnati, Ohio. The large well-constructed log fort was built beginning in 1789. Cincinnati was still a blip on the map, and Fort Washington still standing, in 1800. Here’s what it looked like.

Here’s what Fort Washington looks like now. The building center left is essentially built directly on top of where the fort stood.

Fort Washington was a fortified stockade with blockhouses built by order of Gen. Josiah Harmar starting in summer 1789 in what is now downtown Cincinnati, Ohio near the Ohio River. The physical location of the fort was facing the mouth of the Licking River, above present day Fort Washington Way. The fort was named in honor of President George Washington. The Fort was the major staging place and conduit for settlers, troops and supplies during the conquest and settlement of the Northwest Territory.

When Judge John Cleves Symmes contracted with the Continental Congress to purchase 1,000,000 acres in southwestern Ohio known as the Symmes Purchase in 1788,[2] it reserved 15 acres to the federal government for a fort.[3] In summer 1789, Fort Washington was built to protect early settlements located in the Symmes Purchase area, including Losantiville, Columbia and Northbend.

Gen. Arthur St. Clair was appointed governor of the Northwest Territory by vote of Congress on October 5, 1787. When Governor St. Clair arrived at Losantiville [Cincinnati] the settlement consisted of two small hewed log houses and several cabins. Maj. John Doughty, under orders from Gen. Josiah Harmar, was engaged with a small military force in finishing the construction of Fort Washington. The population of the rude village, exclusive of the military, probably did not exceed one hundred and fifty.[4] Three days after Gen. Harmar took up his quarters at Fort Washington, on January 1, 1790, Governor St. Clair was received with due ceremony by the troops and citizens of Losantiville.

Fort Washington was distinguished by its large size: it was larger than a modern city block and designed to house up to 1500 men. Gen. Josiah Harmar described it as “one of the most solid substantial wooden fortresses. . .of any in the Western Territory.” The stockade’s walls were two stories high with blockhouses located at each corner. [5] The fort was used as a staging point and to supply all the northern forts. It played a key supporting role in three Indian campaigns: Harmar’s Campaign 1790, St. Clair’s Campaign 1791, and Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s campaign in 1793-94. In 1790, Harmar used Fort Washington to launch an expedition against Native Americans in northwest Ohio, especially the Miami Indians, whose principal city was Kekionga (modern-day Fort Wayne, Indiana). On October 22, 1790, Gen. Harmar’s army was ambushed and massacred by Indians led by Chief Little Turtle. The Indians of the Northwest Territory were in open revolt aided by the British. Indian raids came close to Cincinnati, despite the presence of the nearby Fort Washington.

By 1802, Fort Washington had fallen into disuse and disrepair, and was manned by only half a company (about 35 men). In 1803 it was replaced by the larger Newport Barracks established to house the Kentucky Militia. It was opened just across the Ohio River in Newport, Kentucky. James Taylor Jr., an influential resident of Newport, Kentucky, had lobbied his cousin James Madison to place the post in Newport.On February 28, 1806, Congress directed the Secretary of the Treasury to cause the site of the abandoned fort to be surveyed and laid off into lots, streets and avenues conforming to the plan of the city, and to sell the lots to the highest bidders at a sale at the Cincinnati Land Office.[6][7] The survey, certified July 8, 1807, shows the fort’s boundaries to be Fourth Street to the north, Ludlow Street to the east, the Ohio River to the south, and Broadway to the west.[8]

In October 1952, excavators discovered the remnants of Fort Washington’s gunpowder magazine under the northeast corner of Broadway and Third streets, at the site at which Western & Southern Life Insurance Company’s parking garage was to be constructed. Researchers with the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio first visited the site on October 13, 1952.[9][10]

This building is built directly on top of the fort remains.

This plaque is mounted on the building – just to the left of the arch doorway seen in the pic.

The fort’s name is retained in Fort Washington Way, a section of Interstate 71 and U.S. Route 50 that runs through downtown Cincinnati and passes just in front of the former fort. The highway was given this name in 1958 upon a suggestion from the Cincinnati Times-Star editorial board and with the support of the state’s Anthony Wayne Parkway Board, the Cincinnati Enquirer editorial board, and Mrs. William T. Buckner, whose great-grandfather William Henry Harrison once served at the fort.[11][12][13]

The location is marked by a plaque at the Guilford School building, at 421 E 4th St, Cincinnati, which now occupies the site.


Surprisingly, none of the maps of Cincinnati made during that period included the fort. Identification of what was long thought to be the fort’s site came from Dr. Daniel Drake, who testified in 1829 where he remembered the fort was. His description was used by Robert Ralston Jones in his 1902 history, “Fort Washington,” which determined the fort’s location at Third and Ludlow Streets. A stone monument was placed in the middle of Third Street in 1901.

After the powder magazine was discovered, archaeologist Baby published an article refuting Drake’s recollections, using the location of the magazine compared with plans of the fort from 1789 and 1792 that Drake didn’t have. Baby concluded the fort had to be above Third Street, which is at the edge of a natural broad plateau, noting that it would have been a military disadvantage for the fort to be on a lower elevation than the plateau. He also believed the fort was oriented differently, rotated clockwise and extended east across Ludlow Street.

A few months later, King published his own findings, indicating some errors in Baby’s coordinates. While King agreed that the fort was never as south as Third Street, he believed the fort was angled to the west, which would not have interfered with the plats identified on Cincinnati maps from 1790 and 1807.

Above is where the monument now stands, moved slightly after they realized they had it in the wrong spot. Here are some photos of where it used to stand:

This little plaque is the smaller one towards the bottom of the monument:

Some pics I found of original fort timbers which were discovered in the 50’s:

I found these pics on Facebook, where someone claimed to have been given a piece of the Fort Washington timber. Pretty cool relic:

Some articles I found on Fort Washington:

To be continued…..

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