Forts of the Ohio River

Forts of the Ohio River
by Ben Morrill, Visitor Center Site Manager

European explorers opened up the land west of the Appalachian Mountains and by the 1700s France and Britain began fighting for control of the Ohio River Valley and its valuable resources. Looking to stake their claims to this new territory, European powers began constructing trading posts and forts along the Ohio River using them as a way to mark their territorial claims. These forts played a significant role in not only the French and Indian War, but also in the settlement of the Ohio River Valley, eventually becoming major American cities.

The French and Indian War and the First Forts

Built in 1753, Fort Le Boeuf was the first French fort built in the Ohio Territory.

Furs were a valuable commodity in the 1700s and control of the fur trade escalated tensions between French and English colonies. While early French explorers claimed the Ohio River Valley for France the British established the Ohio Valley Company in 1749 hoping to block French expansion and settle the area. Tensions escalated as the French and British established trading posts and forts. The construction of Fort Duquesne in 1754 in modern day Pittsburgh finally brought the two countries to war.

Situated at the confluence of the Ohio River, Fort Duquesne provided strategic access to the Ohio River and while the French destroyed the fort before retreating, the British established Fort Pitt, marking the first in a series of British forts giving them strategic control of the Ohio River. Following the British victory in the French and Indian War more forts were constructed along the Ohio River during the American Revolution. Throughout the 1770s forts like Fort McIntosh, Fort Randolph, and Fort Henry were constructed along the Ohio to protect settlers and further establish British presence in the area.

Westward Expansion

Fort Harmar at the mouth of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers.

As settlers pushed west after America’s victory over the British new forts were constructed to protect settlers and deter potential land squatters. Built in 1785 near present day Marietta where the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers meet, Fort Harmar became the first fort built in Ohio. Named for Colonel Josiah Harmar who oversaw its construction, Fort Harmar helped secure the area for settlement, leading to the founding of Marietta in 1788. That same year construction of a larger fort, Campus Martius, began and Fort Harmar was abandoned in 1790 and demolished a year later.

America continued to expand westward and more forts were constructed along the Ohio River. Replacing the recently abandoned Fort Finney, construction began on Fort Washington in 1789 on the present site of downtown Cincinnati. Named in honor of President George Washington, Fort Washington played a pivotal role as a base of operations for American troops fighting local Native American tribes. Built to protect settlers of the recently founded town of Losantiville, Fort Washington was one of the largest forts in the western territory, capable of housing up to 1500 men and nearly the size of a city block.

Following the defeat of the Miami and other Native Americans in the early 1790s General “Mad Anthony” Wayne moved his troops north to Fort Greene Ville in present day Greenville, Ohio. Following his departure Fort Washington fell into disuse and by 1802 only a small garrison of around 35 men manned the fort. In 1803 the military constructed a larger fort across the Ohio River in Newport and Fort Washington was demolished.

Forts played an important role in expanding the American frontier. As settlers pushed westwards these forts became settlements that quickly grew into the river towns we know today.

The location of Fort Washington overlaid against a map of downtown Cincinnati.