While exploring one of the most charming neighborhoods I have seen in Cincinnati, I was reminded that history is viewed through the eyes of the victorious aggressor. That’s why Grandmother’s Foot is now called Montserrat, and why there is no longer a temple to the sun at the top of El Panecillo. In the swift current of human time and warfare, knowledge erodes like sediment, washed into a lost ocean.
Columbia Tusculum is the oldest neighborhood in the City of Cincinnati, and the second oldest white settlement in the Northwest Territory. The Northwest Territory was founded in 1787, and included what would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. It’s formal name was the Territory Northwest of the Ohio River.
Benjamin Stites and the Disappearing Horses
A white man named Benjamin Stites learned about the area when he was on a hunting expedition in Kentucky. A group of Native People allegedly stole some horses, and he and others began to pursue them. The Native People built a raft and crossed the Ohio River, near the mouth of the Little Miami River. Stites never recovered the horses, but he decided that the location he explored would be an ideal location for his settlement. He returned to his family in Pennsylvania, and immediately negotiated an agreement with a New Jersey Congressmen named John Cleves Simms. Simms purchased a large piece of land in the newly established Northwest Territory, and sold Stites a 20,000 acre parcel at less than a dollar an acre, near the junction of the Ohio and Little Miami Rivers.
Stites gathered a settlement party of 26 people from New Jersey. Although they anticipated hostility and conflict with Native People on their journey, they encountered none. They had heard rumors of 500 Native People waiting for them to arrive but their scout canoe saw no one. The party of settlers arrived safely on the morning of November 18, 1788.
Living in Fear
Although relations with the Native People were pleasant enough in the early days of the settlement, they soon turned sour. History records the murder and kidnapping of the white settlers, earning the area the dire nickname of “Slaughterhouse.” A history book describes a cabin constructed only the year after the arrival into the territory in 1789:
“Its narrow doors of thick oak plank, turning on stout wooden hinges, and secured with strong bars braced with timber from the floor, formed a safe barrier to the entrance below; while above, on every side, were port-holes, or small embrasures, from which we might see and fire upon the enemy. Of windows we had but two, containing only four panes of glass each, in openings so small, that any attempt to enter them, by force, must have proved fatal to an assailant.”
The Battle of Fallen Timbers
In 1794, the US army staged the Battle of Fallen Timbers along the Maumee River in Northwest Ohio. This would be the final battle in the Northwest Indian War between the Native People affiliated with the Western Confederacy and their British Allies, and the United States. The leaders of the Western Confederacy included Chief Little Turtle of the Miami, Chief Blue Jacket of the Shawnee, Chief Buckongahelas of the Lenape, Chief Egushawa of the Ottawas, and others that history has rendered invisible. At least one tribe, the Chickasaws, fought alongside the US as allies. Although the battle itself was only about an hour, it’s consequences resulted in the forced displacement of the Native People from what is now the State of Ohio.
Settling into the 19th Century
After the victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the white settlers in Columbia Tusculum felt safe to construct their homes with less safety measures. However, as they began to expand their settlement, they realized they were building on a flood plain of the Ohio River. They relocated to the foot of Tusculum Hill in 1815, and most of the existing neighborhood survives still today. The oldest home that is still occupied nearly 225 years later is at 3644 Eastern Avenue and was built in 1805. It has evolved over the years, from a modest log cabin to its current Gothic Revival architectural style.
Many of the houses are on the National Registry of Historic Places, including the rows of “Painted Ladies” that line Tusculum Avenue. The Painted Ladies are Victorian era homes, adorned in brilliant and bright colors that contrast sharply when compared to the more modest dress of our 21st century, prefabricated homes. However, the newer homes in this neighborhood are modeled after the Painted Ladies, maybe to maintain consistency of appearance. Today, this neighborhood is like the SF of Cinci; any home for sale costs upwards of half a million dollars, an impossible price for the average Cincinnati local who earns a median income of $43,000.
We will never know what happened to the horses that Stites followed from Kentucky to the spot of land near the Ohio River and the Little Miami River. Did he really believe the Native People had stolen them, or were they an easy scapegoat? We will also never know the story of conquest from the perspective of the Native People who lost their land and thousands of years of cultural heritage and knowledge within a few years time. If we have learned anything from the lessons that 2020 has offered, it is that we can’t trust the story fed to us from the leadership. But I guess my most pressing question is who in the world is buying a house that costs half a million dollars?