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History in the Hills: Holding the fort for the future

I have been very blessed to have worked at some pretty cool historic sites during my career in the museum field. From Civil War battlefields, to historic houses, to a ruined 19th century iron works, I have seen quite a bit. At all of these sites, there is a history of the commemoration of the site that shapes our understanding of the past, whether it is true or not. Sometimes the history of the commemoration of a historic site is just as interesting as the true historical significance it holds.

Visitors who stop in to see us at Historic Fort Steuben usually are surprised to learn not only the history of the fort, but also about the history of the site after the fort was abandoned in the late spring of 1787.

The fort had been built starting in the fall of 1786 and completed around February 1787 by the First American Regiment and a group of surveyors assigned to survey the first seven ranges of the Northwest Territory. This land west of the Ohio River had been transferred from England following the Treaty of Paris in 1783 that ended the American Revolution.

The cash-strapped government, in an effort to raise funds for the U.S. coffers, elected to survey and offer for sale the land of Ohio, and it all began in our area. The government sent out the First American Regiment to protect the surveyors from hostile Native Americans and to remove the “squatters” who had illegally set up homesteads in the new territory. Our Fort Steuben was built as a winter encampment that was only occupied for eight months and then the army and surveyors moved on down the river. The doors were closed on Fort Steuben in May 1787, but its history didn’t end there.

The fort appears again on a map from 1788, and a few travelers moving down the river mention the ruins of Fort Steuben, but by 1790, the fort was gone. Oral history that had passed down through the years suggested that the fort was destroyed by fire around 1790. Although archaeological excavations at the site have been ongoing by the Franciscan University of Steubenville since 1978, there has been no conclusive evidence that the fort burned down.

My personal opinion is that after the fort was abandoned, it was then possibly parted out as a quarry for timber, finished wood or stone used for the numerous chimneys for houses lived in by settlers returning to the Ohio Country. In 1890, the people of Steubenville held a commemoration of the burning of Fort Steuben, but there is no evidence that suggests the burning of the fort is accurate. I would like to think that there are some unknown buildings in Steubenville that might have logs from the original fort, but that could be wishful thinking.

Fort Steuben was mentioned again in 1796 in a Pittsburgh newspaper advertising the sale of lots of the town of Steubenville laid out by James Ross and Bezaleel Wells. The advertisement said lots would be sold from Charlestown, now Wellsburg, and from Fort Steuben. Whether this was the Fort Steuben we know, or the general area around Steubenville, is unclear. What is clear, though, is the historical location of Fort Steuben was passed on through oral tradition, considering that the fort would have been long gone by1796.

The block bounded by Third, Adams, Market and High streets (now state Route 7) always has been associated with the site of the fort. Starting in the 1790s through the late 20th century, the block was developed into residential lots on High Street and the south end of Third Street, and commercial enterprises on the upper end of Third and Market streets.

What is interesting to me is that in the 19 century, folks were looking for remains of the fort. From the discovery of a broad axe, those common to pioneers of the late 18th century, to the discovery of a well, supposedly used by the soldiers at Fort Steuben, interest never really waned in the story of the fort in our area.

Over the years, many groups tried to rebuild the fort but were not successful. It wasn’t until Mrs. Elizabeth King and her friend, Geraldine Cohen, attended a lecture given by Jack Boyd to their group, the American Association of University Women, about his work on the archeology of Historic Fort Steuben, that they were inspired to embark on the reconstruction of the fort in 1986. The rest is history.

It took the Old Fort Steuben Project more than 20 years to rebuild Historic Fort Steuben, whereas it took the original soldiers only a few months to finish the first Fort Steuben. I think if you could ask the soldiers who occupied the fort in 1787 if they could imagine that more than 230 years later, we would be honoring what they did at Fort Steuben, they would be surprised.

We are honored to take up the reins of history and hold the fort for future generations to come.

(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)

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