Thursday, July 19, 2001

Society to mark 1790s military post

Territory governor named Cincinnati

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        EATON, Ohio — Arthur St. Clair was a man of twin destinies.

        As the original governor of the Northwest Territory in 1787, the former Revolutionary War general helped transform a vast wilderness into the land that would include Ohio in 1803.

        But history better remembers him for something ominous — the nation's largest military defeat by the Indians near what is now Fort Recovery, Ohio, in Mercer County.

        Although Gov. St. Clair's name is attached to communities across the region, hepractically is forgotten. But not in Preble County, where by fall an Ohio historical marker will commemorate the site of Fort St. Clair and St. Clair Park.

        On Sept. 22-23, Eaton will hold a Historical Days celebration at the fort. As Ohio's 2003 bicentennial celebration draws closer, Eaton plans an educational program about the fort.

        The Preble County Historical Society has not yet decided where to erect the marker. But it will be placed somewhere in the park, which was established in 1923 as Fort St. Clair State Memorial.

        Today, the fort is gone and the park includes a small museum in the old caretaker's house.

        Built in 1792 by Gen. James Wilkinson, the fort was used as a supply post and refuge against Indian attacks. It was later used by Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, who in 1794 defeated an Indian coalition at the Battle of Fallen Timbers and opened Ohio to settlement.

        Gov. St. Clair, a native of Scotland, failed in his attempts to defeat the Indians. Acting on President Washington's orders in 1791, Gov. St. Clair raised an army, but it was poorly trained and unruly.

        About 1,500 officers and regulars marched north from Fort Washington (now Cincinnati), and on Nov. 4 clashed with Indians near the Wabash River in Indiana. Miami Chief Little Turtle's warriors — numbering only about 1,000 — surprised the federal troops, who panicked and ran.

        About 700 federal soldiers died. Little Turtle reportedly lost fewer than 40 warriors. Though ill, St. Clair stood his ground and had three horses shot from under him. Eight bullets ripped his uniform and one grazed his hair.

        The defeat angered Washington, who months earlier had warned Gov. St. Clair: “Beware of surprise!”

        Facing criticism and pressure, Gov. St. Clair resigned his army commission but remained as territorial governor. When Ohio achieved statehood, he returned to Pennsylvania and died in 1818.

        “After his defeat at Fort Recovery, some people wanted to lay the blame on him,” said Stephen Pope of the Preble County Historical Society. “In those days, if you retreated, you lost face. But he was exonerated by Congress for his role in the massacre. As governor of the Northwest Territory, he was a highly thought-of fellow.”

        In Cincinnati in 1787, Gov. St. Clair became a controversial figure who opposed the Constitution and made enemies.

        Today, little evidence of his power remains. Even the city's St. Clair Street is gone, now a part of Martin Luther King Drive.

        But the man whose street is gone named Cincinnati, originally called Losantiville, to honor the Society of the Cincinnati, a group of officers who had served in the Continental Army under Washington. The society took its name from Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a famous Roman general who is said to have given up power to return to his farm.

        The city of Hamilton also knows Gov. St. Clair, whose troops built Fort Hamilton in 1791.

        Next came Fort St. Clair, which Gen. Wilkinson called “substantial rather than handsome.” Mr. Pope said it featured European design — a square of picket walls with bastions on each corner. Inside were barracks, storehouses, a blacksmith shop and storehouses.

        Jane Lightner, executive director of the Preble County Historical Society, said the fort became a vital influence on the American Indian by establishing a settler presence in the Ohio wilderness.

        “The site is of important historical significance in the development of Ohio and the United States, and should be recognized with an Ohio Bicentennial marker,” she said.

        It saw its share of action, too. On Nov. 6, 1792, 200 warriors led by Little Turtle attacked 100 mounted Kentucky riflemen who had camped outside the fort. Six Kentuckians died.

        Mr. Pope said history seemed to converge in Eaton, where future President William Henry Harrison — then serving in the army — helped erect Fort St. Clair.

        Mr. Pope, an engineer by trade and member of a 1790s military re-enactment group, has researched Gov. St. Clair, the fort that bears his name and his times.

        “We're relatively certain we know where the old fort stood,” Mr. Pope said. “Between it and a tree we call the Whispering Oak lie the six graves of soldiers who were killed in the skirmish with the Indians.

        “The park around there is a serene place with 80 acres of virgin forest. Many trees are from the days when the fort operated. An arborist has told us that the Whispering Oak is over 200 years old. The whole place is something from another world.”


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