Our Rich History: The Fourth of July, 1792 — pride and effort went into the celebration

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

We are pleased to present this encore presentation of an article that originally appeared in Our Rich History on July 1, 2019.

On July 3, 1792, a ten-year-old Oliver Spencer left the settlement of Columbia with his two sisters and some other guests aboard a military barge bound for Fort Washington. They were on their way to celebrate the Fourth of July, which promised to be a grand event and a respite from life on the frontier. Military drills, parades, dinners, and a ball given by the officers of the fort were just some of the scheduled festivities.

After the hour-long boat ride, the group arrived at the landing below the whitewashed wooden walls of Fort Washington. The young Spencer must have had a hard time sleeping that night in anticipation of the next day’s events.

Fort Washington, Cincinnati. (Source: Charles Cist, Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1851. Cincinnati: Wm. H. Moore & Co., 1852, opposite p. 44.)

Great pride and effort was put into the celebration, as many of those within the fort and in the local settlements were veterans of the American Revolutionary War. Secretary of the Northwest Territory, Winthrop Sargent, soldiers such as Lt. Col. James Wilkinson, David Ziegler, and Cincinnati citizens such as Rev. James Kemper, John Riddle, Benjamin Stites, Col. Oliver Spencer, and the town’s largest landowner, John Cleves Symmes, were all involved in the fight for independence.

According to Oliver Spencer, the morning of the Fourth began with a 13-gun salute fired by the fort’s cannons. This was repeated at noon. Dressed in martial splendor, the garrison of Fort Washington performed military drills and paraded for the entertainment of the citizenry. This was also most likely an attempt to boost morale of both the soldiers and the citizens after St. Clair’s Defeat the preceding November. The American Army under St. Clair had been routed by a force of 1,000 warriors of a pan-Indian confederacy, resulting in upwards of 80% casualties. Indian depredations continued unchecked and made day-to-day life harrowing for many settlers.

The dinner hosted by the fort was a wonderful affair filled with much wild game such as turkey, deer, and bear from the surrounding forest. Military staples such as beef, bread, and of course, rum, would have also been served. Large tables would have been set up on the parade grounds for guests and soldiers alike to enjoy the victuals prepared for the day. Many toasts would have been offered on behalf of those veterans in attendance, those fallen, and of course to George Washington. Everyone ate until content or distracted by other festivities.

As night descended, Spencer spoke of a “brilliant exhibition of fireworks.” Many of the same sorts of fireworks displays we enjoy today were available to those within the palisades of Fort Washington. Rockets fired that exploded in the air, cone fountains with showering sparks, wheels spinning with sparks, and of course firecrackers. One can only imagine what any onlooking Native Americans must have thought at the sight.

The night then took a more formal turn as a ball was held by the officers of the garrison. Junior officers and senior officers alike would have been dressed in their best uniforms, especially those young officers looking for a companion on the lonely frontier. Garrison commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkinson, was well-known to have worn quite an ostentatiously styled uniform to such occasions. Always the entertainer and socialite, he would have mingled his way through the crowd. Music was provided by the military band. Lively tunes would have been played as the guests danced minuets, allemandes, jigs, and reels. Dancing well into the night, the revelry would have been enjoyed by all.

The morning was probably a late morning for those who enjoyed the night a little too much. The fort and the soldiers garrisoning it awoke to business as usual. Guarding the settlements from marauding Indians, keeping an eye on boat traffic on the Ohio, and daily military tasks were the routine of the frontier soldier.

The men and women of Cincinnati, much like today, would have gone back to work as well, carving a living out of the wilds of Southwest Ohio and raising families. Children such as Oliver Spencer must have found more fun pursuits, as he stayed an extra two days before being ready to depart for Columbia — but that’s a story for the future.

Steve Preston is the Director of Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Editor of the “Our Rich History” weekly series and Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He can be contacted at tenkottep@nku.edu. Tenkotte also serves as Co-Director of the ORVILLE Project (Ohio River Valley Innovation Library and Learning Enrichment). For more information see https://orvillelearning.org/

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