Cincinnati's Founding Fathers: Six men, from the prestigious to the penniless, helped mold region

Failure, conflict key parts of settlement's story
These six guys gave Cincinnati its start
Posted at 12:00 PM, Jan 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-11 10:28:26-05

CINCINNATI -- Six men who established three settlements within several months in Hamilton County 228 years ago qualify to be called Cincinnati's Founding Fathers: Benjamin Stites, John Cleves Symmes, Matthias Denman, Robert Patterson, John Filson and Israel Ludlow.

Symmes, the great land baron who started it all by purchasing from the government two million acres between the Great Miami and Little Miami rivers, placed his bets on North Bend as being the best site for an Ohio River trading center. He called it "Egypt on the Miami," and he believed his plan would make him rich and chase away the Native Americans who had lived there for centuries. He was dead wrong on the first count but right on the second.

Stites, a man of dubious morals who possessed great tenacity, thought otherwise. The Revolutionary War veteran floated into town with flatboats full of brave men and women who hailed mostly from New Jersey and settled a short walk from the mouth of the Little Miami River. Stites named the village Columbia.

Although North Bend still exists, its hilly terrain and vulnerability to flooding limited its growth. Columbia grew at first, but its flood plain location finally forced its settlers to move to the higher base of a hillside in Tusculum. The two names combined and became a city neighborhood that's in the midst of a revival.

The winners in the competition to rule river trade were Denman, Patterson and Ludlow, the trio who sowed the seeds on 800 acres of fertile river basin land that became the Queen City of the West: Cincinnati. Original partner Filson, who helped select the settlement site, didn't quite make it.

These Founding Fathers' stories are deeply intertwined with each other. They shared eastern roots, war experience and the Ohio River. They shared the basic goals of clearing land and providing food, shelter and security. And they shared fear, death and flight caused by skirmishes with the Native Americans who wanted to preserve their hunting grounds.

A quote attributed to Symmes in "Cincinnati, The Queen City: 225th Anniversary Edition" by local historians Daniel Hurley and Paul Tenkotte epitomizes the anguish and what now seems to be the 19th-century insensitivity of the Founding Fathers.

"I am mortified to see people running away from these settlements, merely because no care is taken by their superiors to save them and their families from the rage of the savages -- they feel themselves abandoned to destruction," wrote Symmes.

The fathers, however, persevered with strong-arm reinforcements, the greatest of which comprised United States Army troops headquartered at the 1789-built Fort Washington.

Books have been or could be written about these six men. The following profiles offer a glimpse of their lives.

Capt. Benjamin Stites

Stites, often erroneously referred to as Maj. Stites, founded the first settlement in Hamilton County in late November 1788 and named it Columbia. He was 42 years old. Despite Indian trouble, flooding and other pioneer challenges, the little community established many firsts in the region: a school, a church and a graveyard. The New Jersey native had been a western Pennsylvania tax collector in the mid-1770s when the West called to him. The rest of his life would be imperiled by marital strife -- allegedly he had two illegitimate wives who bore him six children -- and struggle to survive.

Stites became a trader in Limestone (now Marysville) and Washington, Kentucky, and ventured west into the Ohio River Valley, marveling at its beauty and settlement potential. He met judge and land speculator Symmes, from whom he would buy 20,000 acres in the flood plain near the mouth of the Little Miami River where he established Columbia. It became the region’s granary.

The primitive village included 50 cabins by 1790, but the last of them washed away in 1815, and the villagers moved to higher ground. The only physical artifact left of Columbia is Pioneer Cemetery, which is on a hill near Lunken Airport. Stites' 1804 gravestone and others of those in his settlement sit atop the site of an ancient Hopewell tribe village and thus can't be excavated. The cemetery, however, is open to visitors.

John Cleves Symmes

John Cleves Symmes

North Bend founder Symmes, despite his strict Christian upbringing on Long Island and New Jersey, could be described as being more of a taker than a giver. At age 46, while a delegate to the Continental Congress, he grabbed up two million acres of land north of the Ohio River and between the Great and Little Miami rivers at just 67 cents an acre in the late 1870s and began selling it off, sometimes in large parcels and sometimes more than once. His so-called Miami Purchase was reduced to one million acres by the government and ultimately to a little more than 300,000 acres. He was sued by some who wheeled and dealed with him, then fell into debt and died penniless.

Symmes was a school teacher when he entered the Revolutionary War, during which he commanded several forts and led several battles in New Jersey. After the war, Symmes was appointed associate judge of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, and, in 1788, he became a judge of the Northwest Territory, a huge slice of which he came to "own."

He had three wives and two daughters with his first wife. Daughter Anna married future president William Henry Harrison, whose son, John Scott, was the father of president Benjamin Harrison. That makes John Cleves Symmes the only American to have a son-in-law and great-grandson rise to the presidency.

Matthias Denman

Matthias Denman

Denman is the least-known of the founding fathers, primarily because he spent such little time in Cincinnati. He was born in 1751 in New Jersey, where his father was a farmer. Denman's trade, however was to make and sell buckskin britches. His avocation was agriculture and his hobby was horsemanship.

Denman entered the Revolutionary War early as a minuteman and served as a private in one of the few mounted militias of the time. After the war, he rode a barge down the Ohio to Maysville and began buying thousands of acres in Northern Kentucky and what are now Coshocton and Licking counties in Ohio. As the 37-year-old money man among the founders, he bought 800 Ohio River Basin acres that would become Cincinnati from Symmes for $500 (close to $10,000 in today's currency).

Denman, along with Patterson, recruited settlers through word of mouth and newspaper advertisements. One in Lexington's Kentucke Gazette said about Losantiville: "The local and the natural advantages speak its future prosperity, being equal, if not superior to any on the banks of the Ohio between the Miamis." Denman left Cincinnati in 1804 and became a farmer in rural Ohio before returning to New Jersey. He returned on horseback to Cincinnati numerous times, eventually dying at the age of 90.

Robert Patterson

Robert Patterson

Southwest Ohioans associate the Patterson name with one thing: Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton. Robert Patterson was the first in that family to impact our region greatly -- the second was his grandson, National Cash Register founder John H. Patterson. Lexington owes even more to Col. Robert Patterson. He helped found that Bluegrass State city as well as its neighbor, Georgetown, in the 1770s.

As a member of the Kentucky militia, the Pennsylvania native fought on the western frontier of the Revolutionary War. He also served under Louisville founder George Rogers Clark in Illinois and alongside Daniel Boone in one of the war's last battles at Blue Licks, Ky., in 1782. Even though he was an active soldier, Patterson developed a business relationship with Denman and Filson, and at age 35 became a solid partner in the founding of Cincinnati, traveling up and down the Ohio River with supplies and scouting the right spot to settle.

After the war in 1791, Patterson was a regimental commander in St. Clair's Defeat, the worst loss the United States Army had thusfar experienced at the hands of Native Americans. Patterson moved his family to the south side of Dayton in 1802, established a farm and sawmill and built a grand estate there in 1816 that he named Rubicon after the river Caesar crossed just once. The estate mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and became home of the Montgomery (County) Historical Society a year later. Patterson died at age 74. His grave is at Woodland Cemetery on land adjacent to acreage he once owned.

John Filson

John Filson

The Pennsylvania-born teacher, soldier, surveyor, writer and land owner never saw the site he helped buy become a settlement. Filson had partnered with Denman and Patterson in a land deal with Symmes that included the Cincinnati basin. In October 1788, more than two months before his partners and Ludlow would settle at Yeatman's Cove, Filson disappeared with his surveying party somewhere in the oak and maple forest of what is now western Hamilton County. His body was never found. Native Americans took the blame for the death of the 41-year-old surveyor.

It was the literary Filson who coined the Queen City's first name: Losantiville: "L" is for Licking, "os" is Latin for mouth, "anti'' is Greek for opposite, and "ville" is French for town. Newly named governor of the Northwest Territory, Gen. Arthur St. Clair, reportedly disliked the name and changed it in 1790 to Cincinnati in honor of the Society of Cincinnati, a group made up of Revolutionary War officers.

Filson, whom the British imprisoned during the Battle of York in 1776, had come to Lexington in 1783 to teach and survey the territory. He published the first map of Kentucky and paired it with his book, "The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke," which sold 1,500 copies at $1.50 each. Despite his endeavors, Filson fell on tough financial times, which motivated him to buy in with Denman and Patterson as their surveyor. He died at age 38 having never married. Louisville's historical society is named after Filson.

Israel Ludlow

Israel Ludlow

The 23-year-old New Jersey surveyor replaced Filson, but the mark he left on Cincinnati was a great one. He platted Losantiville based on the north-south grid popularized by Philadelphia, but oddly he included very few of the public or park places that later became touchstones for many Cincinnatians. He platted and became the first property owner in Hamilton, effectively making him that city's founder. He also platted Dayton.

Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton hired Ludlow to clean up the Symmes land-boundary mess and create a line demarking native territory, which became the border used in the seminal Greenville Treaty of 1795 that all but ended army-tribal war. He was praised for his ability to work safely in Native American territory despite the danger and the fact his escort crew numbered only three men.

Ludlow was one of the first settlers to venture outside Cincinnati. In 1790, he established a block house on 125-acres near where Knowlton's Corner in Northside is today that became a haven for Native American fighters and pioneer settlers. Ludlow Station, however, proved not to be safe and closed in 1794. Ludlow was back two years later, building a mansion with orchards and beautiful gardens on a nearby Mill Creek bluff. He and his wife, Charlotte Chambers Ludlow, entertained many elite dignitaries of their day. Ludlow died in 1804 at age 38 and was buried at the Presbyterian Church graveyard at Fourth and Main streets. His body was moved to Section 113, Lot 70 in Spring Grove Cemetery in 1896. Ludlow, Ky., is named for his son, Israel L. Ludlow.