Gypsy Road Trip: Tour of historic Fort Steuben allows glimpse of life for early pioneers

Beverly Kerr
Guest Columnist

Fort Steuben captures the spirit of America and represents the opening of the West after the Revolutionary War when settlers could finally afford to purchase land. The first seven ranges of the Northwest Territory along the Ohio River needed to be surveyed into sections before being sold to those settlers.

Entrance sign to Fort Steuben

In 1787, Fort Steuben was constructed to protect the surveyors from the Indians as well as prevent squatters from coming across the Ohio River from Virginia. The federal government wanted to sell this land so it made it illegal for those early pioneers to cross the river and settle without purchase.

Major John Hamtramck was responsible for getting the fort built. It was named for Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a drillmaster who served under Gen. George Washington in the Revolutionary War. It's easy to see how Steubenville, Ohio, received its name. It was the perfect place for a defense, with the Ohio River to the east, a bank of hills on the west, and a nice plateau on which to build. Its location was mid-way between Pittsburgh and Wheeling.

The fort was guarded by 150 soldiers. There was a lookout station where they could easily watch the Ohio River. However, after one year, the fort was abandoned and never used again.

The table in the officers quarters was used for dining and a place to spread out the surveyors' maps.

Some say that in 1790, the fort burned but archeological digs have shown no evidence of ashes or burnt objects. Others think that perhaps settlers dismantled the buildings and moved them to a place where they were going to live.

Every year since 1978 the University of Steubenville has conducted a summer session on the grounds of the former fort. Their archeological dig has discovered many discarded items from that time and some are on display at the Fort Steuben Visitors Center while others can be found at the University of Steubenville.

Several times over the years, people had been interested in reconstructing the fort.

In 1986, two ladies became enthusiastic about the project after attending a lecture by the archeologists. Their enthusiasm led to the community becoming involved in the project. It began in 1989 but it wasn't until 2009 that the fort was completed.

Fort Steuben Park has become a central part of community activities. This is where they hold the Dean Martin Celebration, Nutcracker Village, Farmers Market, 4th of July fireworks, and weekly concerts in Berkman Amphitheater during the summer months. The fort is a private effort funded by local supporters and is staffed with a director and many helpful volunteers.

Berkman Amphitheater is the site of weekly performances during the summer months.

Taking a self-guided tour or touring the fort with a trained interpreter in this reconstructed village gives you a glimpse of what life was like more than 230 years ago. There are seven buildings in the complex where you will find posted stories of the trials and tribulations suffered without today's modern conveniences. Step inside the officer's quarters, hospital, commissary, or guard hHouse to learn their stories.

A special feature is the Federal Land Office, the first one built in the United States in 1800. The original building has been moved near the fort. There seemed to be a natural connection as this land office was where people came to buy the land after it had been surveyed. The agent and his family lived in the land office cabin.

The original Federal Land Office, which sold plots of land, has been moved near the fort.

The land was measured off in plots of one square mile, which would be 640 acres. A settler could purchase a square mile for $1 an acre, but had to buy 640 acres. Later, those plots were divided and settlers could purchase 320 acres for $2 an acre. Some consider this Ohio's Ellis Island, as it was at the land office that people started new lives.

The visitors' center is open all year long while Fort Steuben is open from May through October. Hours for both are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission to the fort is $10 for adults and $7 for students 6-12. Those under 6 are free.