'Of Great Utility to the People of Cincinnati': The Centinel of the North-Western Territory Reports the French Revolution

Article excerpt

By all accounts, life on the American frontier at the end of the eighteenth century could be very lonely, especially in an area as large and pristine as the Northwest Territory. The isolation of life at the fringes of civilization could be remedied by the presence of a newspaper that brought the outer world, which probably seemed so far away, into close proximity, allowing settlers to maintain contact with the eastern seaboard. But there was more to newspapers than mere diversion; they were (and still are) not only sources of news or advertisements but also a medium for informing and shaping public opinion. (1) In the days before mass distribution, newspapers were usually read by multiple readers with the same copy circulated among a large readership of friends or acquaintances. This process of sharing information fostered a sense of engagement within the local community and with the outside world that reinforced common goals by creating a shared sense of risks as well as accomplishments. As such, newspapers can serve as a mechanism for binding a community together and forging a consensus on how to address common problems. (2) In this sense, they can be valuable sources for determining how communities viewed themselves and the difficulties that they faced.

This study explores one of the many issues facing Cincinnati during its early years of settlement through the prism of its newspaper, The Centinel of the North- Western Territory, the first (and only) newspaper in the Northwest Territory during the early 1790s. Specifically, it examines how relations with Native Americans were reflected through that newspaper's coverage of the major international news of that period, the French Revolution. The editor of The Centinel of the North-Western Territory published articles on the French Revolution to show how the French dealt with their problems so that local readers could see models of how to "scientifically" improve the quality of life in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati is one of the oldest cities in the Midwest. Founded in 1789 and originally known as Losantiville, it quickly became a center of trade and commerce as well as the military capital of the Northwest Territory. By 1793, Cincinnati had about 900 inhabitants, with an additional 200 soldiers stationed at Fort Washington. There was one church, First Presbyterian, but no brick buildings; the entire town was constructed from logs. There was as yet no music hall, theater, or any outward sign of eastern culture. It had, though, a news paper, The Centinel of the North-Western Territory, which printed its first edition in November, 1793, in a log cabin on the corner of Sycamore and Front streets (the site is today beneath a baseball stadium). It was not uncommon for a town the size of Cincinnati to print a newspaper. During the 1790s, the United States had the highest number of newspapers per person in the world (one for every fifty people). Nearly every community, no matter how small, had its own newspaper, most modeled after the Gazette of the United States (printed in Philadelphia) or the National Gazette (printed in New York). (3)

Cincinnati's early years were not especially auspicious and it struggled to carve an economic niche for itself out of the virgin forests and fertile plains. In addition to the typical administrative and economic problems facing all new settlements, it had, like most frontier towns, an ambivalent relationship with some of the local Native Americans. To address this problem, the first building of any importance in Cincinnati was Fort Washington (built in 1789). This vital community asset physically dominated the town throughout the 1790s, and its role in shaping relations with local Native Americans was extremely important in ensuring Cincinnati's viability as a city. Like revolutionary France, Cincinnati was at war during 1793; the Northwest Territory may have been formally integrated into the United States, but the army was still grappling with Native Americans who inhabited the area and laid claim to its lands. …