cemetery
7:21 am
Tue August 27, 2013

Pioneer Cemetery is clue to Cincinnati founders

Cincinnati's earliest roots trace back to what is now a cemetery.

Memorial Pioneer Cemetery,  the oldest cemetery in Hamilton County and the second oldest in Ohio, is hard to find even if you're looking for it. It's tucked away, small sign and all, across from Lunken Airport.  That's where Cincinnati Park Board naturalist Michael George is waiting. 

George walks up a steep set of steps to get to the graves. "This mound is not natural here," he says. "This is an old Native American earthen embankment that we're standing on here. We're about at the flood plain of the Little Miami River, so this is not a natural landscape feature here. Word is it was part of a Native American earthwork."

Benjamin Stites helped found the Cincinnati area

When settlement founder Benjamin Stites and about two dozen others arrived from New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1788 there were Indians. Stites became interested in the land while in pursuit of horse thieves three years earlier. On November 18, 1788, just below the mouth of the Little Miami, Stites and the others stepped off a boat to create Columbia.

They had picked up supplies in what is now Maysville, Kentucky. Michael George says Native Americans cut down trees in what would become Alms Park so they could keep an eye on the settlers down below. Historians say Stites and the others protected their women and children by building log cabins. They broke up their boats to use for doors and floors. It wasn't an easy life. The settlers had wild game, but for a time relied on roots until they could grow corn.

Time was not kind to Pioneer and eventually a restoration effort was started

Eventually the pioneers built a church, Columbia Baptist, on this site. It was the first Protestant church organized in the Northwest. This early settlement, known as Colombia, is seen as the very beginnings of Cincinnati. Memorial Pioneer Cemetery is the only remnant of the Columbia pioneer settlement and that's why, in 1967, a restoration effort began. George says, "Over time the cemetery had really fallen into a state of disrepair and it was an ex-Park Board director, Fred Payne, who really was kind of inspirational in getting it preserved and cleaned-up."

Relative Peter Stites lives in Cincinnati

Lots of people went to the dedication of the cemetery in 1971, including the mother of Peter Stites. The Cincinnatian is a distant relative of Benjamin Stites, five generations removed.

Benjamin is buried at Pioneer Cemetery and so are a few of the other original settlers. Fred Payne lists all the people buried there since 1790 in two books that are at the Cincinnati Historical Society.