The New Northwest Territory


There was a time when the territorial extent of British America began at the Atlantic seacoast and ended at the eastern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  This boundary was an intentional restriction imposed upon the colonists by the British government, who wanted to segregate native populations from British colonials and avoid conflicts with the French.  But after the Seven Year’s War (1754-1763), France withdrew from North America and relinquished its claims to the British Empire.  In 1763, British lands extended from the eastern seaboard to the Mississippi River and from Upper Canada to East Florida and West Florida.[1]

After the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain ceded all lands up to the Mississippi River and below lower Canada.  Suddenly, the newly-born United States of America held title to land that demanded the careful attention of Congress.  Through the Federal Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, Congress created the Northwest Territory and established a legal process by which these new territories were to progress in orderly stages — from wilderness to statehood.

Members of Congress and other officials understood that if citizens of the United States did not populate these lands, and if the U. S. did not exercise its sovereignty over these lands, then the U. S. could not claim to possess them.  For this reason, the fledgling country encouraged westward migration through various strategies, including exploratory expeditions, land sales, homestead provisions, and the formation of federal territories.

A Flawed Process

Nothing complicated is ever easy, and the process of land organization and distribution was deeply flawed.  Before settlement, government surveyors were supposed to mark off the land into townships.  The problem was that thousands of settlers were chomping at their bits to enter these virgin lands, and Congress was taking too long.  Additionally, there were these other people in the way who thought the land belonged to them.  As but one example, the settlement at Marietta, Ohio, took three years from the Ordinance of 1785.  The native populations who already lived there resisted white encroachment with every ounce of their fiber.  

In the 1780s, the government addressed these challenges in two ways: first, by sending pathetically small (and grossly inadequate) military forces into the old northwest, and secondly, but negotiating treaties with native Americans.  But government officials did not seem to understand that a pact with one area tribe, even a predominant one, did not settle the land issue with other tribes.  For instance, in the second treaty of Fort Stanwix (1786), Iroquois Indians were happy to cede their claim to Ohio lands because they didn’t own them.  Indians that did own those lands, the Ohio tribes, had not been consulted about any possible treaty with the whites.

Native Americans respected strength — and could not abide weakness.  After Anthony St. Clair’s overwhelming defeat in 1791, they wondered, what would be the point of negotiating with people who were incapable of winning battles?

Unsated Hunger

Americans, generally, were a land-hungry people.  They were also very poor.  Most settlers had no cash for the purchase of land — even cheap land.  Those who had money, the speculators, purchased land from the government in large lots, often on credit, and then resold it to settlers in much smaller lots — also on credit.  It was usury, of course, generating numerous complaints to members of Congress.  The settlers wanted to eliminate the middlemen and deal directly with the government to purchase smaller lots, where there was a greater chance of making it productive.

It sounds like a good deal to us now, but in 1800, few Americans could afford $640.00 to buy a wilderness property — even with four years to pay.  Many settlers who took up land at the minimum allotment could not pay for them four years later, and in 1815, half of the land sold by the government remained unpaid. The result of this unhappiness was the Land Act of 1800, which halved the minimum purchase to 320 acres at $2.00 per acre.

In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, previously part of New France below Canada.  With the stroke of a pen and a few dollars, the size of the United States more than doubled.  Deciding how to parcel such a large area, administer it, and populate it was a significant undertaking.  The greatest handicap of the people making these momentous decisions was the fact that they were all politicians.

Congress decided to manage these acquisitions in three phases: unorganized territories, organized territories, and states admitted to the Union.  Unorganized territories fell under federal sovereignty but were not organized into self-governing units; organized territories were federal lands with developing political units (e.g., federally appointed governors, territorial legislatures, and federal magistrates), and then finally, the sovereign states.  Despite its many mistakes, Congress managed to achieve these goals within the space of a hundred years.

The Land Act of 1820 abolished credit purchases but made it possible for anyone with $100.00 to purchase an 80-acre tract.  Among those who earned, on average, $0.35 to $0.50 a day, $100.00 was more than they could afford — so a large number of these land-poor settlers simply squatted on wilderness land and refused to budge until they decided it was time to move further west.  Egging on these westward-minded squatters were the stories told by frontier hunters and trappers — all of whom were known, liars.  They told tales of vast, untamed lands where a man could live off game and fish from pristine lakes, never mentioning with any detail the hostiles who owned those untamed lands.


Much credit for exploring these new lands goes to the Corps of Discovery led by Meriwether Lewis and William Rogers Clark between 1804-1806.  There is no doubt that their expedition was a significant accomplishment.  Still, few realize that another explorer achieved the first east-to-west crossing of North America above New Spain twelve years before Lewis and Clark.  A Scotsman named Alasdair MacCoinnich, better known by his anglicized name Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820).[2]

Among Mackenzie’s early accomplishments was exploring a river (later named in his honor) (1789) that he believed may have been the mythical Northwest Passage.  He later described it as the river of disappointment because rather than taking him to the Pacific Ocean, he ended up at the Arctic Ocean.

Wisely, Mackenzie returned to Great Britain to study navigation in 1791.  With his newfound knowledge, he returned to Canada in 1792, determined to find a route to the Pacific Ocean.  His party included nine other men departing Fort Chipewyan on 10 October.  On 1 November, they arrived at the Peace River, constructed a winter fortification.  The party continued its journey in early May 1793.  After crossing the Great Divide, friendly natives warned Mackenzie that tribes of hostile Indians occupied the southern end of a nearby (Fraser) canyon.  He took this warning seriously and crossed over the Coast Mountain to the sea, arriving in July 1793.

Concurrently, in 1792, George Vancouver explored Puget Sound and claimed it for Great Britain, naming it in honor of one of his officers, Lieutenant Peter Puget.[3]  Vancouver and Mackenzie missed each other at Bella Coola by only a few days.  There is nothing to suggest that Vancouver and Mackenzie coordinated their efforts.  Nevertheless, their exploration of Oregon Country established British control over the region of the pacific northwest.

 Lewis & Clark explored the area in 1806, and David Thompson, working for the North West Company (NWC), began his explorations in 1807.[4]  None of these areas were virgin territories; each had been briefly explored and claimed by Spain, France, and Russia — but Lewis & Clark marked the first official United States expedition.  Their effort established the first (albeit temporary) settlement of Euro-Americans at the mouth of the Columbia River, which they named Fort Clatsop.

A year later, British-Canadian David Thompson penetrated the Oregon Country from the North, near the headwaters of the Columbia, and then navigated the river to the Pacific Ocean.  Along the way, Thompson claimed for Great Britain all lands near the Columbia and Snake rivers, which set into motion a new territorial competition between American and Canadian fur traders.

In 1810, the only states west of the Appalachian Mountains were Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio, with a combined population of about one million.  In twenty more years, Mississippi, Indiana, Louisiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Alabama joined the Union.  One million people lived in Ohio alone: altogether, a population of around four million.  Michigan and Wisconsin joined the Union in 1837 and 1848, respectively.

National Expansion

Rapid economic expansion came from industrialization, an increase in sheep ranching, and plantation operations that relied on slave labor.  Small farmers, who couldn’t compete with the industrialists, had few options beyond moving west.  In time, with improved roads and river transportation, moving west was easier to do.  Tens of thousands of Americans surged west, and, beginning in 1825, the federal government assisted in doing so by adopting Indian removal policies.

Meanwhile, in 1810, John J. Astor, head of the Pacific Fur Company (PFC), established a trading post, naming it Fort Astoria.[5][6]  The settlement, completed in 1811, fell to the British during the War of 1812 (who renamed it, Fort George).  After the war, American and British claims in the northwestern regions were somewhat vague and overlapping.  A treaty with Russia, for example, gave the United States a reason to claim all lands south of the 54th parallel.  To resolve this issue, the British and US government negotiated the Anglo-American Treaty of 1818.  The United States and Great Britain agreed to joint-occupancy of the Oregon Country from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean along the 49th parallel.

In 1821, Canada’s NWC merged with the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), with the company’s management falling under John McLoughlin.  At parliament’s insistence, the HBC implemented the laws of Upper Canada throughout the Oregon Country.  Among McLoughlin’s many tasks, he was to ensure that the laws of Upper Canada were applied to all British subjects and any Americans who settled in the Oregon Country.[7]

McLoughlin moved HBC’s regional office to Fort Vancouver, which became the center of a thriving mixed colony of Scottish-Canadians, Scots, English, French-Canadians, Algonquin, and Iroquois Indians — and their families.  McLoughlin applied British laws equitably, kept the peace with natives, and maintained friendly relations with American merchants and later colonists.

John Astor, meanwhile, continued to compete for Oregon Country furs through American Fur Company (AFC) operations in the Rockies.  In the 1820s, very few Americans traded in the lands beyond the Rocky Mountains, part of the British plan for the new Northwest.  To discourage American hunters and trappers from entering the Northwest Oregon Country, HBC trappers intentionally over-hunted the area’s rivers and forests.  Additionally, Canadian hunters/trappers intermarried with native Americans and adopted Indian ways; the result was a unique social cohesion that helped keep American trappers out of the Oregon Country — at least for a while.

Waves of Settlers

In the 1830s, missionaries from the eastern states began making their way to the Pacific North West — to educate the heathen and save their souls.  In 1836, John Mason Peck described the three classes of westward-moving immigrants, who rolled along with one after another like waves in the ocean.   The first of these was the pioneer, the hunter-trapper mountain man who, while constructing a crude cabin, left the land in its natural state and then moved on whenever the smoke from his neighbor’s chimney vexed his eyes or their voices disturbed his sleep.

The second wave were men who pulled down the rustic cabin, cleared away trees and underbrush, cleared the land for roads, bridged the streams, and built houses with glass windows.  Though frugal, it was a civilized existence, and, likely, this fellow remained there for the balance of his years.  He may have done, but his offspring looked to the west.  They would become the third wave.

The third wave consisted of men with investment capital and an eye for the possibilities of a new civilization.  This settler made his home of brick or stone.  Third-wave men opened stores, livery stables, and banks.  They built the wagons and coaches that would carry cargo and passengers from one town to the next.  They established newspapers and represented others in the courts and legislatures.  They became the industrialists, entrepreneurs, and small businessmen who fed the engine of the American economy.

Onward they went — forcing the development of western territories.  In 1819, the Arkansaw (after 1829, Arkansas) Territory formed from the southern portion of the Missouri Territory.  In 1824, half of the Arkansas Territory west of Missouri’s western border returned to an unorganized territory.  

In 1834, Congress combined the Michigan Territory with the unorganized land that extended west to the Missouri River.  Congress also created the Wisconsin Territory from the western region of the Michigan Territory.  Congressional bumbling created serious and potentially hostile disputes between newly organized states and those who remained within the territories.  These, of course, were amicably settled in time.[8]  In 1838, Iowa Territory organized from the Wisconsin Territory west of the Mississippi River.

The westward migration didn’t only involve Americans, who began arriving in Oregon Country in the 1840s.  With massive increases in American settlers came demands placed on HBC that the company simply could not satisfy.  Moreover, the influx of Americans was such that they began to outnumber the Canadians.  The effect of this was that it started a “resettlement” war HBC.

The Canadians who eventually responded to the plea for adventurous resettlement were small in number and preferred to settle near Fort Vancouver.  In any case, HBC’s call for increased settlement came too late because Americans were flowing into the Oregon Country by the hundreds.  For instance, during the “Great Migration of 1843,” more than 1,000 Americans settled in Oregon.  Three years later, Great Britain relinquished its claims to the Oregon Country south of the 49th parallel.

In 1848, the US organized the (southern) portion of the Oregon Country into an organized territory.  Still, because territorial officials were always few and funds were limited, settlers viewed the process as exasperatingly slow and inefficient.  Whatever the settler’s complaints, they fell on deaf ears.  For example, the lack of adequate roadways and postal services impeded commercial development.  Additionally, there were only a few military units to protect the settlers from Indian hostilities, and the absence of law enforcement officers made Oregon a haven for outlaws.

Squabbles and such

In 1851 and 1852, settlers submitted two separate petitions to Congress.  Since the Oregon Territory was too large for efficient governance, they wanted to split the Oregon Territory into two separate territories — one situated north of the Columbia River and the other to its south.  Congressional approval to form a separate Washington territory came in 1853.  Oregon became a state in 1859; Washington was granted statehood in 1889.  According to one American settler, who lived in the Oregon Country between 1843-48, “Oregonians were all honest because there was nothing to steal.  They were all sober because there was no liquor to drink.  There were no misers because there was nothing to hoard.  They were all industrious because it was either work or starve.”

As Oregon and Washington were formed from the Oregon Country west of the Great Divide, the Idaho Territory became a successor from other territories — most of which existed east of the Continental Divide, loosely part of the Dakota Territory ended south to north at the agreed-to border with Canada.  The Idaho Territory included the present-day states of Idaho, Montana, and nearly all of Wyoming.

In 1854, new state/territorial controversies forced Congress to re-consider the issue of slavery.  Kansas/Nebraska were both large territories petitioning for statehood.  The argument was complicated by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Missouri as a slave state in exchange for a prohibition of slavery above the 36th parallel (excepting Missouri).  To solve this problem, Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise and decided that the citizens of Kansas and Nebraska could determine the fate of their states.

The Civil War

America’s westward expansion had a profound effect on politics and society.  After the War of 1812, nationalist-minded people believed that God intended them to spread democracy and Protestantism across the continent.  This idea of manifest destiny spurred a million people to sell their homes in the East and set out for the Northwest Territory.  These sentiments, vastly popular, encouraged policymakers to pursue additional lands, including war with Mexico to acquire Texas, California, and everything else between them.

Ultimately, these trends split North from South.  The Market Revolution, wage labor, improved transportation, social reforms, and a growing Northern middle class clashed with a deep-seated (nearly feudal) Southern aristocracy.  Each debate on slavery and westward migration drove America’s regions further apart until, finally, in the 1850s, the American North and South had become two wildly different places — culturally, socially, and economically.  

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, what few US troops existed in the Northwest transferred to the eastern United States.  To replace these first responders in Oregon and the Washington Territory, California recruited volunteer cavalry and infantry units for service in the new Northwest.  Within Oregon, pro-Union settlers raised the 1st Oregon Cavalry in 1862, which served in the war until 1865.[9]  Meanwhile, white settlers continued their clash with native Americans, which in the Northwest evolved into the Snake War (1864-1868).  A strong Northwest economy didn’t begin to develop until twenty years after the Civil War.


  1. Clark, J.  Land Power, and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada.  Queen’s University Press, 2001.
  2. DeVoto, B.  The Journals of Lewis and Clark.  Houghton-Mifflin, 1953. 
  3. Gough, B. M.  First Across the Continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie.  Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1997.
  4. Mackie, R. S.  Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British for Trade on the Pacific 1793-1843.  Vancouver University, 1997.
  5. Wallace, W. S.  Documents Relating to the North West Company.  New York: Greenwood Press, 1968.


[1] I have been fortunate to travel through all these areas.  Massive is an understatement.  If I had traveled it on foot, the size of it all would seem two to three times greater. 

[2] Mackenzie was the third of the four children of Kenneth Mackenzie (a tacksman, or leaseholder) and MacIver in Stornoway, Scotland.  Kenneth began his military service as an ensign during the Jacobite War in 1745, later serving (with his brother) as a lieutenant in the King’s Royal Regiment of New York.  Accompanied in America by his family, Kenneth sent his wife and children to Montreal in 1778 for their own safety during the American Revolutionary War.  Alexander achieved an apprenticeship with Finlay & Gregory (a fur trading company) in 1779 (later named the Northwest Company).

[3] Captain George Vancouver, Royal Navy (1757-1798) explored and charted North America’s northwest Pacific coast, including Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and present-day British Columbia while commanding HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham.

[4] The North West Company was a fur trading business headquartered in Montreal (1779-1821).  It competed with increasing success against the Hudson Bay Company in present-day Western Canada and Northwestern Ontario.  With great wealth at stake, tensions between the two companies increased to the point where several armed incidents prompted the British government to force the two companies to merge.

[5] The PFC operated between 1810-1813.

[6] Astor was a German-American businessman, merchant, land speculator, and investor who made his fortune by monopolizing the fur trade and smuggling opium into China.  He was the first American multi-millionaire.

[7] When one looks at the map of Upper Canada, it doesn’t appear to be “upper” at all.  Taken in context with its creation, however, it was a sensible reference in 1791.  The Province of Upper Canada was created to govern the central third of lands in British North America, formerly part of the Province of Quebec.  The term “upper” appears to reflect its geographical position relative to the Great Lakes, and contrasts with the term “lower” Canada, Quebec, to the East.  Upper Canada was the primary destination of British Colonial refugees from the United States after the American Revolution.  The Laws of Upper Canada included a bi-cameral legislature and separate civil and criminal laws rather than a mixture of British Common Law with French codes.

[8] Not entirely “amicably,” because in 1839, Missouri claimed an area north of its border with the Iowa Territory, and this initiated a long dispute, a bloodless argument known to history as the Honey War.  The Honey War of 1839 involved a 9.5-mile strip of land that ran the entire length of the border that was caused by unclear wording in the Missouri Constitution, misunderstanding over a survey of the Louisiana Purchase, and a misreading of treaties with native Americans..

[9]   In the regiment’s first battle, in Loudon County, Virginia, its commanding officer (Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker) was killed in action.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

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