America’s Old Northwest

The history almost no one knows

Initially, the territories claimed by Great Britain in North America included all of present-day New England, extending southward along the Atlantic seacoast to the northern boundary of Spanish Florida and then westward to the eastern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  Beyond the Appalachian Mountains lie the vast territory of New France, shown right. Officially, the British government prohibited travel beyond the Appalachian foothills — a policy that more than a few frontiersmen ignored.  But if the British believed their acknowledgment of French sovereignty west of the Appalachian Mountains would assure a peaceful coexistence with the French or their Indian allies, they were badly mistaken.  The British wanted a good trade relationship with Native Americans — and, of course, the French (having arrived first) stood in the way.

Beginning in 1601, however, and lasting for the next 150 years, British and French colonial militias fought with one another in a series of inter-colonial and international conflicts, beginning with the so-called Beaver Wars and ending with the Seven Years’ War in 1763. After the French & Indian War, France ceded its North American holdings and British territories, then extended to the Mississippi River.[1]  However, many French settlers remained in the northwest, and several Indian tribes, dissatisfied with British policies, initiated a series of conflicts against British settlements.

Still, the British were eager to avoid additional conflicts with the French or Indian populations and issued a Royal Proclamation (1763) and forged the Treaty of Fort Stanwix to resolve the boundary disputes between Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Indian inhabitants of the western lands.[2]  The discontent this proclamation caused among British colonial settlers was one of the sources of Lord Dunmore’s War[3] and the American Revolutionary War.

When the British allocated Indian land as payment for services to war veterans, tensions in the Ohio Valley increased — particularly among the land speculators. British authorities lacked the military manpower to forcibly remove Anglo squatters from Indian land. Later, British officials withdrew the military from the western territories to address problems with seaboard colonists, leaving Ohio Valley settlers unprotected.

In 1774, the British government determined that it could not honor land grants previously offered to colonial veterans (men who had invested heavily in land speculation). Many of these men lost their investments. In that same year, Parliament’s Quebec Act transferred land from southern Ontario, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota to the Province of Quebec — meaning that people living in these areas suddenly found themselves residing in a completely new British colony. Frustrated settlers formed militias and began attacking nearby Indian villages — people who had until then befriended the Europeans.

The rebellion we remember today as the American Revolution quickly escalated to involve Indian populations. Both British and American military forces attempted to recruit Indian allies. This behavior resulted in what may have seemed like a never-ending series of attacks, counter-attacks, and revenge killings all along the western frontier. In one example, the Miami tribe, divided in their allegiances during the Revolution, subsequently aligned themselves against the Americans and elevated a somewhat obscure Indian named Little Turtle to prominence among all the anti-American tribes.

After the American Revolutionary War in 1783, Great Britain ceded to the United States all of its lands as far west as the Mississippi River and northward to an area just below Upper Canada.[4]  The problem for the Americans in their victory over Great Britain was that in ceding western British territory, the British never consulted with the Indians who lived in the Northwest Territory. For the infant United States, its Indian problems were only just beginning.

Despite the Treaty of Paris, which settled American independence, strained relations continued between British Canada and the United States. The Americans faced several early challenges, including ongoing hostilities with natives, an unsettled government structure, and a large war debt. The Second Continental Congress drew up the Articles of Confederation on 15 November 1777, which granted no substantial powers to Congress to govern the whole. There was no executive authority, no judicial body, no ability to finance itself, nor any means of enforcing Congressional resolutions.

Long before the colonial rebellion, North America was a land of competing interests and diverse cultures. Neither the British nor any subsequent American official realized that Indian men/warriors were never obligated to follow the direction of their tribal chieftains. The chiefs may have signed treaties with the whites, but that in no way bound the individual brave to observe such treaties — which made the subsequent Indian wars inevitable. In this environment, then, despite the inherent weakness of the Articles of Confederation, the US Congress did its best to resolve conflicts among the states over the question of the newly acquired western territories without realizing that it was sowing the seeds of many more years of Indian hostilities.

In the years following the Treaty of Paris, with no power to raise revenue by direct taxation, Congress resolved to survey and partition the western lands and sell the land as its only means of income. The Land Ordinance of 1785[5] established the framework for western territorial expansion, a survey system, and protocols whereby Americans could purchase farmland. This Ordinance laid the foundation for America’s public land system and created protocols for the admission of ten new states from the land west of Appalachia, north of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River.

Two years later, the Northwest Ordinance created the Northwest Territory, the United States’ first organized incorporated territory, from lands west of Appalachia between British North America and the Great Lakes in the north and the Ohio River to the south. The western boundary of this territory was the upper Mississippi River and its eastern Pennsylvania. The First U. S. Congress renewed the Ordinance of 1787 in 1789.[6]

Few people today realize the significance of the Northwest Ordinance. It not only set forth the process for admitting new states but also established the sovereignty of the United States over all territories on behalf of the American public. It was an authority later confirmed by the United States Supreme Court (in Strader v. Graham, 51 US 82 (1851) — a power that did not carry over to states once admitted into the Union.

Another significant aspect of the Ordinance, which remains unacknowledged by many people today, was that it prohibited slavery within the Northwest Territory. The Ohio River became the United States’ geographical separation between slave and free states — an extension of the Mason-Dixon Line stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River.[7]

Even from the earliest times, Americans have not been known for their patience. The system of creating territories and states was a good one — but still flawed. Before allowing any western settlement, government surveyors were supposed to mark off the land into townships, but Congress had no way to enforce its rules. Thousands of settlers were anxious to enter virgin land north of the Ohio River. Most of these people believed that Congress was taking too long. Consequently, these few thousand people rushed into the western lands, seemingly oblivious that tens of thousands of Indians already occupied these lands, which they fully intended to defend.

Not every senior British officer in Canada accepted the Treaty of Paris of 1783; several military governors believed another effort to restore British sovereignty over the Americans was worth doing. Consequently, the Northwest Indian War pitted territorial militia and the Legion of the United States[8] (and its Indian allies) against the Northwestern Confederacy (of Indians), who enjoyed the support of British Canadian military forces. The resulting Northwest Indian War lasted from 1785 to 1795. [9]

In the 1790s, the US government addressed these challenges in two ways: first, by sending military forces into the Northwest Territory, and second, by negotiating treaties with native Americans. In the Second Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1786), Iroquois Indians ceded their claims to the Ohio lands without consulting with other Indian tribes living in that region — who also happened to be enemies of the Iroquois. Those other Ohio Valley Indians did not agree to cede anything and resolved to push the whites out of their homeland. The resolve of these “other” Indians stiffened after the defeat of General St. Clair in 1791.[10]

Americans were (and remain) a land-hungry people. The problem for every westward-moving American was that most settlers had no cash to purchase cheap land. Those who had cash (the land 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, and the settlers complained to their representatives in Congress. They wanted to eliminate the intermediaries and deal directly with the government to purchase smaller lots, with a greater chance for families to make the land productive.

Few Americans could afford $640.00 to buy a wilderness property — even with a four-year note. Many settlers who took up land at the minimum allotment could not pay the note within four years. In 1815, half of the land purchased by settlers remained unpaid. This unhappiness resulted in the Harrison Land Act of 1800, which halved the minimum purchase to 320 acres but maintained the price of $2.00 per acre. The Land Act of 1820 abolished credit purchases but made it possible for anyone with $100.00 to purchase an 80-acre tract ($1.25 per acre).

Among those who earned, on average, $0.35 to $0.50 a day, $100.00 was a lot of money, so for many, the purchase of land was out of the question. Not able to purchase land, thousands of settlers did the next best thing — they squatted on the land and then refused to vacate it unless or until they believed it was to their advantage to move on further west — continuously further west, where the cycle repeated. The stories told by frontiersmen encouraged the westward-moving settlers. Soil-rich fields, bountiful forests, and pristine lakes were just on the other side of the next hill. It was paradise; all these people had to do to get it was risk their lives. Many settlers did just that.

On 4 July 1800, Congress organized the Indiana Territory from the western portion of the Northwest Territories — an area corresponding to present-day Illinois, Indiana, northeastern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the western half of the Michigan peninsula. What then remained was most of Ohio and the rest of present-day Michigan.

In 1803, Congress admitted the southeastern portion of the Northwest Territories as Ohio, transferring the rest of the territory to the Indiana Territory. In April 1803, the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States.

In 1810, the only states west of the Appalachian Mountains were Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio, with a combined population of about one million. By 1830, Mississippi, Indiana, Louisiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Alabama joined those states — the population of Ohio alone was one million people, close to 4 million people. To these were added Michigan and Wisconsin in 1837 and 1848.

Rapid economic expansion in the East came from industrialization, diversification of livestock, and southern plantation operations, which relied on slave labor. Small farmers couldn’t compete in this kind of economy, so they looked westward and, with time and much-improved roads and river transportation, moving west was both necessary and more accessible. Tens of thousands of Americans were doing just that. In 1825, the federal government began developing a system to help make western settlement possible — they called it their Indian Removal Project.

In 1836, John Mason Peck described three types of westward-moving migrants as being similar to the waves in the ocean — rolling inward toward the shore, one after another. The first wave of immigrants was the pioneer, the hunter, trapper, and mountain man who blazed the westward trail. He constructed crude cabins for shelter but left the land in its natural state. When the smoke from his neighbor’s chimney vexed his eyes, or the sound of human conversation disturbed him, he moved on.

According to Peck, the second wave were men who pulled down the old rustic cabins, cleared the trees and the underbrush, leveled the land for roads, bridged the streams, and built houses with rifle ports. Though his lifestyle remained frugal, the second-wave settler was the beginning of a civilized existence. The second-wave immigrant likely remained on his land for the balance of his years — the number of which averaged forty-seven. His offspring moved on.

The third wave consisted of men with money and an eye for investment possibilities and modernization. Third-wave homes were made from finished wood, brick, or stone and had glass windows. These men opened stores, livery stables, hotels, restaurants, and banks. They built sturdy cargo wagons and coaches to carry cargo and passengers from one town to the next. They were tanners and blacksmiths — they established newspapers and argued with others in the courts and legislatures. They became the industrialists, entrepreneurs, and small businessmen who fueled the engine of the American economy.

Onward they went — forcing the development of western territories, beginning with the Northwest Territory in 1787. But no matter what Peck tells us, westward migration was never an orderly progression.

The formation of western territories and the American Civil War are two of the most important events in US history in the nineteenth century — and yet, they are often presented as two separate events. It is understandable because, on the surface, there appears to be little connection between the creation of western territories and the battles fought (mostly) along the border with or in the southern states.  Still, the highly charged political debates and unmitigated violence within the western territories led the nation to war and provided a glimpse of what the violence of civil war might look like.[11]  No one was paying attention.

Notably also was the sneaky formation of a new state, West Virginia, from within one of the states in rebellion — and this newly created state became instrumental in the subsequent passage of the Civil War Amendments to the US Constitution. 


  1.  Chitwood, O.  A History of Colonial America. Harcourt Press, 1961.
  2. Clark, J.  Land Power, and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada. Queen’s University Press, 2001.
  3. DeVoto, B. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Houghton-Mifflin, 1953.
  4. Forstall, R. L.  Population of the United States and Counties of the United States: 1790-1990. United States Census, PDF Online.
  5. Purvis, T. L.  Revolutionary America 1763-1800. New York: Facts on File, 1995.


[1] There is an important distinction between British territory in 1763 and British-Colonial territory.  The British government intentionally restricted western settlement (beyond Appalachia) in deference to the territorial claims made by American Indian populations — although it may not have been a decision taken to preserve native culture as much as it was to preserve and maintain a robust fur trade.

[2] The Royal Proclamation of 1763 forbade all settlements west of a line drawn along the Appalachian Mountains which delineated an Indian reserve.  The proclamation created discontent between British and colonial land speculators and potential settlers.

[3] In 1774, the Governor of Virginia was John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, who asked the Virginia House to declare a state of war with the western Indian nations.  This conflict resulted from escalating violence between Shawnee and Mingo Indians and British settlers who, in accordance with earlier treaties, had begun exploring and moving into the area of present-day West Virginia and Southwest Pennsylvania and Kentucky.  Despite a treaty to end this violence, many Indians believed that since they did not sign such an instrument, they were not bound by it.  

[4] The term Upper Canada refers to that portion of Canada settled (at first) by the French as part of New France, (and later) as that portion of North America acquired by Great Britain following the French and Indian War (ending in 1763) above the Great Lakes.  The British ceded their Florida land to Spain.

[5] Proposed and drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1784.

[6] Without this framework, lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase would have been a far greater challenge to the federal legislature.

[7] A demarcation line separating four US states, forming part of the borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia (part of Virginia until 1863).  The line was surveyed between 1763 and 1767 by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in an effort to settle a border dispute between Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware colonies.  Informally, the Mason-Dixon Line became the boundary between Northern free states and Southern slave states.

[8] The Legion of the United States was a reorganization and extension of the Continental Army (1792-1796) under Major General Anthony Wayne. 

[9] Historians also remember the war as The Ohio War and Little Turtle’s War.

[10] Arthur St. Clair was President of Congress when the Northwest Ordinance was passed.  In 1791, he served as Governor of the Northwest Territory.  George Washington, who wanted a resolution to Indians in rebellion, demanded a more vigorous effort from St. Clair.  Apparently, Washington did not realize the difficulty of pacifying such a vast area that was inhabited by very agitated people.  If we judge St. Clair’s campaign incompetent, the rampage of (then) LtCol James Wilkerson was even worse.

[11] The Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) played a prominent role in the march toward secession; Bloody Kansas gave the American people a glimpse of Chickamauga, Antietam, Shiloh, and Fredericksburg.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

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