The Epic Northwest Territory

Map of Northwest Territory Showing Present Day States
Map of Northwest Territory Showing Present Day States

From the earliest colonial days Americans were restless and moving west. Some just wanted to see what was on “the other side of the mountain.” Many wanted land they could develop using their own sweat without government interference. Most wanted to be away from the more “crowded” east and the taxes and restrictions of government. Some of my family were original settlers of what is now Sevier County, Tennessee. In their letters they wrote that they had to get away from the “high taxes and crowds of Virginia. ” 

The three great colonial monarchies, Britain, France, and Spain occupied early America and were bitter competitors. Poorer settlers often ventured into foreign governed areas in their quest for land and opportunity and were usually welcomed. All the powers were trying to develop their economies and build up population in an effort to dominate the continent. As the early settlers pushed west into Indian lands, the more they were attacked by the Indians who did not appreciate incursions into their tribal lands. 

The French and Indian War (1754-1763) pitted the French against the British in a struggle for colonial dominance. It was a brutal and bloody conflict. Both sides used their regular forces allied with militia units and Indian warriors. The militia and Indians generally did not follow the European rules of “civilized” warfare. 

This war resulted in a British victory, which made them the major power on the continent. The French gave up all lands east of the Mississippi River and French Canada to Britain. The other major power, Spain, traded Florida for Cuba and gained control of Louisiana from the French. French presence in North America was essentially eliminated. However, France got revenge by becoming American allies during the successful American Revolutionary War. 

North America After Treaty of Paris
Sorry about quality

When the Revolutionary War ended in a British defeat the details of surrender were hammered out in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The British ceded claim to all their North American territories except Canada to the new nation, which at the time was being governed by the Articles of Confederation. 

The Confederation Congress had wisely established federal control of westward expansion, and most of the “landed states” had turned over the land from their western boundaries to the Mississippi River to Congress. In 1787 Congress set up the first post-colonial territory, the Northwest Territory (officially known as the Territory Northwest of the River Ohio). This territory included most of the former British colonial territory west of the Appalachian Mountains.  

The congressional ordinance established the territory, defined its boundaries, its form of government, and administrative structure. It defined the bodies of government, set up the legal basis of land ownership, provided for abolition and transfer of state territorial claims, made rules for admission of new states, established public education, recognized and codified “natural rights,” prohibited slavery, and defined the land rights and applicability of laws to Indians. 

The Northwest Territory was more than 260,000 square miles which was about one-third of the land area of the United States at the time. It was mostly a wilderness inhabited by about 45,000 Native Americans, a few French settlements, a few British forts, and American settlers who had ignored the British ban on colonial settlements west of the Appalachians. This arbitrary ban had angered Americans and was one of the contributing factors leading to the Revolutionary War. The territory consisted of all land “west of Pennsylvania, north of the Ohio River, east of the Mississippi River, and south of the Great Lakes.”  

The Thomas Jefferson sponsored Land Ordinance of 1785 had set up a standard surveying system to be used for westward expansion based on the use of Townships (36 square miles), Sections (1 Square mile) and quarter sections (160 acres). This system is still in use today. The ordinance also established ownership procedures and rules. On 7 August 1789, the new United States Congress affirmed the Northwest Territory Ordinance with minor modifications. 

One revolutionary feature of the Land Ordinance of 1787 set aside land in each township for “the maintenance of public schools within the said township.” This was the first-time government had made establishment of public education a priority. Another was the first ever prohibition of slavery although the “Fugitive Slave Law” still applied. One provision that we all take for granted today was “fee simple ownership” by which ownership was in “perpetuity” with the owner having total control of his land. 

Major General Arthur St. Clair
Major General Arthur St. Clair by Charles W. Peale

The first governor of the territory was Major General Arthur St. Clair. He formally established the territorial government on 15 July 1788, which was a modified form of martial law. Executive and legislative functions were combined, and a supreme court was set up. This court was the first civil and criminal law in this pioneer country. County governments were organized as soon as the population was sufficient, and these assumed local administrative and judicial functions. 

Since the territorial population of free males exceeded 5,000 in 1798, a legislature consisting of a House of Representatives and a Council was established as the government of the territory. However, the governor retained veto power. All the protocols for establishing new states were in place, and there was an increase of immigrants into the territory. The population of free white males in 1792 was under 8,000 but by 1800 had increased to more than 50,000.  

There were two major problems facing the settlers and the United States Government. One was that the British had not withdrawn from their western and northern forts in the territory. They did not respect the US, believing they lost the Revolutionary War only because of French intervention. They believed they could hold back American westward expansion by maintaining a military barrier to immigration in the Northwest Territory. The British claimed they were not withdrawing because the Americans had not lived up to all the provisions of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. This was a thorn in the side of the US and was one of the many factors that led to the War of 1812. 

The second problem was that the 45,000 Native Americans who lived in the territory were not overjoyed by the influx of white settlers. Supported by the British military, they conducted bloody raids against the new settlers, which required the Americans to retaliate in kind. An attempt to end the hostilities by treaty was botched and made matters worse. The “Northwest Indian War” escalated and a campaign led by General Josiah Harmer with 1,500 militia was defeated in October 1790. 

General St. Clair then led a “punitive” campaign in March 1791. His force of two Regular Army Regiments and some militia advanced on Indian settlements near the headwaters of the Wabash River. On 4 November, the Americans were routed by an alliance of Miami and Shawnee tribes. More than 600 American soldiers and many women and children were killed with only about 50 Indians killed. Appropriately the battle became Known as “St. Clair’s Defeat” and is the greatest US Army defeat by Native Americans in US history. This defeat led President Washington to demand that St. Clair resign his military commission. 

Portrait of MG Anthony Wayne
MG “Mad” Anthony Wayne

In June 1792, Secretary of War Major General Henry Knox and President Washington selected Major General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to avenge the American defeat and to finally establish US sovereignty over the frontier. Wayne was to muster a force of 5,120 professional soldiers, and he did it the right way. He recruited and trained his army in Pennsylvania and when fully prepared moved into the Northwest Territory in the fall of 1793. Wayne was joined by the Kentucky Militia commanded by Major General Charles Scott. 

For the next ten months, the combined force marched north up the Great Miami and Maumee River valleys engaging the enemy and setting up a series of forts. Although fierce battles occurred around some of these forts, none of Wayne’s forts fell to the Indians. 

The British military was actively supporting the Indian tribes in American territory, and in mid-1794 they established Fort Miamis near present day Toledo, Ohio. This was expected to halt Wayne’s advance on the illegal British stronghold at Detroit. The final battle of Wayne’s campaign occurred near this fort against the Indian Western Confederacy which was supported by a company of British soldiers. This battle, the “Battle of Fallen Timbers,” was a resounding American victory. 

In the fall of 1794 Wayne’s army marched unopposed to the capital of the Miamis. Once there he built Fort Wayne, a defiant symbol of American sovereignty in the heart of Indian country. Even after these defeats, the British still did not entirely withdraw from the territory. The 1794 Jay’s Treaty was concluded to smooth relations with British traders and to agree for the British military to withdraw. The British did not honor the treaty and were not completely evicted from American soil until their defeat in the War of 1812. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent officially ended the War of 1812, and the British were finally forced to totally withdraw from American soil. 

The 3 August 1795 Treaty of Greenville had secured relative peace on the western frontier opening large areas for safer settlement. The treaty ended the Northwest Indian War and was negotiated between the US Government and the Western Confederacy. It established a border between Indian lands and US land and set up payments for ceded Indian land. 

Shawnee Chief Tecumseh Statue
Shawnee Chief Tecumseh

The treaty did not include all the Indian tribes. The Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, boycotted the agreement and organized a confederation to oppose white encroachment, which led to more war. In the end the treaty was violated by both sides, especially by the white settlers who continued to push Indians out of their ancestral land. This treaty was just one in a long series of treaties that resulted in Indians losing land.  

Once relative peace was achieved, settlers flooded the territory and began establishing the settlements that would become the great cities of the Midwest. The push for admission of new states began as the population increased, and political groups became active.  

 On 4 July 1800, in preparation for Ohio statehood, Congress decreed formation of the Indiana Territory. This included most of the Northwest Territory west of Ohio Territory. Partisan politics came into play during this period, and Territory Governor St. Clair was removed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. He was removed due to his partisanship, arrogance, and opposition to plans for the admission of Ohio.  

Once Ohio was admitted to the Union on 1 March 1803, the Northwest Territory was officially disbanded. Ohio was the 17th US state admitted to the Union. The earlier three admissions were Vermont on 4 March 1791, Kentucky on 1 June 1792, and Tennessee on 1 June 1796. The other states that the original Northwest Territory eventually formed were Indiana in 1816, Illinois in 1818, Michigan in 1837, and Wisconsin in 1848. 

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase moved the American border west of the Mississippi River and the 1803–1806 Lewis and Clark exploration of that vast territory took Americans to the Pacific Ocean. More mountain men and adventurers moved west, closely followed by permanent settlers who were land hungry. The lessons learned in the Northwest Territory, and the survey system developed there led to the orderly development of territories and admission of states. Our country grew rapidly, and movement west exploded following the Civil War.  

Unlike other countries, we are a nation of 50 sovereign states. Our Constitution extends the rights first expressed by our founders equally to all our citizens in every state. Our founders were amazing heroes. 

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