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The Old Northwest Territory: America’s First Great Westward Expansion

If I were to speak of the Northwest Territories today, most people would assume I was either talking about the Canadian province or the Pacific Northwest region. This would not be the case for the residents of the early United States. The Northwest Territory they knew encompassed a huge area of land north of the Ohio River. In fact, the Northwest Territory was the genesis of the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. It was, in fact, the focus of young America’s first great westward push.

Early History

The first Caucasian explorations into this area were by French-Canadian voyagers in the 17th century. The first recorded European entrant into the region was Jean Nicolet, who was the first European to explore Lake Michigan. In 1634 he landed at Red Banks, near the current site of Green Bay, Wisconsin. With some Ho-Chunk (the native peoples of this area) guides, Nicolet ascended the Fox River, portaged to the Wisconsin, and travelled down it until it began to widen before returning to Quebec unaware that he had just missed discovering the Mississippi River. After suffering defeat in the French and Indian War, France ceded the territory to Great Britain in the 1763 Treaty of Paris as part of the Indian Reserve.

From the 1750s until the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812, the British had a long-standing goal of creating an Indian barrier state, independent of the United States and allied with the British government, which would block American westward expansion and increase British control of the fur trade headquartered in Montreal. In an initial attempt to block American expansion, some factions in Britain and the American Colonies suggested the creation of a new colony, named Charlotina, in the southern Great Lakes region.

Extent of the Northwest Territory
Extent of the Northwest Territory

The events of Pontiac's War, however, forced the British Crown to issue the Proclamation of 1763. This Royal Proclamation prohibited white colonial settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains intending to reserve that land for the Native peoples. This action angered American colonists interested in expansion, as well as those who had already settled in the area. In 1774, Parliament passed the Quebec Act which annexed the region to the Province of Quebec to provide a civil government and to centralize British administration of the Montreal-based fur trade. The prohibition of settlement west of the Appalachians remained in place and was a contributing factor to the American Revolution. Britain officially ceded the area north of the Ohio River and west of the Appalachians to the United States at the end of the American Revolutionary War with the Treaty of Paris (1783), but the British continued to maintain a presence in the region as late as 1815, the end of the War of 1812.

Thomas Jefferson's Land Ordinance of 1784 was the first organization of the territory by the United States. The original draft of the ordinance contained five important articles:

1. The new states shall remain forever a part of the United States of America.

2. They shall bear the same relation to the confederation as the original states.

3. They shall pay their apportionment of the federal debts.

4. They shall in their governments uphold republican forms.

5. After the year 1800 there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of them.

The Ordinance passed without the 5th clause, despite Jefferson’s wishes. In a letter to James Madison dated April 25, 1784, Jefferson wrote:

"The clause was lost by an individual vote only. Ten states were present. The four eastern states, New York, and Pennsylvania were for the clause; Jersey would have been for it, but there were but two members, one of whom was sick in his chambers. South Carolina, Maryland, and [!] Virginia [!] voted against it. North Carolina was divided, as would have been Virginia, had not one of its delegates been sick in bed."

The absent Virginian was James Monroe, who left no evidence of an intention to support Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause in any of his writings.

The Land Ordinance of 1784 was augmented by the Land Ordinance of 1785 which set up a standardized system for surveying the land into saleable lots. Prior to this, Congress had no powers to raise revenue by direct taxation, so land sales supplied an important revenue stream. Under this plan, land was to be systematically surveyed into square townships, 6 mi on a side, with each township divided into thirty-six sections of 1 sq mi or 640 acres. These sections could then be subdivided for re-sale by settlers and land speculators. Ohio was an exception and would be partially surveyed several times using different methods, resulting in a patchwork of land surveys in Ohio. Also, in some older French communities' property claims based on earlier systems of long, narrow lots also were retained. This survey system eventually covered over 3/4 of the area of the continental United States.

Scheme for Land Surveys in Ordinance of 1785
Scheme for Land Surveys in Ordinance of 1785

The ordinance was also significant for setting up a mechanism for funding public education. Section 16 in each township was set aside by the plan for the maintenance of public schools. Even today, one can find schools located in section sixteen of their respective townships, although local governments sold a great many of the school sections to raise money for public education and school construction. In later States, the plan also set aside section 36 of each township as a "school section." Finally, the ordinance stipulated that the territory would eventually form at least three but not more than five new states.

Both the Land Ordinance of 1784 and the Land Ordinance of 1785 were superseded by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which provided for civil liberties and public education within the new territories north and west of the Ohio River and banned slavery therein.

Northwest Ordinance of 1787

On July 13, 1787, the Continental Congress enacted “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North-West of the River Ohio”, more commonly referred to as the Northwest Ordinance or the Ordinance of 1787. This ordinance was the legal mechanism by the federal government to transform Native homelands in the newly organized Northwest Territory into the public domain of the United States.

The ordinance set forth “regulations” for the governance of the territory including:

  • The Territory is to be governed as one district, subject to division into two if future conditions necessitate it.

  • Made provisions for the making of wills, and the distribution of property upon the death of the owner without a will and how such property would be distributed to his heirs.

  • Made provision for appointment of a governor, Secretary, establishment of a Court and the appointment of 3 judges.

  • Until the establishment of a Legislature, allowed the Governor and Judges to set up laws, both civil and criminal.

  • Appointed the Governor commander in Chief of the militia and commission officer of that militia below the rank of General.

  • Until the establishment of a Legislature, allowed the Governor to appoint Magistrates and other civil officers in each County or Township.

  • Appointed the Governor to lay out the parts of the district in which Indian titles have been extinguished, into Counties and Townships.

  • That, as soon as there are five thousand free male inhabitants of full age in the district, upon giving proof thereof to the governor, they shall receive authority, with time and place, to elect a representative from their counties or townships to represent them in the general assembly at the rate of one Representative for every five hundred free male residents. It also provided for residency and land ownership requirements in order to qualify as a Representative. Representatives elected to serve a two-year term.

  • The general assembly or legislature shall consist of the governor, legislative council, and a house of representatives. The Legislative Council to consist of five members, nominated by the house of representatives and appointed by the US Congress who will serve five-year terms.

  • Provided for the division of the Northwest into territories and, with sixty thousand free inhabitants, a territory could draft a state constitution and petition the republic for admission to the union. That the Northwest Territory shall be formed into at least three and not more than five states.

  • Guaranteed Civil and Religious liberty by prohibiting persecution based upon religion, affirming the right of habeas corpus, trial by jury, the authority of common law, outlawing excessive bail, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, the requirement for compensation if the government must take a person’s property, and providing for schools.

  • Ordered that Indian land or property could not be taken without their consent, and that they should never be invaded except in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress.

  • That the territory, and the States formed form it would forever remain part of the United States and they shall be subject to all Acts and Ordinances made by the Congress of the United States. That the residents of the territory and resulting States shall be subject to pay a part of the federal debts incurred or to be incurred as well as a proportional part of the expense of government.

  • That all waters leading into the Mississippi and St. Lawrence, and the carting places between the same, shall be common highways and forever free.

  • Finally, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in said territory other than in the case of punishment for crimes that the individual has been duly convicted. However, any slaves who escape into the Territory from states where slavery in legal, may be reclaimed and conveyed back to the person with legal claim to their service.

It is interesting to note how the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance foreshadow those that would go into the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution, ratified 4 years later in 1791.

Northwest Indian War

Although the Ordinance prohibited the invasion or taking of Indian lands, settlers moving west paid little attention to it. U.S. frontier settlers were more interested in land acquisition and agriculture, ignoring the existing exchange economies of Native Nations and traders. The situation was further aggravated by the fact that the British kept a military presence in their forts in the Northwest Territory and continued policies that supported the Native Americans. Some British agents in the region, like Alexander McKee, a British agent born to a Shawnee mother, sold weapons and ammunition to the Indians, and encouraged attacks on American settlers. This resulted in the formation of a Huron-led confederacy in 1785 to resist the taking of Indian lands, declaring that lands north and west of the Ohio River were Indian territory.

British Agent Alexander McKee
British Agent Alexander McKee

The confederacy was a loose association of primarily Algonquin-speaking tribes in the Great Lakes area. The Wyandot (Huron) were the nominal "fathers," or senior tribe of the confederacy, but the Shawnee and Miami supplied the greatest share of the fighting forces. Other tribes in the confederacy included the Delaware (Lenape), Council of Three Fires (Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi), Kickapoo, Kaskaskia, and Wabash Confederacy (Wea, Piankashaw, and others). In most cases, an entire tribe was not involved in the war; the Indian societies were generally not centralized. Villages and individual warriors and chiefs decided on participation in the war. Nearly 200 Cherokee warriors from two bands of the Overmountain Towns fought alongside the Shawnee from the inception of the Revolution through the years of the Indian Confederacy. In addition, the Chickamauga (Lower Town) Cherokee leader, Dragging Canoe, sent a contingent of warriors as well.

Josiah Harmer
Josiah Harmer

In 1790, the new President of the United States, George Washington, and Secretary of War Henry Knox ordered General Josiah Harmar to launch the Harmar campaign, a major western offensive into the Shawnee and Miami country. General Harmar's forces of about 1,450 militia and regulars left Fort Washington in early October 1790. On 19 October, the Natives lured a scouting party of about 400 under the command of Colonel John Hardin into an ambush near the village of Le Gris, losing 129 soldiers in one of two defeats that have become known as Hardin's Defeat. The following day, natives ambushed another scouting party under Ensign Phillip Hartshorn, however, Harmar did not move to help them or recover their remains. Finally, on 21 October 1790, a mixed party of militia and regulars under Colonel Hardin set up attack positions on the Miami capital of Kekionga (present day Fort Wayne, IN) and awaited reinforcements from General Harmar. Those reinforcements never came. Instead, forces under Miami Chief Little Turtle and Shawnee Chief Bluejacket overwhelmed Hardin and compelled the U.S. forces to retreat in the second battle known as Harmar's Defeat. With 3 consecutive losses, more than 300 casualties, and low morale, Harmar retreated to Fort Washington. Referred to collectively as "Harmer's Defeat," this was the worst defeat of U.S. forces by Indians up to that time, surpassed only by St. Clair's Defeat later in this war.

Arthur St Clair
Arthur St Clair

Following this defeat, President Washington was afraid the victory over US Forces would embolden the Native Americans. Congress raised a second regiment of Regular soldiers for six months, but it later reduced the soldiers' pay. Meanwhile, Secretary of War Henry Knox instructed St. Clair to fortify Kekionga the following campaign season. As a result, of Congress’ actions, the demoralized First Regiment was reduced to 299 soldiers, while the new Second Regiment recruited only half of their authorized number. When Governor St. Clair led the expedition the next year, he had to augment his forces with Kentucky militia as well as two regiments of six-month levees (conscripts) in order to field the required manpower.

At its peak, the American forces under St. Clair included 600 regulars, 800 six-month conscripts, and 600 militia, a total of around 2,000 men. Desertion took its toll and by the time the force finally got underway, it had dwindled to around 1,486 total men and some 200–250 camp followers (wives, children, laundresses, and prostitutes). By the beginning of November, through further desertion and illness, St. Clair's force had been reduced to around 1,120, including the camp followers. According to muster reports, he had 52 officers and 868 enlisted and militia available for duty on 3 November.

The Native American forces were led by Little Turtle of the Miamis, Blue Jacket of the Shawnee, and Buckongahelas of the Lenape. While St. Clair's Army had continued to lose soldiers, the Western Confederacy quickly added numbers. Buckongahelas led his 480 men to join the 700 warriors of Little Turtle and Blue Jacket. This brought the war party to more than one thousand warriors, including many Potawatomis from eastern Michigan and the Saint Joseph.

On the evening of 3 November, St. Clair's force set up a camp on a high hill near the present-day location of Fort Recovery, Ohio, near the headwaters of the Wabash River. The native force consisting of around 1,000 warriors waited in the woods until dawn, when the men stacked their weapons and paraded to their morning meals. Adjutant General Winthrop Sargent had just reprimanded the militia for not conducting reconnaissance patrols when the natives struck, surprising the Americans and overrunning their ground.

Little Turtle
Little Turtle

Little Turtle directed the first attack at the militia, who fled across a stream without their weapons. The regulars quickly broke their musket stacks, formed battle lines, and fired a volley into the natives, forcing them back. Little Turtle responded by flanking the regulars and closing in on them. Meanwhile, St. Clair's artillery, stationed on a nearby bluff, was wheeling into position when native marksmen killed the gun crews. Before retreating, the survivors spiked their guns to prevent the British from using them.

Colonel William Darke ordered his battalion to fix bayonets and charge the main native position. Little Turtle's forces gave way and retreated to the woods, only to encircle Darke's battalion and destroy it. US Forces tried bayonet charges multiple times with comparable results and the U.S. forces eventually collapsed in disorder. St. Clair had three horses shot out from under him as he tried in vain to rally his men.

After three hours of fighting, St. Clair called together the remaining officers and, faced with total annihilation, decided to try one last bayonet charge to get through the native line and escape. Supplies and wounded were left in camp. As before, Little Turtle's Army allowed the bayonets to pass through, but this time the men ran for Fort Jefferson. The Natives pursued them for about three miles before they broke off pursuit and returned to loot the camp.

The casualty rate in this battle was the highest percentage ever suffered against Native American forces by a United States Army unit. Of the 52 officers engaged, 39 were killed and 7 wounded; around 88% of all officers had become casualties. The American casualty rate among the soldiers, was 97.4% percent, including 632 of 920 killed (69%) and 264 wounded. Nearly all of the 200 camp followers were slaughtered, for a total of 832 Americans killed. Approximately one-quarter of the entire U.S. Army had been wiped out in this single engagement. The number of U.S. soldiers killed during this engagement was more than three times the number the Sioux would kill 85 years later at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Within weeks of learning of the disaster, Washington urged Congress to raise an army capable of conducting a successful offense against the American Indian confederacy. In March 1792 it did by establishing additional army regiments (the Legion of the United States), adding three-year enlistments, and increasing military pay. That May, it also passed two Militia Acts. The first empowered the president to call out the militias of the several states authority which President Washington later utilized in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion. The second required free able-bodied white male citizens of the various states between the ages of 18 and 45 to enroll in the militia of the state in which they lived.

General "Mad Anthony" Wayne

In late 1793, Major General "Mad Anthony" Wayne led 300 men from the Legion to the site of St. Clair's defeat. The Legion quickly built Fort Recovery and spent the following months reinforcing the structure and searching for the abandoned artillery from St. Clair's defeat. On 30 June to 1 July 1794, the Legion successfully defended the fort from a Native American attack.

Before leaving Fort Recovery, Wayne sent a final offer of peace with two captured prisoners to the leaders of the confederation at Roche de Bout. The confederacy leaders debated among themselves. Little Turtle branded Wayne as a "black snake who never sleeps," and recommended that the confederation should negotiate with Wayne. Blue Jacket mocked Little Turtle as a traitor and convinced the others that Wayne would be defeated, just as Harmar and St. Clair had been. Little Turtle then relinquished leadership to Blue Jacket, saying that he would only be a follower. The perceived cracks in the united confederacy concerned the British, who sent reinforcements to Fort Miami on the Maumee River.

On August 20, the Legion, supported by Kentucky militia, won a decisive victory in the Battle of Fallen Timbers against a combined Native American force, numbering about 1,500, comprised Blue Jacket's Shawnees, Delawares led by Buckongahelas, Miamis led by Little Turtle, Wyandots led by Tarhe as well as Roundhead, Ojibwas, and Odawa led by Egushawa, Potawatomi led by Little Otter, Mingos, a small detachment of Mohawks, and a British company of Canadian militiamen dressed as Native Americans under LTC William Caldwell.

Battle of Fallen Timbers
Battle of Fallen Timbers

The entire battle lasted an hour and ten minutes. The Indian warriors fled towards Fort Miami but were surprised to find the gates closed against them. Major William Campbell, the British commander of the fort, had closed the gates when the first warriors arrived and the sounds of musket fire came closer. He refused to open the gates now and give refuge to the confederate warriors, unwilling to start a war with the United States. The remnants of the confederate army continued north and reunited near Swan Creek, where their families were encamped. Alexander McKee, the British Trader and Indian Agent, tried to rally them once more, but they refused to fight again, especially after the betrayal of the British at Fort Miami. On 12 September, Wayne issued invitations for peace negotiations, but they went unanswered. Finally, on 15 September, Wayne led the Legion from Fort Defiance and marched unopposed for two days to the Miami capital of Kekionga, where they constructed Fort Wayne.


Various native groups began suing for peace in December. Antoine Lasselle arrived at Fort Wayne on 17 December with a group of Native Americans and Canadiens. Within a month, most Miami had returned to Kekionga, and representatives of the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, Odawa, and Wyandotte had sought out the Legion to "bury the hatchet." During the summer of 1795, the confederacy met with a U.S. delegation led by General Wayne to negotiate the Treaty of Greenville, signed on 3 August. This treaty opened most of the modern U.S. state of Ohio to settlement, using the site of St. Clair's defeat as a reference point to draw a line near the current border of Ohio and Indiana. The Treaty of Greenville, along with Jay's Treaty and Pinckney's Treaty, set the terms of the peace and defined post-colonial relations among the U.S., Britain, and Spain. Although some skirmishes between Native Americans and Settlers continued to occur from time to time, most historians consider the treaty to be the conclusion to the Northwest Indian War.

Painting of the Treaty of Greenville Conference
Painting of the Treaty of Greenville Conference

The Northwest would remain largely peaceful until the War of 1812. Many veterans of the Battle of Fallen Timbers would become known for their later accomplishments, including William Clark, who co-led the Lewis and Clark Expedition, General Wayne's aide-de-camp, William Henry Harrison, became territorial secretary, a member of Congress, governor of the Indiana Territory and finally President of the United States throughout which he followed Thomas Jefferson's policy of incremental land purchases from Native American nations. On the Native side, Tecumseh, a young Shawnee veteran of Fallen Timbers who refused to sign the Greenville Treaty, rose to prominence through resistance of this gradual removal eventually heading a new pan-tribal confederation. We will hear more about Tecumseh and his Confederation in our next post.

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