Northwest Territory, first possession of the United States, comprising the region known as the Old Northwest, S and W of the Great Lakes, NW of the Ohio River, and E of the Mississippi River, including the present states of Ohio, Ind., Ill., Mich., Wis., and part of Minn.
Exploration and Early Settlement
Men from New France began to penetrate this rich fur country in the 17th cent.; in 1634, the French explorer Jean Nicolet became the first to enter the region. He was followed by explorers and traders—Radisson and Groseilliers, Duluth, La Salle, Jolliet, Perrot, and Cadillac—as well as by missionaries such as Jogues, Dablon, and Marquette. The Great Lakes region was controlled by a few widely scattered French posts, such as Kaskaskia, Vincennes, Prairie du Chien, and Green Bay; links were established between the Northwest settlements and those in French Louisiana (St. Louis, New Orleans). The two chief posts of the Old Northwest were Detroit and Mackinac (Michilimackinac), but French influence spread among the Native American groups east to the Iroquois country.
In the 18th cent. the Northwest was coveted not only by the British colonists in Canada, but also by those in the American seaboard colonies, who organized the Ohio Company in 1747 for the purpose of extending the Virginia settlements westward. At the same time, the French sought to strengthen their hold on the Northwest by building forts. The clash of British and French interests culminated in the expedition led by George Washington that resulted in the loss of Fort Necessity and the outbreak of the last of the French and Indian Wars. The wars ended in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, by which the British obtained Canada and the Old Northwest.
Almost immediately after the British acquired the region, Pontiac, an Ottawa chief, led an uprising against them (see Pontiac's Rebellion). The Ottawa were somewhat appeased by the British Proclamation of 1763 that closed the region W of the Allegheny Mts. to white settlement in an attempt to protect the Native American fur trade and lands; yet this action caused resentment among the American frontiersmen and contributed to the American Revolution. The mysterious machinations of Robert Rogers, an American frontiersman, further endangered the British hold on the Old Northwest. During the Revolutionary War, an expedition led by the American general George Rogers Clark penetrated deep into the region in 1778–79, in one of the most daring and valuable exploits of the war.
An American Territory
The Old Northwest became U.S. territory in 1783 by the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolution and soon was one of the most pressing problems before the U.S. Congress. The four so-called landed states—Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut—claimed portions of the Old Northwest, while states with no western land claims, especially Maryland, argued that if the claims of the landed states were recognized, the wealth and population of the other states would be attracted to the western lands. The final solution was the cession of all the lands to the U.S. government, which was thus greatly strengthened; New York made its cession in 1780, Virginia in 1784, Massachusetts in 1785, and Connecticut in 1786. Two reserves were kept, the Virginia Military District and the Connecticut Western Reserve in Ohio. The Ordinance of 1785 established the Township System for surveying, which used a rectangular grid system in order to divide the land.
The Ordinance of 1787 set up the machinery for the organization of territories and the admission of states. Its terms prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, encouraged free public education, and guaranteed religious freedom and trial by jury. The Ohio Company of Associates, the most active force in early colonization, was followed by later companies that brought settlers into the territory.
British traders, however, opposed American expansion, and the Native Americans were also hostile to their encroachment. A series of campaigns against the indigenous tribes culminated in 1794, when Gen. Anthony Wayne won an American victory at Fallen Timbers; his victory was solidified by the Greenville Treaty of 1795. Meanwhile, Jay's Treaty and subsequent negotiations smoothed out some of the British-American difficulties. The Northwest posts were transferred to Americans in 1796, although British influence remained strong among the Native Americans.
Settlers poured into the southern part of the Territory, and in 1799 a legislature was organized. In 1800 the western part was split off as Indiana Territory, and by 1802, the eastern portion was populated enough to seek admission as a state; it was admitted as Ohio in 1803. Other territories were then formed—Michigan in 1805, Illinois in 1809, and Wisconsin in 1836.
The surviving British traders, however, wanted the Northwest set aside as Native American land, and continued unrest led Tecumseh and Shawnee Prophet to seek a permanent foothold for the Native Americans. Some western Americans, meanwhile, sought to extend the Northwest to Canada. The quarrel over the Northwest was a major cause of the War of 1812. The Treaty of Ghent (see Ghent, Treaty of), which ended the war, solved the problem of the Northwest. Despite opposition from British merchants in the region, Great Britain irrevocably gave the Northwest to the United States.
See H. N. Scheiber, The Old Northwest (1969); H. Bird, War for the West (1971); H. B. Johnson, Order Upon the Land (1976).