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.
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).
The Northwest Territory, formally known as the Territory Northwest of the River Ohio, was a governmental region within the early United States. The Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Congress of the Confederation on July 13, 1787, provided for the administration of the territories and set rules for admission as a state. On August 7, 1789, the new U.S. Congress affirmed the Ordinance with slight modifications under the Constitution. The territory included all the land of the United States west of Pennsylvania and northwest of the Ohio River. It covered all of the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as the northeastern part of Minnesota. The area covered more than 260,000 square miles (673,000 km²).
A new colony, named Charlotina, was proposed for the Southern Great Lakes region. However, facing armed opposition by Native Americans, the British issued the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains until treaties had been negotiated with the Native Americans. But this action angered American colonists interested in expansion and was a contributing factor to the American Revolution.
Britain 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.
Several states (Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut) then had competing claims on the territory. Other states, such as Maryland, refused to ratify the Articles of Confederation so long as these states were allowed to keep their western territory, fearing that those states could continue to grow and tip the balance of power in their favor under the proposed system of federal government. As a concession in order to obtain ratification, these states ceded their claims on the territory to the U.S. government: New York in 1780, Virginia in 1784, Massachusetts and Connecticut in 1785. So the majority of the territory became public land owned by the U.S. government. Virginia and Connecticut reserved the land of two areas to use as compensation to military veterans: The Virginia Military District and the Connecticut Western Reserve. In this way, the United States included territory and people outside any of the states.
The Land Ordinance of 1785 established a standardized system for surveying the land into saleable lots, although Ohio had already been partially surveyed several times using different methods, resulting in a patchwork of land surveys in Ohio. Some older French communities' property claims based on earlier systems of long, narrow lots also were retained. The rest of the Northwest Territory was divided into roughly uniform square townships and sections, which facilitated land sales and development.
Difficulties with Native American tribes and with British trading outposts presented continuing obstacles for American expansion until military campaigns of General "Mad" Anthony Wayne against the Native Americans culminated with victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and the Treaty of Greenville of 1795. Jay's Treaty, in 1794, temporarily helped to smooth relations with British traders in the region, where British citizens outnumbered American citizens throughout the 1780s. Ongoing disputes with the British over the region was a contributing factor to the War of 1812. Britain irrevocably ceded claim to the Northwest Territory with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.
When the territory was created, it was inhabited by about 45,000 Native Americans and 4,000 traders, mostly French and British – although both groups included the Metis, a sizeable group descended from Native women married to European or Canadian traders who established a unique culture that ruled the Upper Midwest for more than a century before American settlement officially began at Marietta, Ohio, on April 7, 1788, with the arrival of forty-eight pioneers. The first governor of the Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, formally established the government on July 15, 1788, at Marietta. His original plan called for the organization of five initial counties: Washington (Ohio east of the Scioto River), Hamilton (Ohio between the Scioto and the Miami Rivers), Knox (Indiana and eastern Illinois), St. Clair (Illinois and Wisconsin), and Wayne (Michigan).
On July 4, 1800, in preparation for Ohio's statehood, the Indiana Territory was carved out, encompassing all land west of the present Indiana-Ohio border and its northward extension to Lake Superior, reducing the Northwest Territory to present day Ohio and the eastern half of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Ohio was admitted as a state on March 1, 1803, at the same time the remaining land was annexed to Indiana Territory, and the Northwest Territory went out of existence.
At first, the territory had a modified form of martial law. The governor was also the senior army officer within the territory, and he combined legislative and executive authority. But a supreme court was established, and he shared legislative powers with the court. County governments were organized as soon as the population was sufficient, and these assumed local administrative and judicial functions. Washington County was the first of these, at Marietta in 1788. This was an important event, as this court was the first establishment of civil and criminal law in the pioneer country.
As soon as the number of free male settlers exceeded 5,000, the Territorial Legislature was to be created, and this happened in 1798. The full mechanisms of government were put in place, as outlined in the Northwest Ordinance. A bicameral legislature consisted of a House of Representatives and a Council. The first House had 22 representatives, two elected by each county. The House then nominated 10 citizens to be Council members. The nominations were sent to the U.S. Congress, which appointed five of them as the Council. This assembly became the legislature of the Territory, although the governor retained veto power.
Article VI of the Articles of Compact within the Northwest Ordinance prohibited the owning of slaves within the Northwest Territory. However, territorial governments evaded this law by use of indenture laws The Articles of Compact prohibited legal discrimination on the basis of religion within the territory.
The township formula created by Thomas Jefferson was first implemented in the Northwest Territory through the Land Ordinance of 1785. The square surveys of the Northwest Territory would become a hallmark of the Midwest, as sections, townships, counties (and states) were laid out scientifically, and land was sold quickly and efficiently (although not without some speculative aberrations).
Arthur St. Clair was the territory's only governor. The original supreme court was made up of John Cleves Symmes, James Mitchell Varnum, and Samuel Holden Parsons. There were three secretaries: Winthrop Sargent (July 9, 1788–May 31, 1798); William Henry Harrison (June 29, 1798–December 31, 1799); and Charles Willing Byrd (January 1, 1800–January 15, 1803).
The General Assembly of the Northwest Territory consisted of a Legislative Council (five members chosen by Congress) and a House of Representatives consisting of 22 members elected by the male freeholders in nine counties. The first session of the Assembly was held in September 1799. Its first important task was to select a non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress. Locked in a power struggle with Governor St. Clair, the legislature narrowly elected William Henry Harrison as the first delegate over the governor's son, Arthur St. Clair, Jr. Subsequent congressional delegates were William McMillan (1800–1801) and Paul Fearing (1801–1803).
The territory's first common pleas court opened at Marietta on 2 September 1788. Its first judges were General Rufus Putnam, General Benjamin Tupper, and Colonel Archibald Crary. Paul Fearing became the first attorney to practice in the territory, and Colonel William Stacy was foreman of the first grand jury.
13 counties were formed by territorial governor Arthur St. Clair during the territory's existence:
The Northwest Territory ceased to exist upon Ohio statehood on March 1, 1803; Ohio lands previously part of Wayne County briefly reverted to an unorganized status until the state formed new counties from that land later that year.