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The Territory Northwest of the River Ohio, more commonly known as the Northwest Territory, was an organized incorporated territory of the United States that existed from July 13, 1787, until March 1, 1803, when the southeastern portion of the territory was admitted to the Unionmarker as the state of Ohiomarker.

The Congress of the Confederation enacted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 to provide 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 Pennsylvaniamarker and northwest of the Ohio River. It covered all of the modern states of Ohiomarker, Indianamarker, Illinoismarker, Michiganmarker, and Wisconsinmarker, as well as the northeastern part of Minnesotamarker. The area covered more than 260,000 square miles (673,000 km²).


European exploration of the region began with Frenchmarker Canadianmarker voyageurs in the seventeenth century, followed by French missionaries and French fur traders. French Canadian explorer Jean Nicolet was the first recorded entrant into the region, landing in 1634 at the site of Green Bay, Wisconsin, today (although Étienne Brûlé is stated by some sources as having explored Lake Superior and possibly inland Wisconsin in 1622). The French exercised control from widely separated posts throughout the region they claimed as New France. France ceded the territory to the Kingdom of Great Britainmarker in the Treaty of Paris , which ended the French and Indian Wars.

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 Mountainsmarker until treaties had been negotiated with the Native Americans. This action angered American colonists interested in expansion. In 1774, by the Quebec Act, the region was annexed to the Province of Quebec in order 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 and this 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 , but the British continued to maintain a presence in the region as late as 1815, the end of the War of 1812.
The state cessions that eventually allowed for the creation of the Territories North and South West of the River Ohio

Several states (Virginiamarker, Massachusettsmarker, New Yorkmarker, and Connecticutmarker) then had competing claims on the territory. Other states, such as Marylandmarker, 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 Greenvillemarker 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, Ohiomarker, 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: Washingtonmarker (Ohio east of the Scioto River), Hamiltonmarker (Ohio between the Scioto and the Miamimarker Rivers), Knoxmarker (Indiana and eastern Illinois), St. Clairmarker (Illinois and Wisconsin), and Waynemarker (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 Superiormarker, 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.

Law and government

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[32582]. 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 section, townships, counties (and states) were laid out scientifically, and land was sold quickly and efficiently (although not without some speculative aberrations).


Wooden Nickel from the 150th Anniversary Celebration of the Northwest Territory, 1938, Marietta, Ohio

Arthur St. Clair was the territory's governor until November 1802, when President Thomas Jefferson removed him from office and appointed Charles Willing Byrd, who served the position until Ohio became a state and elected their first governor, Edward Tiffin, on March 3, 1803 . 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–March 1, 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.

Winthrop Sargent, the first secretary of the territory, married Roewena Tupper, daughter of Gen. Benjamin Tupper, on 6 February 1789 at Marietta in the first marriage ceremony held within the Northwest Territory.

Territorial Counties

Plaque at Marietta, Ohio commemorating the first American settlement of the Northwest Territory

13 counties were formed by Governor Arthur St. Clair during the territory's existence:

  • Washington Countymarker, with its seat at Mariettamarker, was the first county formed in the territory, proclaimed on July 26, 1788 by territorial governor St. Clair. Its original boundaries were proclaimed as all of present-day Ohio east of a line extending due south from the mouth of the Cuyahoga Rivermarker, but this did not take into account Connecticut'smarker still unresolved claim of the Western Reserve. It kept these boundaries until 1796.

  • Hamilton Countymarker, with its seat at Cincinnatimarker, was proclaimed on January 2, 1790. The same proclamation officially changed Cincinnati's name from Losantiville into its present form. Its original boundaries claimed all land north of the Ohio between the Great Miamimarker and Little Miamimarker Rivers as far north as Standing Stone Fork (now Loramie Creek), just north of present-day Piquamarker. In 1792 Hamilton County would expand to encompass all lands between the mouths of the Great Miami and Cuyahoga Rivers, as well as all of what is now the Lower Peninsula of Michiganmarker. Its territory would undergo several reductions after 1796.

  • St. Clair Countymarker, with its seat at Kaskaskiamarker was proclaimed on April 27, 1790. It originally encompassed most of present-day Illinoismarker south of the Illinois River. It lost most of its southern lands in the formation of Randolph County in 1795, necessitating the transfer of the county seat to Cahokiamarker, but would expand to the north to take in northwest present-day Illinois and most of present-day Wisconsinmarker in 1801 after becoming part of Indiana Territory.

  • Knox Countymarker, with its seat at Vincennesmarker, was proclaimed on June 20, 1790, and encompassed the majority of the territory's land area - all land between St. Clair County and Hamilton County, extending north to Canadamarker.

  • Randolph Countymarker was formed October 5, 1795 with its seat at Kaskaskiamarker and encompassed the southern half of what was St. Clair County.

  • Wayne Countymarker was formed on August 15, 1796, out of portions of Hamilton County and unorganized land, with its seat at Detroitmarker, which had been evacuated by the British five weeks previously. Wayne County originally covered all of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, northwestern Ohiomarker, northern Indianamarker and a small portion of the present Lake Michiganmarker shoreline, including the site of present-day Chicago. The lands west of the extension of the present Indiana-Ohio border would become part of Indiana Territory in 1800; the eastern portion of the county's land in Ohio would be erected into Trumbull County that same year. The part of the territory north of the Ordinance Line would become part of Indiana Territory in 1803 as a reorganized Wayne County; the remainder would revert to an unorganized status after Ohio statehood.

  • Adams Countymarker was formed on July 10, 1797, with its seat at Manchestermarker; it encompassed most of present-day south central Ohio.

  • Jefferson Countymarker was formed July 29, 1797 with its seat at Steubenvillemarker, carved out of Washington County and originally encompassed all of what is now northeastern Ohio.

  • Ross Countymarker was organized on August 20, 1798 with its seat at Chillicothe and was carved out of portions of Knox, Hamilton and Washington counties.

Knox, Randolph and St. Clair counties were separated from the territory effective July 4, 1800, and, along with the western part of Wayne County, and unorganized lands in what are now Minnesota and Wisconsin, became the Indiana Territory.

  • Clermont Countymarker was formed December 6, 1800 out of Hamilton County, with its seat at Williamsburgmarker. In contrast with most other Northwest Territory counties, Clermont County's original boundaries are only slightly larger than its present-day limits.

  • Fairfield Countymarker was proclaimed December 9, 1800 and formed out of Ross and Washington counties, with its seat at Lancastermarker.

The Northwest Territory ceased to exist upon Ohio statehood on March 1, 1803; the lands in Ohio that were previously part of Wayne County but not included in Trumbull County reverted to an unorganized status until new counties could be formed in the years to come. The remainder of Wayne County, roughly the eastern half of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan and the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsulamarker, was attached to Indiana Territory.

See also


  1. Hildreth, S. P.: Pioneer History: Being an Account of the First Examinations of the Ohio Valley, and the Early Settlement of the Northwest Territory, H. W. Derby and Co., Cincinnati, Ohio (1848) p. 232–33.
  2. Zimmer, L: True Stories from Pioneer Valley, Broughton Foods Co., Marietta, Ohio (1987) p. 20.
  3. S.O. Griswold, The Corporate Birth and Growth of the City of Cleveland, Western Reserve and Northern Ohio Historical Society, Tract No. 62, 1884
  4. Unknown, History of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, S.B. Nelson & Co., 1894
  5. W.C. Walton, A Brief History of St. Clair County McKendree College, 1928
  6. Logan Esarey, A History of Indiana W.K. Stewart Co, 1915, p. 137

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