Northwest Territory Migration

A Brief History

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The Northwest Territory consisted of a vast amount of land located west of the Appalachian Mountains and north of the Ohio River. This land became a territory of the United States after a treaty signed with Paris, France in 1783. It was then known as the Northwest Territory of the River Ohio and the Northwest Land Ordinance was established during the year of 1787. During this time period, land was available for purchase to entice new settlements in the region. Land was also available to American Revolutionary War veterans for their services during the war. Prior to 1787. there were several settlements located within the present day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan areas. These settlements were filled with citizens who migrated before and during the onset of the American Revolutionary War for various reasons. This blog will discuss the brief history of this area prior to statehood of these states. The Northwest Territory Migration was the 2nd largest to occur with the United States. The first being the Great Wagon Road migration from Pennsylvania to the southern colonies. Many of these same families who traveled the Great Wagon Road also traveled the trails for the new territory of the northwest.

Seal of the Territory of the US NW Territory River of Ohio

The Land Ordinance text reveals the initial setting of the land boundaries and the establishment of townships within 6 square miles with lines running north and south. This ordinance also proclaimed the need of public schools and each township was to set aside a tract of land for the purpose of a school. The ordinance also prohibited slaves upon the land. Unlike the early settlements of the colonies prior to the independence, our fore fathers were organizing the western sections by land sales and education of the future. These two elements were vital for the security of the new nation. The committee overseeing the operations of this ordinance was divided primarily between two known groups, the New England land system and the Southern land system. The first concentrating on the townships and how they would be surveyed and charted. The Southern land system focused on the frontiersman and larger tracts of land opposed to the original smaller tracts. The Southern land system wanted to expand it’s way of life known in the southern colonies with large plantations and slavery. Both of these groups played an important role in the new territory and both displayed attractions to the citizens thinking upon the idea of relocating to the area.

This diagram demonstrates the method in which land was charted and surveyed in the new territory. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Land settlement was prohibited west of the Appalachian Mountain chain since 1763. Although several families did indeed travel to these areas, especially present day Kentucky and Tennessee from 1763-1785. When the pioneers of the original colonies heard word of the new land available legally in the northwest, they also learned of the new laws proposed within the territory. This was accepted and viewed upon with the early pioneers in both a positive manner and a negative manner. Land in the new territory must be titled, chartered and surveyed in accordance to the law. This means that a family could not travel to the area, select a parcel of land, live upon the land and later submit to a survey and have the land titled correctly. There were new procedures to follow in order to acquire land ownership in this new territory. An example of this is a family migrates to the Ohio valley and lives upon 600 acres for 5 years. They do not apply for a survey, pay fees or submit for a title of land proving ownership. Years later, another family moves to the same parcel, applies for title, abides the laws and therefore owns the land legally. Until the new laws were respected, many land disputes resulted with boundaries and ownerships.

The sale of these land tracts would enable the new nation to settle portions of debt that occurred after the American Revolutionary War. However; before these parcels could be sold, the land squatters and the Indian villages had to be removed. The governor of the territory, Arthur St. Clair organized signed treaties with several of the Indian tribes located within the area. 80% of the Indian population participated with these treaties, the remaining were subject to the Northwest Indian’s War or otherwise known as Little Turtle’s War. It wasn’t until 1795 with the signing of the Greenville Treaty that the entire territory was open for settlement. Please note, that an Indian Reservation did exist along the northwestern portion of Ohio. This reservation existed until circa 1821 when the Indians were removed to a new location outside of Ohio.

Indian Country Map of 1834

Majority of families traveling to the Northwest Territory during the late 18th century would have traveled along the Wilderness Trail through North Carolina through Kentucky to reach the National Road through Ohio and onward to Indiana. Marietta, Ohio was the first settlement in this region dating to 1788. Colonel Rufus Putnam led a group of early settlers to the area and established the Ohio Company of Associates. Putnam’s original house still stands within the walls of the Ohio River Museum. The first settlers built a fort to prevent Indian attacks. They named the fort Campus Martius. By 1840, nearly 2,000 citizens were living in the community. Marietta was also known as the Riverboat Town during the mid 19th century.

The National Road was the main route into the Northwest Territory during the later portion of the 17th century. Before this, Indian trails and portions of Hunter trails were traveled to reach the area. Also known as the Cumberland Road, this trail was filled with pioneers traveling west. The federal government funded the road beginning in 1811. This allowed normal maintenance on the road which was very popular among the travelers.

Portions of the Nation Road in Washington County, Ohio

If you are currently researching your ancestor into the Northwest Territory, it would be best to determine the timeline prior to researching. Also, for those settlers who did not acquire a title for the lands, their records will not exist. These early settlers were known as squatters and only lived upon the land until it was sold legally to someone else or purchased by the squatter’s themselves. Very limited records exist for the period prior to 1788. But, if you are researching your ancestors, don’t give up on the search. The rewards are so priceless when you find documentation and proof that your ancestors did indeed settle the frontier known as the Northwest Territory.

As always, Piedmont Trails appreciates your support and hope each of you discover great treasures among your genealogy journey.

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