Federal Land Offices

Black-and-white map showing river and land in square parcels with numbers on them.
The U.S. Government commissioned a survey and map of the Ohio River in order to divide up land and dole it out to White and mostly male citizens.

Thomas Hutchins, "Plat of the seven ranges of townships being part of the territory of the United States, N.W. of the River Ohio" (Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1796). Library of Congress

When Congress established Fort Steuben, the site’s primary purpose was to protect surveyors who Congress had sent to map the Northwest Territory.

Who did these surveyors want protection from? Indigenous people.

Why were Indigenous people upset about surveyors being there?

Because they had seen this play out before. They knew that the surveyors were the first step in American settlers moving out, taking their lands, forcing treaties, and forcing Indigenous communities to move west and leave their homes.

The new settlement of Americans included a mundane but powerful tool of colonization: the Federal Land Office. Here was the place where (mostly White, mostly male) settlers signed legal documents to claim land.

Lewis and his crew were moving through an area in a later phase of the American colonial project (the process of Americans claiming Indigenous land, forcing Indigenous people to vacate it, and then encouraging White settlers to move to and farm it). In the Ohio Valley, the U.S. government had already asserted control over the region. They had forced Shawnee and Delaware leaders to sign treaties and to move west and north.

When Lewis passed by, he saw American families traveling through. Those families were on their way to claiming land where Shawnee and Delaware families had so recently lived.

Lewis and his crew were now on their way to areas of the continent controlled by Indigenous communities. The goal of their journey, as laid out by President Thomas Jefferson, was to establish the United States’ claims to lands that the United States had bought from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

Wars, treaties, and surveys would follow. Then these acres—someone else’s homelands—would be handed out through signatures at a federal land office.

Just like the one in Steubenville.

About this article: This article is part of a series called “Pivotal Places: Stories from the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.”

Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

Last updated: June 16, 2023