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Historical Background

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Founders and Frontiersmen
Historical Background

Toward the Setting Sun—The Westward Movement, 1783-1828 (continued)


Just after the War for Independence, the first major wave of settlers crossed the mountains, where they had to compete with the Indians, Spanish, and British for control of the land. Other obstacles to settlement were the uncertain authority of the National Government, and a primitive transportation system. In two decades, military victories and treaties and the pressure of numbers had driven back the Indians and their allies. Growing Western political power had helped to elect Jefferson and resulted in national legislation beneficial to the region. The transportation system was incomplete but improving. Above all, the Nation at large had caught the spirit of the West and was coming to recognize that the future lay over the mountains.

During the years 1783-1803 the frontier pushed northwestward from the Ohio River into the old Northwest and southwestward from bases in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia into the Mississippi-Alabama area. In both regions the Indians defended their lands with the help of European allies.

The Federal Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 had created the Northwest Territory and a legal process by which it was to progress in orderly stages from wilderness to statehood. The system had flaws. Prior to settlement, Government surveyors were to mark off the land into townships. The thousands of would-be settlers, waiting to enter the virgin lands north of the Ohio River, felt that the surveying took too long. To the Indians, who were unwilling to see their hunting grounds become farm lands and who resisted the settler's encroachment, it moved too fast. Yet Marietta, Ohio's first permanent settlement, did not come into being until 1788, a full 3 years after the Ordinance of 1785.

In the 1780's the Federal Government tried to maintain order by sending military forces to the Northwest. At the same time, Government representatives tried to accommodate Western interests by negotiating a series of treaties with the Indians that gradually opened the land to settlement. In the second treaty of Fort Stanwix (1786), the once powerful Iroquois ceded their claims to Ohio lands. But the Ohio tribes did not subscribe to the treaty and resolved to drive the Americans back to the Ohio River. In 1791 Gen. Arthur St. Clair tried in vain to conquer the Indians. His defeat encouraged them to undertake extensive raids along the frontier in the winter of 1791-92. In 1793 the Army moved against the Indians once again, this time under Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne.

After almost 1 year in the wilderness, Wayne's forces met and defeated an Indian army at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The battle crippled the spirit of the Indians. Their British allies had not helped them, and they themselves had not been able to unite in common cause against the Americans. The following year, in the Treaty of Greenville (1795), the Indians ceded to the United States most of the present State of Ohio. Ratification of Jay's Treaty (November 1794) that same year dealt them a further blow. By its terms the British would withdraw from their northwestern posts by 1796 and leave the demoralized Indians to fend for themselves.

Fort Harmar
Fort Harmar, Ohio, in 1790. One of the first frontier outposts in the old Northwest, it protected U.S. surveyors and frontiersmen. Lithographed in 1842 from a drawing by Joseph Gilman. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

In the old Southwest the Indians were better organized to resist the advance of the frontier and had Spanish support. Spain's control of the mouths of Southern rivers—water highways of the time—gave her economic leverage against U.S. settlers to the north of Florida. The allegiance of 14,000 Indian warriors also gave her military power. But her willingness to use her power was qualified by the knowledge that its intemperate use might drive the United States and Great Britain into alliance against her. The strength of the British Navy could place Spain's vast American colonial empire in danger. Under the circumstances Spain hesitated to go too far, but intrigued to detach the West from the United States. Her officials pensioned and cajoled dissident westerners. By threatening to close the port of New Orleans to U.S. goods, she stirred up considerable Western unrest, especially in 1786. At the culmination of the fruitless Jay-Gardoqui negotiations that year, it appeared to westerners that the Government was willing to trade free navigation of the Mississippi for a commercial treaty with Spain.

A major point of conflict between Spain and the United States in the 1780's and 1790's was the Yazoo strip—today's southern Alabama and Mississippi. Both Spain and the United States claimed the region. To preserve a buffer there against the pressure from American settlers, Spain favored an independent Creek Indian State and maintained forces to support it. But the Creeks and the Spanish were no match for the land-hungry Americans. By the Treaty of Augusta (1783), an element of the Creek Nation angered the rest by surrendering the lands in northern Georgia, as far west as the Oconee River, to the Americans. Hoping that a strong leader could unite them against further American encroachments, the Creeks appointed the able Scotch-French-Creek Alexander McGillivray as their "king." By playing off the Spanish against the Americans, he was able to resist temporarily the tide of American settlement. But in 1793 he died and the divided Creeks were driven back.

In the next decade, despite speculators, legal confusion resulting from the Yazoo land fraud of 1795, and economic unrest created by the Whisky Tax of 1791, settlers moved into the Yazoo strip. The Indians fell back before the weight of numbers. In 1798, recognizing the hopelessness of the situation, Spain abandoned her Yazoo strip forts, and the same year the region became a part of the newly created Mississippi Territory, which Congress extended in 1802 to include all of present Alabama and Mississippi. By 1800 a growing but temporary rapprochement between Great Britain and the United States helped to convince Spain that Louisiana was indefensible. In that year, by the Treaty of San Ildefonso, she ceded Louisiana to France. Three years later France would sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States. In the meantime the Government and the settlers were finding it difficult to arrive at a fair and efficient means of developing the lands east of the Mississippi.

The problem was particularly acute in the Northwest Territory. The difficulty was that most settlers had no ready cash for the purchase of land. Speculators became active. They bought the land from the Government, often on credit, in large lots and then resold it to settlers in small lots, also often on credit. The system had its inequities, and westerners sought, by political action, to eliminate these middlemen and force the Government to sell at lower prices and in smaller lots. By 1800 the westerners had acquired sufficient voice in Congress to liberalize somewhat the sale of land.

One of the most vocal of the Western Congressmen was William Henry Harrison, representing the Ohio Territory, who was instrumental in the passage of the Land Act of 1800. One of a series of attempts to establish a workable system for distributing lands to settlers, it halved the minimum required purchase stipulated in the Land Act of 1796 to 320 acres, but maintained the official price of $2 per acre. This attempt to broaden the sale of land failed. Few could raise $640 to buy a wilderness farmsite, even with 4 years to pay. As a result many who took up lands could not pay for them, and at the end of the War of 1812 half the lands sold by the Government remained unpaid for. The Land Act of 1820—the basic land law until the Homestead Act of 1862—abolished the credit system. But it revised purchase regulations to make it possible for anyone with $100 to buy an 80-acre tract.

Campus Martius
Campus Martius in 1791. The thriving town of Marietta, Ohio, grew up around this fort, the first settlement in the Northwest Territory. From a wood engraving by Munson, published in 1842. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The price was still beyond the reach of thousands of debt-ridden farmers, so they simply squatted where they chose without title to the land. The Western pressure for preemption rights, expressed as early as the debates over the Land Act of 1800, finally resulted in a general preemption law of 1841 that gave settlers the right to purchase the land on which they had squatted at the minimum price. Behind the legal and political struggle lay, on the one side, the Government's need for revenue, the desire to promote orderly, progressive settlement of the West, and pressure groups of speculators and profiteers. On the other side were the settlers' chronic indebtedness and lack of hard cash and the belief expressed by many that the squatters and pioneer farmers were doing a national service by clearing the land and extending the area of civilization and thus deserved to own their land for their labor.

Whatever the cost or the hardships, settlers continued to set out. The largest of the Western cities in 1800 was Frankfort, Ky., whose population was only 1,795. But 220,000 people were residing in Kentucky, and it had been a State since 1793. Since 1796 Tennessee, too, had been a State. By 1803 the Northwest Territory had been divided, and a portion of it became Ohio, the 17th State, in that year. At the same time, the Indiana Territory was being rapidly occupied. So, too, was the Mississippi Territory. But even before the occupation of the area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi was complete, the Louisiana Purchase had doubled the Nation's size, and made the Mississippi an American river from its source to the gulf.

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Last Updated: 29-Aug-2005