Northwest Territory

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Northwest Territory

The Northwest Territory, also known as the Old Northwest and the Territory North West of the Ohio, was a government and region within the early United States. Passed by the Continental Congress on July 13,1787, the Northwest Ordinance provided for the administration of the territories and set rules for admission as a state. On August 7, 1789, the US 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 eastern part of Minnesota. The area covered more than 260,000 square miles (673,000 km²)



European exploration of the region began with French fur traders in the seventeenth century. The French explorer Jean Nicolet was the first recorded entry into the region in 1634. The French exercised control from a number of widely separated posts throughout the region. France ceded the territory to Britain in the Treaty of Paris (1763) which ended the French and Indian Wars.

However, facing armed opposition by Native Americans (see Pontiac's Rebellion), the British issued the Proclamation of 1763 which prohibited white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains in an attempt to appease 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 for many years. In the Jay Treaty of 1795, British subjects agreed to leave the Great Lakes region, but that treaty was never fully implemented. The United States' claim to the region was not fully realized until the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812.

Several states (Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut) had competing claims on the territory. Other states, such as Maryland, refused to ratitify the U.S. Constitution 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 domain 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.

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. 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 2,000 traders, mostly French and British. Officially, American settlement began at Marietta, Ohio on April 7, 1788. 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), St. Clair (Illinois and Wisconsin), and Wayne (Michigan).

In 1800 the Indiana Territory was carved out, reducing the Northwest Territory to the size of Ohio, to prepare for statehood. The Northwest Territory went out of existence when Ohio was admitted as a state on March 1, 1803.

Law and government

Main article: Northwest Ordinance

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. Hamilton County at Cincinnati followed in 1790. (These areas later became part of Ohio.)

As soon as the number of 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 district (county at the time). 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[1] ( 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).

In 1798 the territory became eligible to send a non-voting member to the U.S. Congress. The Assembly elected this representative. Representatives were:

See also

External links


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