The Way to the West before Lewis and Clark

By John Mack Faragher, Ph.D.
Arthur Unobskey Professor of American History
Yale University

Contact Us

The West of the young republic raised serious questions that had to be answered if there was to be a United States. Did the land belong to the respective states or to the general government? In what manner should those acres be distributed? How were they to be governed? And what about the Indians, whose homelands these were? These were not abstract questions - they were wrung from human dreams, hopes of owning land and prospering from laboring upon it. These were not abstract questions - they were wrung from human dreams, the hope of owning land and prospering from laboring upon it, the promise of liberty and independence. In a predominantly rural society, such dreams were important enough to cause the rise and fall of whole political systems.

The English monarchy, through colonial charters, had vested the western lands to several colonies, so it might have followed that the states would take possession. Understandably inclined to this position were the seven states with colonial charters granting them boundaries running westward beyond the Appalachians (in some cases all the way to the "South Sea"). But the six landlocked states without such colonial charters demanded that Congress assume authority over the western lands for "the good of the whole." This dispute delayed ratification of the Articles of Confederation for several years, until Congress, in 1780, finally agreed to a resolution promising that any ceded western territory would "be disposed of for the common benefit of the United States, and be settled and formed into distinct republican States, which shall become members of the Federal Union, and have the same rights of sovereignty, freedom and independence as the other States." Thus was created a vast public domain under the control of the national state.

Then there was the problem of what to do with the land. On this question Congress did not start from scratch. The founding law, the Land Ordinance of 1785, pragmatically drew from both northern and southern colonial traditions. From New England it borrowed the idea of prior survey and orderly contiguous development, and from the South the practice of allocating land directly to individuals. Yet what was most notable about the Land Ordinance was not its incorporation of tradition, but its invention of a new and revolutionary system of measuring and bounding the land. Traditionally surveyors employed a technique known as "metes and bounds," in which each parcel was described by the distinctive lay of the countryside and the successive property lines of previously surveyed lots. This time-tested method worked well on a case-by-case basis, but when used to survey vast new territories it could produce big problems. The haphazard and hurried survey of Kentucky, for example, which took place amid the chaos and turmoil of the Revolution, resulted in considerable conflict, even violence, over confusing boundaries and titles, and it was with the cautionary tale of Kentucky in mind that the Congress broke with tradition.

All the land in the western territory, the Land Ordinance declared, would be divided "into townships of six miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles." A great grid of "Principal Meridians" and "Base Lines" would divide the American West into numbered ranges, townships, and sections. The system, which owed much to Enlightenment rationalism, had all the advantages and disadvantages, clarity and distortion, of any rational approach to human affairs. The national survey would assure clear boundaries and firm titles, highly important in wild new lands. But it would press upon the land a uniformity that took no account of different valleys, different climates, or different men who might wish for other arrangements.

The Land Ordinance also created the system for converting western lands to private ownership. Thomas Jefferson argued for giving western land away "in small quantities" to actual settlers. "I am against selling the lands at all," he declared. The people on the frontier were poor and "by selling the lands to them, you will disgust them, and cause an avulsion [detachment] of them from the common union." They would simply ignore the law and "settle the lands in spite of everybody." Jefferson clearly understood the mentality of western settlers (and his thinking anticipated the Homestead Act of 1862), but he was out of step with most other American leaders. Instead of giving the land away, as Jefferson advised, Congress decided to auction it off in chunks no smaller than 640 acres and at a price no less than one dollar an acre. This was well beyond the means of most farmers, but Congress was interested in providing a revenue base for the national government, not equality of opportunity for western settlers. 

Still unsettled was the question of the political relationship of the new western settlements to the established states. Many Americans assumed that the western lands would move quickly toward full, independent statehood within the union. Again, Jefferson argued for a democratic colonial policy. His plan would have divided the western public domain into distinct territories, each granted immediate self-government and republican institutions. But Congress rejected his plan. It was necessary, explained Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, "for the security of property among uninformed and perhaps licentious people, as the greater part of those who go there are, that a strong toned government should exist." In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Congress created the territorial policy that would govern throughout the nineteenth century. A governor, secretary, and judges would be appointed to govern each territory until the male population reached five thousand, at which time they could elect an assembly. But the assembly was empowered to do little more than nominate a list of men from whom Congress would select a legislative council, which functioned as an upper house. The governor enjoyed absolute veto power and could select from the laws of the thirteen states those he wished to incorporate into the code of his district. These provisions were more strict and authoritarian than the colonial governments overthrown by the Revolution. Despite these authoritarian trappings, however, the policy succeeded because it provided for an orderly transition from territorial or colonial status to independence.

The Northwest Ordinance also took up the problem of Indian title to western lands. "The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians," it read, "their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress."

This pledge amounted to a rejection of the assumption underlying the first Indian policy of the new republic. After the Revolution the Indian residents of the trans-Appalachian West naturally assumed that they held the equivalent of title to their traditional lands. But the United States assumed that victory over the British meant victory over their Indian allies as well. The national government claimed the right of conquest - the seizure of the lands and property of all who had fought against the Revolution. Indians must suffer the same fate as the Tories. "When you Americans and the King made peace," declared the Seneca leader Red Jacket, "he did not mention us, and showed us no compassion, notwithstanding all he said to us, and all we had suffered." The Americans paid no attention to such complaints. 

The arrogant way Americans treated Indians after the Revolution guaranteed a continuation of bloody warfare in the West. During the 1780s and early 1790s there was no respite from the fighting, and the continuing violence claimed the lives of thousands of Indians and pioneers. It was the bloodiest phase in the three-century campaign for the conquest of North America. The reason was no mystery. Consider the growth of Kentucky: from just a few hundred American settlers at the beginning of the Revolution, by 1785 the population stood at 30,000; five years later it had grown to 74,000. Soon pioneers were pressing north across the Ohio River and south into Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, squatting illegally in Indian country. Combined with the arrogance of the new nation's "conquest" theory - that natives possessed no rights to land because they were conquered peoples - the Indians of the West received a clear message: the Americans were about to dispossess them completely of their lands.

When George Washington assumed office as the first president of the new federal government, the troubled West was the most pressing problem facing him. The Indian peoples of the trans-Appalachian West seemed unified and determined. Great Britain continued to maintain a force of at least a thousand troops at northwestern posts such as Detroit, from where they managed the fur trade and supplied the Indians with guns and ammunition. Spain encouraged and supplied native resistance to the expansion of American settlements in the southwest, refusing to accept the territorial settlement of the Treaty of Paris, and claiming that the northern boundary of Florida extended all the way to the Ohio River. They closed the port of New Orleans to American shipping on the Mississippi. They secretly employed a number of prominent western Americans, including General James Wilkinson, as informants and spies.

Continue the Article...

Volume 3, Number 4

Back to Top

The Filson Historical Society
1310 South Third Street - Louisville, KY 40208
Phone: (502) 635-5083 Fax: (502) 635-5086

The Ferguson Mansion and Office

Monday - Friday: 9 am. - 5 pm.
Saturday and Sunday closed
Monday - Friday: 9 am. - 5 pm.
Saturday: 9 am. - 12 noon