The First American West: The Ohio River Valley from 1750 to 1820

By Judith Partington
Head Librarian

Cardinals, male and female with red tanager, American Ornithology, Vol. II, p. 40-41, by Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), 1808. As late as Thomas Jefferson's presidency, the majority of the population was still hunkered down close to the original settlements along the Eastern seaboard. With so many men opting for the security of familiar surroundings, what prompted the frontiersmen to move into uncharted and dangerous territories? What type of land did they hope to find? How would they lay claim to it and establish political, cultural, and financial institutions? In over two hundred years of national history, our fascination with the first pioneers has never diminished.

Records of the settlement of the Ohio River Valley have been held in repositories for many years. Prior to the advent of digital technology, however, it was impossible to share them with a wide and diverse audience. In 1999 with a grant awarded by Ameritech, we joined with the University of Chicago to create a database consisting of fifteen thousand pages of original historical material documenting the land, peoples, exploration, and transformation of the trans-Appalachian West. Known as The First American West: the Ohio River Valley from 1750-1820, this collection is now a part of American Memory Bank at The Library of Congress. It is available to you as a link on our website at

Major Ridge, a Cherokee chief.  History of the Indian Tribes of North America, Vol. II, between p. 76-77, Thomas Loraine McKenny (1785-1859), 1855.The Filson hopes you enjoy this material, which is divided into five themes: Contested Lands, Peoples and Migrations, Empires and Politics, Western Life and Culture, and Constructing a Western Past.

For more than two centuries, American national identity has been tied inextricably to the idea of the West. The western dream of individual freedom and limitless expansion has shaped American cultural values and political ideologies. Literature, theater, and film have retraced the legends of the West and reinterpreted its heroes for modern audiences.

Title page, Original Contributions to the American Pioneer, Samuel P. Hildreth (1783-1863), 1844.Encountering the West has become a mode of examining America itself, a way of understanding the possibility and loss embodied in the national experience.

The lure of the West began with the earliest European voyages across the Atlantic, but it was not until the late eighteenth century that a distinctively American West emerged. In the great expanse of territory stretching from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, circumstance and opportunity created an arena of complex struggles that prefigured other western eras that followed.

The promise of this first American West drew soldiers, adventurers, speculators, and common folk into the rich lands of the Ohio River Valley and the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. Its potential also provoked international rivalries, struggles for political power, appropriation of Native-American lands, and the expansion of slavery beyond the eastern seaboard.

Fort Harmar in 1700, Original Contributions to the American Pioneer, Samuel P. Hildreth (1783-1863), 1844.The five themes presented here explore the trans-Appalachian West from the beginning of European-American settlement to the end of the frontier period, focusing particularly on the Ohio River Valley and Kentucky. 

These themes examine how those who came to the West encountered its possibilities and challenges, and also how they understood and interpreted their encounters with other western peoples and cultures.

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