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Map, Northwest Territories
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Map, Northwest Territories
6" by 7.5"

Lon W. United States Gazetteer

Northwest Territories; Northwest Ordinance; Native American Relations
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The end of the 18th century ushered in a new era for our young nation.  Revolutionary victory brought peace that allowed Americans to glance away from Europe and begin to consider an approach to the vast uncharted lands of the continent.  Just prior to the Revolution, a royal proclamation was issued declaring that no Colonist could settle west of the headwaters of the rivers flowing down from the Appalachians.  The territory which Britain had accrued west of this line stretched as far as the Mississippi River.  The Crown, having learned the value of Native allies, established this sprawling district as a temporary reserve, prioritizing security over the Colonists’ expansionist desires.

When these territorial holdings passed into American ownership under the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the new nation was faced with a choice—one which, however decided, would inevitably set the precedent for the entirety of the United States’ dealings with America’s Natives.  The issue at hand was whether to continue Britain’s policy of conciliation or to begin forming plans for the settlement of this expanse, albeit at the expense of the Native peoples. 

The Cumberland Gap had already funneled a steady flow of opportunists and adventure seekers west of the Appalachians for nearly half a century despite the law.  Furthermore, the imperative to provide the land promised to Revolutionary War veterans provided a major impetus toward expansion.  It came as no surprise, then, when the Confederation Congress formulated a document called the Northwest Ordinance in the summer of 1787. 

This work, slightly predating the Constitution, laid out the process by which the Northwest Territories—roughly encompassing modern Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio—would be governed and carved into states for settlement.  The document’s third article professed that the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Territories would retain title to their land but could sell it to the government.  Aside from this clause, however, the document operated upon the assumption that the government would eventually “extinguish” all Native ownership.  The Northwest Ordinance set the government along the course it would pursue for many decades.  The Natives’ land would be duly purchased, but it was implicitly clear that there would be little choice for the Natives on whether or not to sell.  

This week’s Artifact Ambassador is one of the early maps of the United States’ Northwest Territories.  At the time, very few settlements dotted the map.  The rivers led the way in guiding settlers toward a new life and new opportunities.   The Louisiana Territory, denoted on the left edge of the map, became the property of the United States within five years of the map’s creation.  Westward fever would quickly begin to fill the Ohio River Valley with settlers, and a new epoch of our nation’s relationship with its Western frontier opened.  The management of the Northwest Territories provided the occasion for the United States to decide how it would deal with indigenous people for years to come.  The Ordinance had solved pressing governmental needs and created new opportunities.  For the Natives, however, the gavel had fallen.  Their fate was tempered by the graduality and formality of the process, but the United States government had officially ruled on the Indian question in the Northwest Territories.

The Northwest Ordinance: A New Era in Native Relations

March 15, 2019

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