Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

The Magna Charta of the Northwest

I. The Question of Ownership

By the treaty of peace signed at Paris after the close of the Revolutionary War, the whole of the Northwest, extending to the Lake of the Woods and the Mississippi River, was transferred to the United States. Neither British nor Americans had any true idea of the vast importance of this region. The British regarded it only as an Indian country, a wilderness of woods and prairies likely to remain for ages without civilized inhabitants. It was valuable for its furs and the profits that might be derived from trade with the Indians—nothing else. The Americans claimed it by right of conquest. They knew something about the wonderful richness of its soil, and supposed that certain portions might in time become settled by the overflowing population of the Atlantic states. "The Americans, in pushing their possessions to the distant West, are preparing for their remote posterity a communication with the Pacific," wrote one of the ministers of France. This was true, but the Americans did not realize that it was so.

One of the first great questions to be settled by the American Congress was, "To which of the states does the territory northwest of the river Ohio belong?" Virginia claimed almost the whole of it, and cited the charter which she had received from King James I. in 1609, and which described her boundaries as including almost everything between the Atlantic and the Pacific. But Connecticut also had an old charter, granting to her the zone lying between 410 0' and 42° 2' north latitude, and extending from Rhode Island to the South Sea. She therefore laid claim to a strip about sixty miles broad, stretching across the whole width of the Northwest. Massachusetts, for a similar reason, claimed a somewhat wider strip north of that of Connecticut. New York, being unable to show any charter from an English king, based her claims upon the deed by which the Iroquois Indians, more than eighty years before, had ceded away all their hunting grounds between the Great Lakes and the Ohio.

There is no telling how the disputes growing out of these conflicting claims would have been settled, had it not been for the firmness of the three small states, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland. These states had always had definite western boundaries, and they were unable to find any excuse whatever for claiming for themselves a part of the territory beyond the Alleghanies. They believed that the possession of the Northwest by Virginia, or any other of the larger states, would give that state too much power, and be injurious to the nation as a whole; and they refused to join the Union unless the sole control of that territory should be given to the federal government. Delaware and New Jersey soon gave up the fight; but Maryland held out until New York agreed to surrender everything to the jurisdiction of Congress. It was not long until Virginia, whose claim was probably stronger than that of any other state, gave up her title to the Northwest. Two years later, Massachusetts followed suit, and deeded to the Federal government all her lands west of the western boundary of New York. The territory thus ceded embraced the southern half of the present states of Michigan and Wisconsin.

Connecticut was loth to give up her claims; but in 1786 she yielded so far as to cede all of her strip except that portion which lay between its eastern boundary and a north and south line drawn a hundred and twenty miles west of that boundary. The tract which she thus retained extended across the northern part of Ohio, and has since been known as the Western Reserve. It was supposed to include about four million five hundred thousand acres; but of course it had never been surveyed, and its exact area was unknown. With the exception of this reservation, which was to remain for some time under the control of Connecticut, the whole of the Old Northwest was now united as one territory under the government of the Congress of the United States. It was known officially and on the maps as "The Territory Northwest of the River Ohio."

But the states were not the only claimants which it became necessary to satisfy. The Indians whose homes and hunting grounds were in this region, had really the best right to it. It is true that they did not make much use of the land, and they scarcely knew what was meant by land ownership. But it would not have been just to deprive them of their hunting grounds without giving them something in return.

Treaties were therefore held with the chiefs of the Iroquois and with those of their vassal tribes, the Wyandots, Chippewas, Ottawas, Delawares, and Shawnees; and the red men agreed to give up all claims to the lands immediately adjoining the Ohio, keeping for themselves only a few reservations, and the regions bordering the lakes. They of course had but a very dim understanding of what this compact meant. The most of them supposed that the wilderness would still remain in its wildness, and that they would be free to come and go, just as in the time when the French were the owners of the soil.

II. The Great Ordinance

The Northwest being now a part of the public domain of the United States, it became the duty of Congress to devise laws for its government. An Ordinance was therefore passed which secured to the future inhabitants of that region the rights of freemen, and hastened the coming of that prosperity which gives to the Northwest its preeminence to-day. Among the public documents of all ages this Ordinance deserves to be ranked with the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Charta of Old England—documents which, as Lord Brougham has said, should always hang in the cabinets of kings. "I doubt," says Daniel Webster, "whether one single law of any lawgiver, ancient or modern, has produced effects of more distinct, marked, and lasting character than the Ordinance of 1787."

This Ordinance provided that the territory, when its population became sufficiently large, might be divided into not less than three nor more than five states, and that whenever any state should have sixty thousand inhabitants it might be admitted into the Union "on an equal footing with the original states in all respects whatever." Moreover, these states, when once in the Union, could never be separated from it by any means or under any circumstances.

The most important provisions were those relating to slavery and education—they marked a distinct step in advance of any other public utterances that had ever been made. When we remember that slaves were held at that time in all the original states, and that there was no general sentiment in favor of universal freedom, we can but wonder at this declaration: "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said Territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

The honor of originating this section of the great Ordinance has been claimed for both Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and Nathan Dane of Massachusetts. It is certain that Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson, delegates in Congress from Virginia, were also very active in laboring for its passage. And it is interesting to remember that it was finally adopted unanimously, and that of the eighteen delegates who voted for it eleven were from Southern states.

Yet, notwithstanding the prohibition of slavery, involuntary servitude was long permitted in the Northwest. Slavery had been authorized there by Louis XIV., while the country was under the rule of France. Many of the French settlers at Kaskaskia and on the Wabash were still the owners of slaves, and their right to continue to hold them was not disputed. Other settlers who afterward came into the territory from the south or the east sometimes brought with them the bondmen which the laws of the older states permitted them to own, and they were seldom molested. Indeed, for several years, the sentiment of the people in the Northwest was favorable to slavery, and at one time a convention was called and a petition drawn up, praying Congress to suspend this article of the Ordinance. It was not until more than fifty years after this region became a part of the American republic that slavery was wholly abolished within its limits.

The article on education was rather indefinite in its nature, for it made nothing obligatory; but it served as a rallying-cry for the friends of progress, and in the years that followed helped not a little in promoting the cause of the public schools. It was very brief: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

Two years before this, Congress had passed a land ordinance providing for the survey and sale of the millions of acres included in the public domain north of the Ohio. This ordinance directed that in every congressional township of thirty-six sections of land, one section (six hundred and forty acres) should be reserved "for the maintenance of common schools within the said township." This was the beginning of a custom which has resulted in giving to every western state in the Union a magnificent school fund; for from that time the practice of setting apart for educational purposes one thirty-sixth of all the public lands has been always observed. It gave to the public schools in the five states of the Old Northwest nearly five millions of acres, the sale of which has produced for the free education of her children nearly twenty millions of dollars. It also gave to each state one entire township, or a little more than twenty-three thousand acres for the founding and support of a state university.

[Illustration] from Conquest of the Old Northwest by James Baldwin


Among other provisions of the great Ordinance was one doing away with the old English law of primogeniture, and declaring that all the property of a deceased person should be divided equally among his children. Another gave to every person the right to worship as he believed best. Still another declared that every citizen having a freehold of fifty acres should be entitled to vote. The section which related to the Indians is interesting chiefly because of the manner in which it was afterward wholly ignored. "The utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians; their lands and their 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; but laws, founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them."