Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

The Rival Claimants

I. English and French

Two hundred years ago there were but few English-speaking people in North America. Adjoining the Atlantic coast, and extending from New Hampshire to South Carolina, there were twelve colonies of Englishmen; but in all these colonies taken together there were not so many inhabitants as are now contained in a single city like Indianapolis, or Milwaukee, or Detroit. There were no roads worth speaking of, and the only means of going from place to place was by water. Most of the people, therefore, lived near the coast or close to some river or other stream, and none of the settlements extended very far inland. Some of the colonies claimed to possess the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific; but beyond the head waters of the larger rivers, as the James and the Hudson, the country was unexplored and unknown.

Hemming the settlements in on the west were tangled forests traversed only by hunters and trappers and savage red men; and farther away were rugged hills and ranges of mountains which extended northwardly and southwardly for hundreds of miles, and seemed to shut off all further progress toward the interior. These mountains, now commonly known as the Alleghanies, marked the limits of the actual possessions of the English colonies. No Englishman had yet explored the country beyond, and but few of the colonists knew or cared to know anything about its extent or its resources.

English Colonies


And yet in those very regions, shut off as it were by impassable mountain barriers, were the largest lakes, the longest rivers, the richest the most fertile lands In North America. While English explorers were feeling their way along the shores of the middle Atlantic coast and vainly searching for a passageway into the interior, men from France had ascended the St. Lawrence, discovered the Great Lakes, and gained access to these the choicest parts of the continent. Later on they had opened another way of approach to the same regions through the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi; they had taken possession of the entire country, for and in the name of the French king; and they had established, here and there at wide distances apart, small settlements of French people and trading posts for traffic with the Indians.

Thus, while the English possessions were confined to the comparatively narrow strip of country between the sea and the mountains, the region claimed by the French crown included more than half of the North American continent. New France, as this region was called, had no well-defined boundaries; but it extended from Nova Scotia to the Pacific Ocean, and from the borders of Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. The northern portion, which embraced the valley of the St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, and the unexplored territory beyond, was called Canada; the other part, which was watered by the Mississippi and its tributaries, and extended from the Alleghany Mountains to an unknown distance westward, was known as Louisiana. One would naturally suppose that in a country owned by France, and having so boundless an extent, there would be many French-speaking people. But it was not so. Few as the English colonists were, they still outnumbered all the French inhabitants of New France. Why so vast a region should be so sparsely settled we shall understand as our story proceeds.

II. The Bounds of the Old Northwest

With the map of the United States before us, let us imagine ourselves standing on the summit of one of the Alleghanies near Pittsburg and looking westward. Directly in front of us, and extending to the distant Mississippi, lies the region now occupied, as our geographies tell us, by the North Central states of the Union. When the French owned this region it had no distinctive name of its own, but was simply a part of Canada or of Louisiana—or, more broadly speaking, of New France, just as it is now a part of the United States. At a later period, because it was the most northwesterly of the regions occupied by white men, it was known as the Northwest. When the government of the United States was formed and it became necessary to designate each portion of our country by some distinctive title, it was called the Territory Northwest of the River Ohio. In our own day, when the true Northwest is thought of as being in far Washington or farther Alaska, it is the custom to speak of this more ancient region as the OLD NORTHWEST. With the map still before us, let us trace the boundaries of this region and try to gain some idea of its extent and geographical features.

You will observe that nearly all of the streams which flow down the western slopes of the Alleghanies find their way sooner or later into a single great river, the Ohio. From the place where the Ohio is formed by the meeting of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, you can trace its course in a southwesterly direction to the Mississippi. In the old French days it was the only road through the fertile valley which it drains and enriches; and yet it was seldom visited and was but imperfectly known. The Indians called it, as it is called to-day, the Ohio, or the Beautiful River. By the French it was known as La Belle Riviere, and was sometimes loosely referred to as the River of the Iroquois. For fifty years after its discovery it was regarded as a much smaller stream than the Wabash, of which it was supposed to be a tributary. And yet the voyageur or woods ranger who descended it in his canoe found that it was a long journey from the river's source to its mouth; and not until he had floated and paddled between its banks for more than nine hundred miles did he emerge into the broader and stronger stream of the Mississippi.

With your eyes still on the map, observe closely the other natural boundaries of the region partly encircled by the Ohio. On its west lies the greatest of North American rivers, known variously to the French as the Buade, the Conception, the Colbert, and the Mississippi. On its north, completely hemming it in, are the Great Lakes. From the point where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi, let us follow the latter northwardly toward its source. We observe on our left the mouth of the Missouri, to which King Louis XIV. gave the name St. Philip; on the right are many streams, the chief of which are the Illinois and the Wisconsin. And now, as we continue to ascend the great river, we pass through the beautiful expansion known as Lake Pepin, we leave the St. Croix on our right, and arrive at the Falls of St. Anthony, the site of the present city of Minneapolis. A few miles above this point we turn aside into the Rum River which we follow to its source in the Mille Lacs. Then by the shortest route we make our way by land to the western extremity of Lake Superior. Our course is next eastward through the entire length of that great inland sea. We descend the beautiful strait known as St. Mary's River and emerge into the upper waters of Lake Huron. Through the middle of this lake we trace our course southward to the St. Clair strait and onward to the Detroit. From the head of Lake Erie we go as straight as may be to the point, near its foot, where now stands the city of Erie. A short journey overland, where once was *a favorite portage, and we arrive at a small stream called French Creek, a tributary of the Allegheny. It is easy now to descend to our starting place, where the Ohio has its beginning.

The course which we have followed marks approximately the boundaries of the Old Northwest; the lines on the map which indicate that course represent a distance of nearly three thousand miles. The region inclosed by them has an area almost equal to that of, the twelve English colonies of which we have been speaking. It is a good deal larger than the German Empire; it is twice as large as Great Britain and Ireland taken together, and more than ten times the size of the kingdom of Holland. It includes the territory from which have been formed five great states, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, together with a small portion of Minnesota. Here, at the present time, are the sources of very much of the wealth and power of our country. Here are the homes of many millions of intelligent and happy people.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century there was little in all this region to indicate that it was to be the seat of future republics. Wild forests, tangled under woods, boundless prairies, vast solitudes, occupied the places now green with wheat fields and rustling corn, or noisy with busy traffic. Savage red men wandered at will through the woods and along the watercourses, hunting and fishing and waging war with their neighbors. Although the French had held possession of the country for nearly a century, yet they had made no effort to colonize it or civilize it. Here and there, by the shore of a lake or on the banks of some river, there was a settlement of French-speaking people living there in quiet contentment, and subsisting upon the products of the forest and their little gardens. There were such settlements at Kaskaskia and Cahokia in the Illinois Country, and later at Vincennes on the Wabash. At Mackinac, at the Sault Sainte Marie, and at Detroit were important posts for carrying on trade with the Indians; and at each of these places there was a small fort garrisoned by soldiers from France. In the heart of the wilderness, and at great distances apart were other places—solitary log huts, hunters' camps, or temporary stockades—where the French language was heard and where fur traders and voyageurs occasionally found shelter. All else was an unbroken wilderness.

III. The Fur Trade

The one great business of the country, in fact of all New France, was fur trading, and in that business white men and red were alike interested. Indian hunters and French coureurs de bois ranged the woods and explored the watercourses in search of peltries which they bartered to French traders for the necessities and luxuries of savage life. Rich cargoes of furs were every year sent down the Mississippi or through the lakes and the St. Lawrence, to be carried finally to France. There they usually brought good prices, and added not a little to the king's revenues and to the wealth of the favored few who controlled the business under his sanction.

At times, however, the quantity of furs was so great that the markets were glutted, and the hat makers and other dealers would not buy all that were sent; and then not only the merchants and others directly engaged in the trade, but the whole province, suffered from the consequent depression of business.

Early traders


The king and his counsellors tried many plans for the regulation of the traffic in New France. At first the control of the country and the monopoly of trade were vested in a company of merchants and speculators known as the Hundred Associates. At a later period a law was enacted which forbade any one to buy or sell or have dealings with the Indians without first obtaining a license from the government or its agents. The licenses were limited in number, and were sold at prices ranging from one thousand to eighteen hundred francs. Although they were good for only a year and a half, and the holders of them were allowed to use only one or two canoes, yet the profits were large, and licenses might be easily renewed.

This law, if it had been rigidly enforced, would have limited the fur trade to a few favored persons. There were numbers of young men, however, to whom the wild free life of the forest offered the most tempting attractions, and they refused to forego its pleasures and the profits of successful trade. They therefore betook themselves to the woods and became lawless coureurs de bois, hunting and trapping, and trading with the Indians, and never thinking of license. Indeed, it is said that at one time there was hardly a family in Canada that had not at least one son in the woods. Severe laws were passed to restrain and punish these reckless coureurs; but how were such laws to be enforced when everybody disregarded them? Even the merchants who furnished the culprits with goods, and the officers of the king, whose duty it was to regulate the business of the country, secretly sympathized with the law-breakers. The illegal traffic in furs increased from year to year, and the license system proved a failure.

The king at last decided upon a new plan. He commissioned one M. Oudiette to collect the royal revenues from New France, and gave to him the sole right to carry across the ocean all the beaver skins that were collected in the colony. Any person might hunt or trap or buy or sell as he chose, but all furs that were sent to France must first be brought to Oudiette. One fourth part of the furs thus brought in were put aside for the king, and Oudiette paid for the rest at a fixed price. The number of beaver skins offered to him was enormous, but he was obliged to take them all. The result was that poor Oudiette was ruined. A new fashion of wearing very small hats had come into vogue in Paris, and there was no great demand for beaver. He could not dispose of his furs at any price.

Similar ventures were tried in succeeding years by other merchants, but the only men who profited by them were the hunters and trappers on the one hand, and the king and his favorites on the other. At length still another plan was adopted. A hundred and fifty merchants were encouraged to form a company for the sole control of the trade. A ship and a loan of seven hundred thousand francs were obtained from the king, and the company was required to buy at about half price all the furs that were brought in by the collectors of revenue. The new company fared as badly as had Oudiette and his successors; for not being able to sell their goods the unlucky merchants were forced to burn in one year more than four hundred thousand pounds of beaver. After seven years of failure the company was disbanded, and another was formed which conducted the business with but little better success. It was plain that there was mismanagement somewhere; the cause of the trouble was in the laws which had been enacted for the control of the trade,—laws which placed everything in the hands of a monopoly and provided a revenue for the king by robbing his subjects.

In the meanwhile the English had learned that large profits might be derived from the fur trade and from traffic with the Indians. As early as 1670 an association of noblemen and London merchants had incorporated the Hudson's Bay Company to which was given the monopoly of trade in the far North. In most of the twelve colonies also, there were men who made a business of buying peltries from trappers and Indians and shipping them to England. The great forests which bordered the settlements on the west abounded in fur-bearing animals; and the savages whose homes were in those wilds very soon learned that beaver skins could be exchanged for luxuries that were otherwise beyond their reach.

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


Among all the colonists the Dutch-English at Albany were the best situated for carrying on this traffic. They had friendly relations with the five nations of Iroquois Indians whose homes were in the region between the Great Lakes and the Hudson River; and with these they very early established a profitable trade. They furnished the Iroquois with firearms, encouraged them in their hostility to the French, and looked quietly on while these savages wrought destruction and terror among the feebler tribes in the West. In return, their savage allies brought in the furs and other forest products which their country afforded, and bartered them for strong drink, for more firearms, and for the hatchets, knives, and trinkets so dear to the Indian's heart.

The Dutch-English traders had another advantage which they were not slow to discover. Of all the colonies, New York alone—if the French were only out of the way—might have easy access to the Great Lakes, and through them to the boundless regions of the Northwest. No mountain barriers, as in the case of the colonies farther south, debarred her from communication with the unexplored West. Why might not the entire fur trade of the lake country be made to pass through Albany and New York instead of going to Montreal and Quebec?

The Dutch-English traders dared not go openly among the western Indians and compete with the French for their trade; but they found means to send other red men into the Northwest to tempt the natives to send their peltries to Albany. The Iroquois, who had always hated and opposed the French, became the middlemen between the tribes on the upper lakes and these English traders. The latter were not controlled by any monopoly, they were not obliged to divide profits with the king, and therefore they could afford to pay much higher prices for furs than had ever been paid by the French. They could also afford to sell their guns, knives, beads, blanket's, and "fire water "at lower prices. The shrewd Iroquois soon learned to take advantage of this state of things. They bought furs from the lake Indians and sold them to the Albany traders at English prices; then they carried the goods which they had received in barter to Canada, and sold them to the French traders at French prices, making a profit by each transaction.

IV. The Hunting Grounds of the Iroquois

By their wars with the neighboring tribes the Iroquois had made themselves the masters of a large part of the western country. They had scattered and destroyed the Eries, whose home was on the south shore of the lake that bears their name; and such was the dread in which the Iroquois were held that almost the whole region between that lake and the Ohio River was deserted and left a savage wilderness.

Old Northwest


Only the bravest hunters and marauding bands of Shawnees dared to venture thither. Herds of buffaloes roamed among the hills, bears and wolves lived undisturbed in the thick woods, and nowhere were there any human habitations. From the Hudson to the Mississippi and from the Great Lakes to the head waters of the Potomac the dread of the conquering Iroquois was felt. Although their homes were in New York, these scourges of the wilderness seemed everywhere present; and they claimed the entire region between the Illinois Country and the Alleghany Mountains as their own by right of conquest.

The Hurons and Ottawas along the shores of the upper lakes had suffered much from the cruel Iroquois, who had driven them from their ancient homes and slaughtered their people. When La Motte Cadillac, with fifty settlers and fifty soldiers, began to build a fort and found a permanent post at Detroit, these Indians besought him to protect them from their inveterate foes. Cadillac kindly assured them that he would stand as a wall between them and the Iroquois; and he promised that in due time they should have vengeance, and he would help them drive their enemies from the land.

The Iroquois, hearing of this and knowing that the French had really built a fort at Detroit, were much alarmed; for they feared that Cadillac would try to carry out his promise and would invade their Ohio hunting grounds. They therefore held a council with agents of the English from New York, and prayed that the king of England would help them. The Dutch-English traders felt now that the time was near at hand when they could secure a large share of the fur trade in the Northwest; others of the colonists had heard of the fertile lands and the abundance of game in the country beyond the Alleghanies, and were eager to get possession of that rich region. And so the English were not long in making a treaty with the Iroquois, promising them such aid as they were able to give against any possible encroachments by the French.

A deed was drawn up in due form, and signed by the sachems of the five Iroquois nations. By this deed the savages ceded "unto our souveraigne Lord, King William the Third," and indirectly to the colony of New York, the whole of their beaver hunting grounds, including the region from Lake Ontario to Chicago and from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. This territory was described as being about eight hundred miles long, and four hundred miles wide, and included not only Detroit, but several other posts and small settlements actually belonging to and occupied by the French. Thus the English, in return for vague promises of protection, secured from the Iroquois the nominal right to much the greater part of the country now known as the Old Northwest.

V. Looking Westward

In the meanwhile, the colonies south of New York had also begun to look westward. It was remembered in Virginia that King James I. had given to that colony, nearly eighty years before, a charter which described its boundaries as extending "up into the land throughout from sea to sea west and northwest." That the king had the right to grant this charter there could be no dispute, for had not John Cabot, sailing in an English vessel, discovered the entire eastern coast of North America many years before it was visited by any other nation? And did not this discovery give to England the possession of all the lands westward?

It is related that Governor Berkeley of Virginia sent out a company of explorers to find the place of "the

ebbing and flowing of the water on the other side of the mountains, in order to the discovery of the South Sea." These men traveled sixteen days through the forest, and on the seventeenth saw from the summit of one of the Alleghanies "a glimmering light as from water." This water, which was probably the river now called the Great Kenawha, they supposed to be a bay, possibly of the Pacific Ocean, possibly of a lake held by the French "who had seated themselves in the back of Virginia." Without descending the mountain slope to make further discoveries, they contented themselves with cutting the king's name on some trees, and then hurried back to tell the governor what they had seen. This expedition, if indeed there is any truth in the story, was made at about the time that the French were beginning to explore, the great rivers of the Northwest; and when the colonists, several years later, revived their claims to the ownership of the lands, the story of these early Virginian explorers was related to prove that Englishmen and not Frenchmen were the true discoverers of that region.

Forty-five years after Governor Berkeley's feeble attempt to probe the secrets of the western wilderness another expedition was fitted out for a similar purpose by Governor Spotswood of Virginia. A company of fifty persons, the governor himself being one, set out from Williamsburg, with pack horses and camp equipage, to discover a route through the mountains to the great western lakes. For thirty-six days, moving very leisurely, the explorers followed the windings of the James River until they reached its "very head where it runs no bigger than a man's arm, from under a large stone." They crossed the Blue Ridge and discovered the Shenandoah, "a large river flowing west." There the governor buried a bottle in which was a paper whereon he had written that he took possession of all that region in the name of King George of. England. The company had a good dinner, drank the king's health, and fired off their guns; and then, thinking they had gained sufficient glory, returned to Williamsburg.

The governor was so highly pleased with his little expedition that he caused to be made for each of his companions a little golden horseshoe on which was engraved a Latin motto signifying, "Thus we swear to cross the mountains;" and each of the brave explorers was honored with the title of "Knight of the Golden Horseshoe." The king, too, was pleased, and he made the governor a real knight and called him Sir Alexander Spotswood.

More important than all this, however, was the note of warning which Spotswood afterward sent to the English Lords of Trade: "The British plantations are in a manner surrounded by the French with the numerous nations of Indians settled on both sides of the lakes. They may not only engross the whole skin trade, but may, when they please, send out such bodies of Indians on the back of these plantations as may greatly distress his Majesty's subjects here." And he ends by urging the government to make settlements on the lakes and to fortify the passes in the mountains, saying that he, himself, is "ready to undertake this project if his Majesty thinks fit to approve of it."

VI. Owners, or Interlopers?

While the French were still groping among the inlets and bayous about the mouth of the Mississippi, and trying to find a suitable place for a settlement, an incident happened which persuaded them that England was already plotting to seize upon that part of the country. From the harbor at Biloxi in what is now the state of Mississippi, Le Moyne de Bienville, a young French officer, had set out to explore the lower reaches of the great river. With five men he made his way overland to the point where the city of New Orleans now stands. There the party embarked in two canoes and dropped slowly down the stream, examining the low, muddy banks, and seeking a suitable spot for the building of a fort. Suddenly as they were passing the bend known ever since as English Turn, they met an English sailing vessel, armed with ten guns, that was slowly making its way against the current.

Bienville, nothing daunted, hailed the ship and demanded to know by what right it was thus sailing in waters belonging to King Louis of France. The captain answered that if this were indeed the Mississippi, he was not trespassing on the French possessions, but only entering the province of Carolina, which extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific and embraced quite an extent of land on both sides of that river. He added that he had been sent out by Daniel Coxe, the proprietor of Carolina, to find the Mississippi and select a good place on its banks for the settling of a colony. He wished also, on his own account, to ascend to the country of the Chickasaws, where he hoped to buy a number of Indian slaves. He had sailed into this stream thinking that it might be the river that he was seeking, and yet he was fearful it might be some other.

Bienville and ship


The shrewd Frenchman assured him that he had missed his way. "The Mississippi is much farther west," said he; "and this is quite another stream, wholly within the possessions of France. A few leagues above this place we have many flourishing settlements and a strong fort for their protection. If you will be warned by me you will turn back and not venture farther into our domains, where you will surely be dealt with as a trespasser."

The English captain, who had already been doubtful of his course, was very easily deceived. He asked Bienville for further information about the coast and the various landmarks that would guide him to the Mississippi, all of which the Frenchman cheerfully gave from his ready imagination. Then the captain ordered the ship to be turned about, and the Englishmen were soon sailing with the current back toward the Gulf; and we hear no more of Daniel Coxe's scheme to colonize the valley of the Mississippi.

The French quite naturally became suspicious of every movement made by the English, and especially or every movement that pointed westward. The very presence of the English colonies along the Atlantic coast was regarded as an intrusion upon territory which ought to belong to France. For had not Verrazano and Ribaut, sailing under the French flag, discovered the entire eastern coast of North America, and thereby made France the owner of the whole continent from Florida to the northern ocean? The English, they said, were interlopers, and the claims which they based upon Cabot's discoveries were of no force; they would have been driven out of the country long ago had not the king of France been a lover of peace and loath to make trouble with his neighbors.

The English replied by again calling attention to Cabot's voyages, which were made more than a quarter of a century before Verrazano had sighted the coast of Carolina. His discoveries had given to England not only the coast, but the interior. "Therefore," said they, "the lake regions are ours, and the Mississippi is ours; and these trespassing Frenchmen, who are the real interlopers, must be driven out."