Westward Expansion

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Editors: Lawrence W. Baker , Richard C. Hanes , Sharon M. Hanes , and Kelly Rudd
Date: 2006
Shaping of America, 1783-1815 Reference Library
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 23
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1160L

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Westward Expansion

Between 1783 and 1815, the terms West, Northwest, and Southwest referred to different geographic areas of the United States than they do in the twenty-first century. The meaning of "the West" changed constantly through America's early history as the population increased and moved farther from the Atlantic coast. In the 1600s, any land more than 100 miles from the Atlantic shore was "the West." During the early 1700s, the West was western land within the boundaries of the thirteen original colonies. By the 1780s, the West referred to land west of the Appalachian Mountains and, in the South, land west of the Carolinas and Georgia.

The Old Northwest encompassed territory north of the Ohio River to the Great Lakes and Canada, stretching east to the Pennsylvania border and west to the Mississippi River. The present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, along with a portion of Minnesota, were carved from the Old Northwest.

The Southwest included land west of Georgia to the Mississippi River. Alabama and Mississippi were carved from the Southwest. Between the Old Northwest and the Southwest Page 312  |  Top of Article
American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark rest near the Columbia River during their exploration of the Louisiana Territory. (Painting by Frederic Remington.  Hulton ArchiveGetty Images.) American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark rest near the Columbia River during their exploration of the Louisiana Territory. (Painting by Frederic Remington. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images.) were the areas known as Kentucky and Tennessee. Kentucky was part of land claimed by Virginia. Tennessee was land claimed by North Carolina.

In September 1783, news spread around the United States that the Treaty of Paris had been signed, officially ending the American Revolution (1775–83). The terms of the treaty amazed Americans. The treaty gave the United States the entire Old Northwest, ensuring U.S. ownership of all lands east of the Mississippi River except Spanish Florida. Although Page 313  |  Top of Article pioneer outposts were located in Kentucky and Tennessee, most of the western lands were home only to various Native American tribes. The Native Americans had lived on the lands for centuries. They had established villages, planted crops, and hunted and fished over wide areas.

Between the end of the American Revolution and the end of the War of 1812 (1812–15), the population of the United States grew from about three million to eight million. The increase in population ensured a steady stream of land-hungry pioneers pushing their way over the Appalachians. Between 1783 and 1815, the U.S. government faced several difficult issues concerning its western land. The government had to decide how to divide the land among the settlers; how to remove Native Americans who resisted American settlement; how to admit new states to the union; and how to deal with Britain and Spain, whose territories surrounded the U.S. lands. Native American removal proved to be the most difficult issue by far for the U.S. government. However, the first issue the government had to deal with was the original states' claims on western lands.

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Words to Know

cede: To give land away by treaty.

emigrants: Those who leave their country of residence to live elsewhere.

section: A square piece of land measuring 1 mile on each side and containing 640 acres.

survey: A detailed inspection of a piece of land.

township: A large square piece of land measuring 6 miles on each side and precisely divided into thirty-six sections of land.

Clearing out state land claims

Seven states—Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia—held land claims on the western lands. Land claims allowed the state ownership of specific lands for future expansion. Land claim rights Page 314  |  Top of Article were written into old colonial charters, papers issued in Britain in the 1600s that granted land for new colonies. Only New York acquired its claims in a different way—by treaties with the Iroquois tribe.

Six states—New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania—held no western land claims. All thirteen states had debts from the American Revolution, money they owed on loans to fund the war. States with no land claims believed the other states would sell their western lands for profit and use the money to pay off debts. By contrast, the states having no claims would have to raise taxes to pay their debts. They feared few residents would be able to pay the taxes. These states argued that all states fought side by side against Britain to win independence. Therefore, they believed western claims should be turned over to Congress to be managed for the benefit of all the states.

In the spirit of fairness for all, Congress urged states to cede (turn over) their claims. New York began the process in 1780 by ceding its claims to Congress. Virginia, the most powerful state, began the cession process in 1781. The other five states with claims followed Virginia's lead within a few years. Massachusetts ceded its claims in 1785; Connecticut did the same in 1786. Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut all retained blocks of acreage they called "western reserves" to give to state residents who served in the American Revolution.

The Carolinas and Georgia were slower to act. They had suffered greatly in the war and hoped to sell western lands to settlers and use the cash to pay debts and rebuild. Nonetheless, under pressure from Congress and with little hope of securing the lands full of hostile Native Americans, the Southern states began to cede their claims. In 1787, South Carolina ceded its narrow strip of land that ran to the Mississippi River. North Carolina ceded its Tennessee land in December 1789, and finally Georgia ceded its lands in 1802. Congress promised to carve out new states from the western lands in a way that was fair and beneficial for the entire country. Long before the Georgia cession, Congress began preparations for a land policy that would allow western land to be divided and sold to settlers.

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Land Ordinance of 1785

Congress adopted the Land Ordinance of 1785 on May 20. Viewed by historians as one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed in the United States, the Land Ordinance provided for an organized land survey process. A survey is a detailed inspection of a piece of land. Over the next one hundred years, this surveying process would be used on land all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The Land Ordinance divided land into squares measuring 6 miles by 6 miles and called the squares townships. Each township was split into thirty-six sections, 1 square mile (640 acres) each and numbered 1 to 36. The sixteenth section of each township was for the benefit of a school, that is, the acreage could be sold and the money used to build and maintain a school.

The Land Ordinance set the minimum purchase amount at one section of 640 acres for $640. Few settlers needed this much land, and few could afford $640. This policy opened the door to land speculators, those who buy land in hopes of reselling it at a profit. Speculators bought large blocks of land from the government, sometimes millions of acres. They would then sell off the land in small parcels. Although they charged more than $1 per acre, they required only a small down payment (a part of the full price paid upon purchase, with the balance paid later) and allowed settlers time to pay off the land. Settlers bought land from speculators because they offered smaller, more manageable pieces of land on affordable terms.

Settlers were not interested in purchasing land until the 1790s. Before that, Native American hostility kept potential buyers from stepping forward to purchase the land. Therefore, the impact of the Land Ordinance was delayed, taking effect only after the Native Americans had been subdued and thousands of settlers had poured into the western lands.

"Western world"

The few spirited Americans who managed to settle on land west of the Appalachians in the 1780s were men and women living in a far different world than Americans on the safe and established east coast. The frontier folk often referred to Page 316  |  Top of Article themselves as those living in the "western world." Their homes were isolated and under constant Native American attack. Communication with the East was difficult.

Feeling that state legislatures were not responding to their needs, pioneers took matters into their own hands. Various movements for new statehood came from the western settlers. Kentucky pioneers started a movement to separate from Virginia. Settlers in present-day eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia for a time established their own state, the state of Franklin. Pennsylvania became so tired of western settlers' demands for independence that in 1783 the legislature threatened some with the death penalty. In 1786 and 1787, settlers from far western Pennsylvania south through Tennessee communicated with each other about establishing their own nation under the protection of Spain. (Spain controlled the Mississippi River, a vital transportation route for those in the West.) Aware of these various movements, Congress decided it must establish a clear plan for regions to enter statehood, so that they could have representation in the U.S. government.

Northwest Ordinance of 1787

On July 13, 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, legislation that outlined a plan territories could follow to attain statehood. The ordinance originally applied to the land north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River known as the Old Northwest, but it became the model for most territories entering statehood. The plan called for the Northwest Territory to be divided into three to five territories; then it listed a three-step process for achieving statehood.

The plan's first step called for a territory to appoint a governor, secretary, and three judges. Second, as soon as there were five thousand male residents in the territory, residents could elect a legislature and delegates to Congress. The delegates could not vote until step three, adequate population growth, was completed. When sixty thousand free inhabitants (non-slaves) lived in the territory, they could apply to Congress for statehood.

The Northwest Ordinance allowed new states the same representation in Congress that the original states had. Each new state had two senators, plus one member in the House Page 317  |  Top of Article for every thirty thousand residents. This avoided conflicts between the old and new states, between the East and West, since the older, established states could not dominate the new states. Congress guaranteed protection of the rights and liberties of those living in new states and those moving to new territories. Significantly, it banned slavery in the states carved from the Old Northwest.

One other aspect of the Northwest Ordinance involved Native Americans. It promised that the United States would always act in "good faith" with the Native Americans and that their land would not be taken without their consent. This portion of the ordinance never worked as written.

The Native American Problem

By the 1780s, Native American tribes that once thrived up and down the east coast had been destroyed. Some died from disease, and others died from starvation after losing their native hunting lands. Many were killed in war and endless skirmishes with whites. However, large Native American tribes still lived in the Old Northwest and the Southwest, and they were determined to hold on to their lands. Living in the Old Northwest were the Delaware, Wyandot, Ottawa, Chippewa, Shawnee, Miami, and Potawatomi tribes and the Ohio Seneca called Mingo. These tribes were given arms and ammunition by the British, who were still occupying fur-trading posts in the region. The British encouraged them to resist white settlement so settlers would not interfere with their trapping activities. The Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw lived in the Southwest. These tribes were encouraged by the Spanish to resist white settlement in the region. Spain controlled Florida westward to Louisiana and land west of the Mississippi River. The Spanish feared increased settlement would endanger their land claims.

Several tribes, including the Delaware, Shawnee, Miami, and Potawatomi, joined together in alliances to stop the advancement of settlement in the Old Northwest. They harassed and raided settlements, often killing whole pioneer families. By the late 1780s, the Native Americans had slowed westward advancement of settlers into the Old Northwest. The U.S. government was not happy about what they viewed as Page 318  |  Top of Article a problem with Native Americans and it sought a plan to get the situation under control.

The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1788, confirmed the federal government's power to deal with foreign powers and make treaties. The government decided to deal with Native American tribes as foreign powers. U.S. government representatives flattered the Native Americans by telling them they considered each tribe an independent nation. This "nation" status allowed U.S. officials to make treaties with each Native American "nation" and acquire (by any devious means necessary) Native American lands. Generally, Native American tribes were paid a few cents per acre for land they agreed to turn over. Frequently, the Native Americans signing the treaties were not true representatives of the tribes and had no authority to sign a treaty. Nevertheless, many such treaties were signed, and settlers' struggles with Native American tribes continued.

To subdue the Native Americans in the Old Northwest after their overwhelming victory over an American military force in 1791, President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) sent troops from the newly established U.S. Army into present-day northern Ohio. Under General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796), the American troops trained in 1792 and 1793, then defeated Native American forces at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794. Wayne's victory broke the spirit and power of the Northwest Native Americans and secured the area for American settlement for at least a decade. Early in 1795, Wayne brought scattered Native American chiefs together at Fort Greenville in Ohio. He wrote the terms of the Treaty of Greenville, and the chiefs signed the treaty, turning over to the U.S. government most of the lands the Native Americans had claimed in present-day Ohio.

In 1811, a renewed Native American alliance in the Northwest tried again to resist white settlement. Led by Shawnee chief Tecumseh (1768–1813) and his brother Elskwatawa (c. 1768–1834), also known as "the Prophet" or Tenskwatawa, the Native Americans battled troops of the Indiana Territory at the Native American village of Tippecanoe. Although many white troops were killed, the Native American village was destroyed.

Tecumseh's forces and the Southeastern tribes unwisely joined forces with the British in the War of 1812 to resist the advance of American settlements. Tecumseh was killed in 1813 Page 319  |  Top of Article at a battle in Ontario, Canada. After the U.S. victory in the War of 1812, there was no further Native American resistance in the Old Northwest. The U.S. government abandoned trying to convert the Native American population into settled farmers, referred to as a "civilization" program, and instead followed a policy of removal—sending the Native Americans to land designated by the government.

Jay Treaty and Treaty of San Lorenzo

The 1795 Treaty of Greenville was one of three mid-1790s treaties the United States negotiated that cleared the way for American settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. The other two treaties were the Jay Treaty, signed with Britain in 1794, and the Treaty of San Lorenzo, signed with Spain in 1795. In the mid-1790s, Britain still occupied many fur-trading forts in the Old Northwest. British forts included Mackinac, Detroit, Niagara, Oswegatchie, Oswego, and Dutchman's Point. From the forts, they supplied Native Americans with guns and encouraged them to resist American settlement.

U.S. diplomat and Supreme Court chief justice John Jay (1745–1829) was sent to Britain in November 1794 to negotiate, among other things, British interference in the Old Northwest. Britain, engaged in a European war with France, could not afford war with America. Its fur trade in the Old Northwest had been declining, so Britain agreed to surrender all of its forts by June 1, 1796. After making this agreement, the British stopped supporting Native American hostilities in the region. Signed on November 19, 1794, the Jay Treaty helped open the Old Northwest for settlement.

The Spanish had agreed to help Britain fight against France in the European war, but by 1795 Spain was out of money and ready to pull out of its commitment. Spain feared an angry Britain might attack Spanish holdings in America. Spain controlled land west of the Mississippi River, all travel and trade going up and down the river, and the port of New Orleans. Spain also controlled western Florida, a strip along the Gulf of Mexico that extended to present-day Louisiana. Spain claimed a large strip of land west of Georgia, too. It was called the Yazoo Strip, and it was land that the United States had also claimed.

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U.S. diplomat John Jay, instigator of the Jay Treaty. ( Hulton ArchiveGetty Images.) U.S. diplomat John Jay, instigator of the Jay Treaty. (© Hulton Archive/Getty Images.)

For years, the Spanish had harassed western settlers who needed to transport goods and supplies on the Mississippi River. Spain collected fees on shipments coming and going through New Orleans. Spain also angered the United States by supplying guns and ammunition to Native Americans in the Yazoo Strip so they could resist U.S. settlement.

Spain decided the best way to prevent Britain and the United States from joining together to attack New Orleans was to gain U.S. friendship. The United States sent diplomat Thomas Pinckney (1750–1828) to Spain for negotiations. On October 27, 1795, the Treaty of San Lorenzo, also known as Pinckney's Treaty, was signed. Spain gave up all claims to the Yazoo Strip and agreed to stop supporting Native American resistance against U.S. settlements. Even more important, Spain granted Americans free use of the Mississippi River, eliminating fees at New Orleans. With the Treaty of Greenville, the Jay Treaty, and the Treaty of San Lorenzo in place, American settlement of the western lands accelerated rapidly.

Open for settlement

People continued to move from the safe, established land along the east coast to the wild frontier. Many of them were emigrants from Europe, part of a huge influx of people coming to America. From 1783 to 1815, approximately five million emigrants arrived in the United States. They all wanted land, the symbol of wealth in Europe. Land was not available on the East Coast, so they moved west.

Americans in the original states moved west for a variety of reasons. New England was experiencing serious overcrowding. Its farmland was limited, and by the 1790s even moderately Page 321  |  Top of Article good land sold for $14 to $50 per acre compared to $2 an acre for fertile (productive) lands in the West. As families grew, there was no more land to divide among themselves, so they headed west. New Englanders also left their home region to avoid high state taxes and political and religious control by the established church, the Congregational Church of Puritan origins (see Chapter 12).

Pioneers living on the western fringes of New York and Pennsylvania kept steadily pushing farther west, especially when the Old Northwest opened. Large landowners in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina had used up the soil's nutrients by over-planting tobacco, so they sought new rich lands in the West. Smaller farmers headed west to escape the dominance of large landowners.

U.S. diplomat Thomas Pinckney, who negotiated terms of the Treaty of San Lorenzo (also known as Pinckneys Treaty) with Spain. ( Hulton ArchiveGetty Images.) U.S. diplomat Thomas Pinckney, who negotiated terms of the Treaty of San Lorenzo (also known as Pinckney's Treaty) with Spain. (© Hulton Archive/Getty Images.)

Kentucky and Tennessee

Kentucky and Tennessee were the only western lands to have significant settlement in the 1780s. Their rich lands were the first to interest emigrants. Emigrants began settling Kentucky during the American Revolution, following a trail blazed by frontiersman Daniel Boone (1734–1820) in 1775. After 1783, the trail became the Wilderness Road. The settlers went deep into the center of Kentucky, where timbered areas were interspersed with fertile open meadows. The richness of the lands inspired settlers to brave any dangers.

Kentucky's population grew from an estimated 2,000 in 1783 to 73,677 in 1790. In 1792, Kentucky was the first territory to become a state. By 1800, it had a population of 220,955 and by 1810 a population of 406,511. In 1815, the most developed area west of the Appalachians was Lexington, Kentucky. Lexington, with a population of 6,000 to 7,000, had become a trade center with fine brick

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Early Roads to the West

The first roads to the West over the Appalachian Mountains were crude trails suitable only for horseback and foot traffic. Gradually, the more traveled pathways were improved for wagon passage. These early roads were muddy and full of obstacles. Tree trunks were cut down to 16 to 18 inches high, just so wagon axles could pass over them. When a tree was too big, it was simply left standing, even if it was in the middle of the road.

Three of the oldest roads brought settlers into the Old Northwest and central Kentucky. Many traveled from the East to the Ohio River on two roads originally built by the military in the late 1750s during the French and Indian War (1754–63). Forbes Road ran from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, a town on the Ohio River; Braddock's Road ran from Alexandria, Virginia, to Pittsburgh. The Wilderness Road, built about 1780, brought settlers from North Carolina to central Kentucky.

America's early road system to the West included northern routes from New England to western New York; middle state routes from Philadelphia, Maryland, and northern Virginia to Pittsburgh; and southerly routes from central Virginia and North Carolina into central Kentucky and Tennessee. No roads connected the northern routes with the two more southerly road systems known as the Great Valley Road and Zanes Trace.

Georgia and the Mississippi Territory had two very crude roads, built by the U.S. government and opened between 1810 and 1812. One ran from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi, and the other from Ocmulgee River in central Georgia to Saint Stephens, Mississippi, on the Tombigbee River.

When Congress authorized the Ohio Territory to apply for statehood in 1802, it also required Ohio to fund roads. Ohio agreed to use 5 percent of funds raised from land sales to build roads. A percentage was also earmarked for the construction of a national road beginning in Cumberland, Maryland, and running into the inner Old Northwest. The National Road, also called the Cumberland Road, was started in 1811, but it did not reach Wheeling, Virginia, until 1818. When completed about 1838, it ran through Wheeling, Virginia (the state of West Virginia did not yet exist), Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana, ending in Vandalia, Illinois. Twenty-first-century Inter-state 70 and U.S. Highway 40 follow the old National Road route.

Soon a transportation waterway complemented the increasing number of roads. A hand-dug canal, known as the Erie Canal, would provide a water route for western farmers to ship their goods northeast to New York City instead of all the way down the Mississippi River, around Florida, and northward along the east coast. In 1817, New York governor DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828) proposed that a canal be dug to connect Lake Erie at Buffalo with the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. The project was nicknamed "Clinton's Ditch." Amid sharp criticism that his plan was folly, Clinton convinced the New York legislature to fund the project. Work on the canal began in 1817 and was finished in 1825.

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Frontiersman Daniel Boone leads a group of settlers into Kentucky. ( Hulton ArchiveGetty Images.) Frontiersman Daniel Boone leads a group of settlers into Kentucky. (© Hulton Archive/Getty Images.)

homes, schools, churches, industries, and even a fledgling theater arts community.

Settlers began moving to Tennessee as early as 1768. Early settlements centered in two areas: the rich valleys of the Holston, Nolichucky, and French Broad Rivers in northeast Tennessee near present-day Knoxville and along the Cumberland River at present-day Nashville. Despite numerous clashes with the Cherokee and Creek tribes, 35,691 settlers lived in Tennessee in 1790. When the worst Native American dangers were over in 1795, emigrants crowded toward Nashville. In two summer months, 26,000 moved into Tennessee through the Cumberland Gap, a pass through the mountains where the borders of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee meet. Tennessee Page 324  |  Top of Article
A painting of the Cumberland Gap by Harry Fenn. (Library of Congress.) A painting of the Cumberland Gap by Harry Fenn. (Library of Congress.) became a state in 1796, and settlers, most from North Carolina, continued filling its largely empty land. By 1810, more than 260,000 people lived in Tennessee.

New York

In 1783, the central and western parts of New York were largely unsettled, except along the Hudson River around Albany, where large landowners occupied most of the fertile lands. Land speculators bought western New York lands from the government for resale to settlers. Holland Land Company was one of the most active land speculating companies. The mid-1790s and first decade of the 1800s saw rapid growth in the rich western Genesee River valley. Emigrants from eastern New York and New England flooded onto the Great Genesee Road. By 1797, five hundred wagons a day moved along the Page 325  |  Top of Article road. By 1812, more than two hundred thousand emigrants had made their way to the region; twenty-five thousand of them had purchased land from the Holland Land Company. Houses could be seen all along the Mohawk Turnpike and Genesee Road, from Albany through Utica and on to Buffalo.


Most of the people moving from New England and New York toward Pennsylvania settled in good farming areas of southwestern Pennsylvania or continued to the Ohio River and the Old Northwest. Western Pennsylvania grew from 75,000 settlers in 1790 to 210,000 in 1810.

In the southwest part of the state, Pittsburgh began to grow steadily after 1795 and reached a population of 7,000 by 1815. Pittsburgh was a manufacturing town with numerous factories that made nails and other iron products, glass, rope, copper, tin cookware, and cotton cloth. Thousands of settlers headed to the Northwest Territory bought their supplies in Pittsburgh.

Old Northwest

Before 1795, hostile Native Americans had halted most settlement of the Old Northwest. However, after General Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers and the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in early 1795, the floodgates of settlement opened. Many settlers traveled down the Ohio River on flat-boats from put-in points (frequently used locations favorable for safely launching boats from the river bank) at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Wheeling, Virginia; and Marietta, Ohio. Land in present-day Ohio became a region of small farms raising corn, wheat, and livestock. Cincinnati, founded in 1789–90 as a military outpost, became a center for settlers and merchants to trade goods and produce in southwest Ohio. Ohio's population grew from 45,000 in 1800 to 230,000 by 1810 and 250,000 by 1812. Ohio became a state in 1803.

Land Act of 1800

Greatly aiding the Old Northwest growth was the Land Act of 1800, passed by Congress on May 10. The act held the price Page 326  |  Top of Article of land at $2 per acre, a price set in 1796, but reduced the minimum purchase to 320 acres (for a total cost of $640). The act allowed a buyer to pay one-fourth of the total price ($160) up front and take four more years to pay off the remainder. Individual farmers could better handle these terms and began buying directly from the government rather than land speculators. At last, Congress saw a great deal of cash from land sales flow into the U.S. Treasury. President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9) was so delighted that in 1804 his administration further reduced the minimum purchase to 160 acres, with an $80 down payment.

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The Flatboat

One of the most popular means of transportation for settlers coming into the Old Northwest was the flatboat. Floated down the Ohio River, a flatboat could carry an entire family, animals, and belongings. Flatboats were likely the most practical system ever devised for moving a household. On the boat, children could play or sleep while their mother carried out daily duties such as washing clothes and preparing food. The father steered his floating home. Usually a horse and a couple of cows calmly munched on a haystack aboard the boat. Daily life went on as usual until the family spotted the perfect piece of land. Once the flatboat was unloaded, it was disassembled, and its wood was used to build a cabin.

A flatboat floats down the Mississippi River. ( BettmannCorbis.) A flatboat floats down the Mississippi River. (© Bettmann/Corbis.)

In the first eleven years after the act's passage, over 3.3 million acres of land were sold in the Old Northwest alone. People flowed into the Ohio Territory from Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New York. Entire New England villages, complete with pastor and schoolmaster, set up new towns at Granville and Worthington, Ohio.

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Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan

In 1800, the Old Northwest was split into the Ohio Territory and the Indiana Territory, which had a population of 2,500. Soon, two more territories were carved out of the Old Northwest: Michigan Territory in 1805 and Illinois Territory in 1809. Despite a renewed threat of Native American hostilities, Indiana grew to an estimated population of 60,000 by 1815. Also hampered by Native American threats, Illinois grew slowly; its population reached 12,282 in 1810. Michigan remained largely unsettled by Americans until after 1815. Indiana entered statehood in 1816, Illinois in 1818, and Michigan not until 1837.


Settlement of western Georgia and the territory farther west to the Mississippi River happened slowly, impeded by conflicting land claims and Native American resistance. Both Georgia and Spain had claimed the Yazoo Strip in the 1780s. The Creek and Cherokee tribes in western Georgia and the Choctaw and Chickasaw in the Mississippi Territory, encouraged by the Spaniards, fought westward expansion of U.S. settlements by raiding frontier settlements. Ignoring Spanish and Native American claims as well, Georgia's legislature first tried to sell the entire region to land speculators in 1789. When that deal fell through because of the worthless money the speculators offered, Georgia sold it again in 1795 to four land companies. Through bribes paid by the companies to gain a very low selling price, many Georgia legislators and officials held stock in the land companies.

In the meantime, Spain and the United States signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795 in which Spain gave up its claim on the Yazoo Strip. With Spain no longer claiming the land, the value of the land rose sharply and the companies began reselling it for great profits. Public outrage over the deceitful sale of lands by Georgia and the resulting profits being made led Congress to pass legislation in 1796 repealing all sales. Then in 1798, Congress created the Mississippi Territory from the Yazoo Strip, an area encompassing most of present-day Alabama and Mississippi. A newly elected Georgia legislature tried to pay back the land purchasers, but many refused payment and tried to sue the government to retain. Georgia Page 328  |  Top of Article officially ceded its claims on the Yazoo Strip to the U.S. government in 1802. An 1810 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Fletcher v. Peck led ultimately to the speculators being awarded $4 million for the loss of their land investments.

By 1812, only 20,000 people, including many Spaniards, lived in the Mississippi Territory, most along the Mississippi and Tombigbee Rivers. Eastern and central Georgia's population increased from 162,686 in 1800 to over 250,000 by 1810 because Georgia made it very easy to purchase land. After the War of 1812, when the Native Americans were defeated and the Gulf of Mexico ports such as Mobile opened, farmers began to settle in western Georgia and the Mississippi Territory. Mississippi entered statehood in 1817, and Alabama followed in 1819.

Louisiana Territory

In 1803, the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase from France. It was a huge tract of land; the deal secured the largest expansion in U.S. history. For $15 million, the United States bought about 800,000 square miles of territory stretching from the mouth of the Mississippi at New Orleans all the way north to Canada. Congress approved the purchase on December 20, 1803 (see Chapter 7). Parts or all of thirteen present-day states were eventually carved from the territory.

After the deal was made, the Louisiana Purchase was divided into the Louisiana Territory and the Orleans Territory. The only inhabitants of the vast Louisiana Territory were Native Americans. American settlement would not begin there until 1815, after the War of 1812 was over. The Orleans Territory included New Orleans and the region that would become the state of Louisiana. There were Spanish, French, and a few English and American people living there, plus many slaves. In 1804, the population of the territory was about forty thousand, including ten thousand in New Orleans.

The port at New Orleans was the vital center of trade for western settlements. Farmers and manufacturers sent goods south by boat on the Mississippi River to New Orleans; the goods were then sent on to the east coast and to Europe. Western settlers also received supplies up the river. As part of the Louisiana Purchase, the New Orleans port was for the first Page 329  |  Top of Article time under U.S. control. Settlers from the East began coming to the Orleans Territory between 1803 and 1812. By 1810, the territory had a population of 76,556, including 34,660 slaves. The settlers grew cotton and sugarcane, and many raised large cattle herds. The state of Louisiana entered the union in 1812.


A few hardy pioneers pushed the fringe of westward settlement into present-day Missouri as early as the 1790s, when Spain still controlled the area. Missouri is west of the Mississippi River. It came under U.S. control as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. By 1815, the Missouri region had a population of roughly twenty thousand, stretching along the Mississippi River from New Madrid north to St. Louis. Although American explorers had reached all the way to the Pacific coast, Missouri frontiersmen represented the farthest westward settlement by Americans in 1815.

Exploring the Far West

In 1803, the United States suddenly owned 800,000 square miles of lands beyond the Mississippi River that it knew nothing about. President Jefferson asked Congress to set aside funds for an expedition through the Louisiana Territory all the way to Oregon Country and the Pacific Ocean. The purpose of the expedition was to find a safe and practical water route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific for trade. At the time, the only water route from the east coast of North America to the west coast was around the southern tip of South America. Jefferson saw immense profit for America if the expedition could discover a way to carry goods over water from the Mississippi to the Pacific. Various French, Spanish, British, and Canadian explorers had tried unsuccessfully to find such a passage.

President Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) to lead between forty-five and fifty men, the "Corps of Discovery," to the Pacific. They were instructed to make detailed maps, befriend Native Americans along the way, send back samples of plants, insects, and wildlife, and record the climate. They took gifts for the Native Americans, including glass beads, mirrors, and metal peace medallions. Lewis studied botany and zoology before leaving on the expedition Page 330  |  Top of Article
A map showing the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition. ( Thomson Gale.) A map showing the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition. (© Thomson Gale.) and took charge of scientific discoveries. Clark was the navigator, journal keeper, and mapmaker.

The expedition left St. Louis on May 14, 1804. Lewis and Clark followed the Missouri River northwest across the Great Plains, then wintered with the Mandan tribe in North Dakota. There they hired French Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau (1767–1843) as a Native American interpreter for the journey over the Rockies to the Pacific. His wife, Sacagawea (c. 1786–1812), a Shoshone woman, also accompanied the party. She translated Native American languages, showed the men where to hunt and fish, instructed them in the use of wild plants for food and medicine, and helped them acquire horses for the trip over the Rockies.

Finding their way down the Columbia River, the party spent the rainy winter of 1805–6 at Fort Clatsop on the present-day Oregon coast (they had to build the fort themselves). The expedition returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. Page 331  |  Top of Article They were welcomed by a cheering crowd; only months earlier, the explorers had been given up for lost.

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The early American period produced notable Native American leaders who organized broad resistance movements to stop U.S. expansion into Native American territories. These leaders included Little Turtle (c. 1752–1812), Tecumseh (1768–1813), and Alexander McGillivray (c. 1759–1793). However, one of the most legendary Native Americans of this time was a woman who lived in the distant, unexplored West. Her name was Sacagawea.

Sacagawea (c. 1786–1812) was born in a northern Shoshone village in the Lemhi Valley of present-day Idaho. At about the age of thirteen, she was captured by another tribe while she was traveling east across the Rocky Mountains. She soon became the property of a French Canadian fur trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau. She and Charbonneau met explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark while they and the members of their expedition wintered on the Missouri River in 1804–5.

Recruited to join the expedition even though she had just given birth, Sacagawea served as an interpreter and advised the expedition members on wild foods. Near her homeland, she helped identify routes
A bronze sculpture of Native American woman Sacagawea, who acted as an interpreter and advisor on the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. (Library of Congress.) A bronze sculpture of Native American woman Sacagawea, who acted as an interpreter and advisor on the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. (Library of Congress.) through the mountains and introduced the explorers to local Native Americans who provided much needed supplies. In 1806, she, Charbonneau, and their infant son left the expedition during the return trip on the Missouri River, disembarking at the same place where they had first met the explorers.

Zebulon Pike (1779–1813) set out to explore the middle and southern portions of the Louisiana Purchase. In 1805, Pike mapped the upper Mississippi River as he searched for its source. In 1806, he explored the upper reaches of the Arkansas Page 332  |  Top of Article
Pikes Peak rises in the background. The Colorado mountain peak was discovered in 1806 by explorer Zebulon Pike and was later named after him. ( David MuenchCorbis.) Pike's Peak rises in the background. The Colorado mountain peak was discovered in 1806 by explorer Zebulon Pike and was later named after him. (© David Muench/Corbis.) River that has its source in present-day central Colorado. In November, he spotted a Colorado mountain peak rising above the plains. The snow-covered peak became known as Pike's Peak. When Pike dropped into Spanish territory in present-day New Mexico, Spanish officials held him and his men in captivity. Upon release, Pike was allowed to travel through Texas to Natchitoches in the Orleans Territory.

The travels of Lewis, Clark, and Pike caught the interest and imagination of Americans. Although Lewis and Clark found no Page 333  |  Top of Article water passage to the Pacific, Clark brought back accurate maps of the far Northwest, the first maps ever made of that region. Lewis's descriptions of abundant wildlife excited trappers. Some began to think America's future lay in the lands west of the Mississippi River.

First to follow in the early explorers' footsteps were rugged, solitary "mountain men," fur trappers from Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. They went to the Rockies and the Northwest to trap and make their fortune in furs. Wealthy American John Jacob Astor (1763–1848) established his Pacific Fur Company at Fort Astoria (present-day Astoria, Oregon) in 1811. The War of 1812 interrupted further government-backed exploration. However, many Americans now anticipated that westward expansion all the way to the Pacific would soon become possible.

For More Information


Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Billington, Ray Allen, and Martin Ridge. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. 5th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1982.

Horsman, Reginald. The Frontier in the Formative Years, 1783–1815. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.

Irving, Washington. Astoria, or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1836. Multiple reprints.

Web Sites

"Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail." U.S. National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/lecl/ (accessed on August 8, 2005).

"Louisiana History." Louisiana Department of Economic Development. http://www.crt.state.la.us/crt/profiles/history.htm (accessed on August 8, 2005).

"New York State History." The History Department at the University at Albany. http://nystatehistory.org/ (accessed on August 8, 2005).

Ohio Historical Society. http://www.ohiohistory.org/ (accessed on August 8, 2005).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3450900026