Western Lands

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WESTERN LANDS. When the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, seven had overlapping and conflicting claims to western lands. These claims, which extended to the Mississippi River, had been cutoff by the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774. But, with independence, the states revived them, and Virginia undertook a campaign to recover its territory, which included the present states of Kentucky and West Virginia, and the territory north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi rivers. The claims of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York cut across this northwest territory of Virginia. The claims of North and South Carolina and Georgia were south of Virginia, including the land between their present boundaries and the Mississippi.

The ownership of such vast areas by a few states aroused jealousy and ill-feeling among small states lacking western lands. They feared the western lands would give large states too much power, and Maryland refused to ratify the Articles of Confederation until landowning states surrendered their claims to the new government. The Continental Congress urged the states to cede their land claims to the central government, promising to erect new states there. Thus assured, New York and Virginia ceded their claims, but with unacceptable qualifications. New York's claims rested on Indian treaties of doubtful legality, but its cession greatly aided the movement. By 1781 Maryland was sufficiently convinced other states would follow and ratified the Articles of Confederation.

On 20 October 1783 Virginia again offered to cede its lands north of the Ohio, provided that it be allowed to reserve for itself a military district in the present state of Ohio to satisfy military grants made during the revolution. This offer was accepted on 1 March 1784. Virginia also retained its land south of the Ohio, which entered the Union in 1791 as the state of Kentucky. In 1785 Massachusetts ceded its claim to land in the present states of Michigan and Wisconsin, and in 1786 Connecticut ceded its western lands. Connecticut reserved a tract of 3.8 million acres in northeastern Ohio—called the Western Reserve—a part of which it set aside for the relief of those whose property had been destroyed by the British during the revolution. South Carolina ceded its land in 1787, as did North Carolina in 1790. After long delay, Georgia ceded its lands in 1802, but only after it sold vast tracts in the Yazoo Valley to land speculating companies under conditions of notorious fraud, roiling the political waters for a generation.

These cessions gave the Confederation a vast public domain of 221.99 million acres. But within the present states of Kentucky and Tennessee, the soil had already been granted to revolutionary war veterans, settlers, and land companies by Virginia and North Carolina, leaving the Confederation with only political jurisdiction. In 1785 the Confederation adopted a land ordinance to provide a method of disposing of the vast territory. In 1787 the Confederation adopted the Northwest Ordinance to provide a form of government for what came to be known as the Old Northwest. The land and government systems were not extended to the territory of the Southwest until later.


Etcheson, Nicole. The Emerging Midwest: Upland Southerners and the Political Culture of the Old Northwest, 1787–1861. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Hibbard, Benjamin H. A History of the Public Land Policies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.

Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720–1830. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Paul W.Gates/c. w.

See alsoColonial Charters ; Land Bounties ; Land Claims ; Northwest Territory ; Ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787 ; Western Reserve ; Yazoo Fraud .