views updated Jun 27 2018


In late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century parlance, the term "Northwest" referred to the American region north and west of the Ohio River. This area became the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and a portion of eastern Minnesota.

The territory comprising what became known by the mid-nineteenth century as the "Old Northwest" was ceded to the newly independent United States by Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris (1783). The region had long attracted the attention of land-starved eastern farmers and speculators. Intent upon an orderly and structured settlement of the area and hoping to compensate Revolutionary War veterans with land for their largely unpaid service, the Confederation Congress convinced the eastern seaboard states to abandon their numerous historical claims to western territory and to create a national domain in the region. Moreover, the fledgling government entered into negotiations with native tribes to gain undisputed control over the land. Though some of these negotiations bore fruit, witness the Treaties of Fort Stanwix (1784) and the Treaty of Fort McIntosh (1785), many other native groups repudiated the land cessions and openly resisted settler encroachment upon their homelands, armed resistance that would wax and wane until 1815. With title to the land secured (in principle), Confederation officials passed laws establishing a systematic pattern of land survey (based on rectilinear units) and public sale (Ordinance of 1785) and organized the region as the Northwest Territory, creating in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 a framework for territorial governance and outlining the necessary steps for the region's eventual statehood and full equality with the existing states.

In spite of ongoing tensions with local natives, settlers from the North and South alike streamed across the Appalachian Mountains and began carving out settlements and farmsteads along the Ohio River and its tributaries. In the face of increasing pressure, native resistance in the Northwest stiffened and the federal government was forced to dispatch large armies into the region to protect settlements and to quash the Indians. After a series of early military disasters, the eventual defeat of the northwestern tribes by General "Mad" Anthony Wayne's Legion at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794) and the ensuing Treaty of Greenville (1795) opened the region to full-scale settlement. By 1798 the Northwest Territory's population surpassed five thousand, and it elected its first territorial legislature that year. In 1803 Ohio, the first state carved out of the Northwest Territory, was admitted to the Union. The remainder of the Old Northwest followed a similar path to statehood with Indiana admitted in 1816, Illinois in 1818, Michigan in 1837, Wisconsin in 1848, and Minnesota (including additional territory obtained through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803) in 1858.

a region of american virtues

Although the Northwest attracted a wide array of settlers (New England "Yankees," migrants from the mid-Atlantic, upland southerners, and immigrants from abroad), shared experience and a common political origin under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 enabled a collective regional identity to develop quickly. Indeed, regional boosters, such as James Hall of Illinois and Lewis Cass of Michigan, argued that the Northwest's diverse population forged a discernable "western," yet undeniably national, culture.

For many self-titled westerners, their region and the culture that it spawned fully embodied the republican values of limitless opportunity, unfettered freedom, independence, and selflessness that had driven the Revolutionary movement. According to this view the Northwest, as the nation's first experiment in "colonization," was a vehicle for the dissemination of the blessings of liberty into the wilderness. The Northwest—through the Northwest Ordinance and the principles embedded within it—further institutionalized the ideals of the Revolution and the promise of self-government. Furthermore, many believed that the Northwest and its settlers were defined as the most "American" of all regions by virtue of the selfless cession of western land claims by the eastern states, the democratic access to land via public sale to all comers, the area's orderly progress toward self-rule and full equality as states, the freedom of religion and basic rights guaranteed by the Northwest Ordinance, the promotion of public education, and the banning of slavery from the region. The region's fertility, bountiful and relatively inexpensive land, and developing connections to broader markets also induced many westerners to embrace an emerging middle-class, Protestant ethos of capitalistic self-improvement and material gain. This soon became one of the alleged hallmarks of the northwestern persona.

the darker side

This self-constructed identity, however, belied a more complex reality. Though many spoke in terms of a collective "western genius," a large number of the region's inhabitants found themselves at odds with its basic precepts or were forced to lead lives on the periphery of western society. Land, the basis for independent living, remained beyond the reach of many. Others, for varied reasons, rejected the North-west's burgeoning capitalist ethos and clung to a tradition of self-provisioning agriculture. The region's vaunted hostility to slavery was also not uniformly shared. Many upland southern settlers harbored no animosity toward the "peculiar institution" and some went so far as to push for the repeal of its exclusion from the states being carved out of the Northwest Territory. Likewise, the Northwest Ordinance did not free those individuals already enslaved in the region as of 1787, and thus the institution continued to linger on into the nineteenth century, with some slaves held in Illinois into the 1840s. Similarly, the spread of "American" ideals into the West did not proceed smoothly or peacefully and left in its wake many casualties. In the end racism, greed, and prejudice relegated the area's African American and indigenous residents to marginal existences. Additionally, many "westerners" resented their region's ongoing subordination and dependency. Protracted territorial status, contentious admission to statehood (Michigan being a prime example), and political powerlessness left many westerners chafing at their perceived inequality and eastern domination.

The Northwest spent many of its formative years as a shadowy western dependency of the established states. Isolated from direct access to the east coast by the formidable Appalachian Mountains, the region's economic and cultural link to the rest of the nation was the Ohio-Mississippi River system. Unfortunately, during the Confederation era and on into the first years of the nineteenth century, Spain controlled the all-important port of New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River. Spanish closure of the port to American trade and the Confederation's inability to change Spanish policy produced reoccurring separatist movements in the Northwest until the American acquisition of the river's mouth through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Equally galling to "westerners" was the continued British presence on American territory down to the late 1790s and the inept military policy of the federal government in response to the threat posed by the western tribes. Even with the British gone, the Indian threat diminished, and American control over the Mississippi River ensured, northwestern settlers remained wedded to the region's river valleys and the area remained an economic satellite of the expanding American South.

becoming a powerhouse

In the decade of the 1820s, however, the Northwest began to flex its muscle and the region emerged as a national powerhouse. The construction of the National Road and the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 provided the region with direct and speedy links to the Atlantic seaboard and the world. Moreover, the development of steam travel on the Great Lakes and western rivers enabled trade to move in an economical and efficient manner. Consumer goods flooded into the region and the bounty of western lands flowed east to fuel an economic boom. Northwestern farms rapidly surpassed the output of older farms in the Northeast, and the region became the breadbasket for the nation and much of Europe. Likewise, the abundant natural resources of the North-west—its lumber, fish, and minerals—attracted eastern capital and found ready markets in the East, sparking the birth of new industries. The population of the Northwest also grew dramatically during the decade, jumping from roughly 785,000 in 1820 to over 1.4 million by 1830, which paved the way for the subsequent emergence of the region as a dominant political force.

See alsoAmerican Indians: American Indian Resistance to White Expansion; Illinois; Indiana; Jay's Treaty; Michigan; Ohio; Wisconsin Territory .


Barnhart, Terry A. "'A Common Feeling': Regional Identity and Historical Consciousness in the Old Northwest, 1820–1860." Michigan Historical Review 29 (2003): 39–70.

Cayton, Andrew R. L., and Peter S. Onuf. The Midwest and the Nation: Rethinking the History of an American Region. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Cayton, Andrew R. L., and Susan E. Gray, eds. The American Midwest: Essays on Regional History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

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

Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. 2nd ed. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 2001.

Gray, Susan E. The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Martin J. Hershock


views updated Jun 08 2018

north·west / ˌnôr[unvoicedth]ˈwest/ • n. (usu. the northwest) 1. the point of the horizon midway between north and west: he pointed to the northwest. ∎  the compass point corresponding to this. ∎  the direction in which this lies.2. the northwestern part of a country, region, or town: they had originally come from someplace in the northwest of Mexico.• adj. 1. lying toward, near, or facing the northwest: the northwest corner of the square. ∎  (of a wind) blowing from the northwest.2. of or denoting the northwestern part of a country, region, or town, or its inhabitants: northwest Europe.• adv. to or toward the northwest: he turned onto the highway and headed northwest.DERIVATIVES: north·west·ern / -ˈwestərn/ adj.

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