Northwest Territory

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Northwest Territory, first possession of the United States, comprising the region known as the Old Northwest, S and W of the Great Lakes, NW of the Ohio River, and E of the Mississippi River, including the present states of Ohio, Ind., Ill., Mich., Wis., and part of Minn.

Exploration and Early Settlement

Men from New France began to penetrate this rich fur country in the 17th cent.; in 1634, the French explorer Jean Nicolet became the first to enter the region. He was followed by explorers and traders—Radisson and Groseilliers, Duluth, La Salle, Jolliet, Perrot, and Cadillac—as well as by missionaries such as Jogues, Dablon, and Marquette. The Great Lakes region was controlled by a few widely scattered French posts, such as Kaskaskia, Vincennes, Prairie du Chien, and Green Bay; links were established between the Northwest settlements and those in French Louisiana (St. Louis, New Orleans). The two chief posts of the Old Northwest were Detroit and Mackinac (Michilimackinac), but French influence spread among the Native American groups east to the Iroquois country.

In the 18th cent. the Northwest was coveted not only by the British colonists in Canada, but also by those in the American seaboard colonies, who organized the Ohio Company in 1747 for the purpose of extending the Virginia settlements westward. At the same time, the French sought to strengthen their hold on the Northwest by building forts. The clash of British and French interests culminated in the expedition led by George Washington that resulted in the loss of Fort Necessity and the outbreak of the last of the French and Indian Wars. The wars ended in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, by which the British obtained Canada and the Old Northwest.

British Rule

Almost immediately after the British acquired the region, Pontiac, an Ottawa chief, led an uprising against them (see Pontiac's Rebellion). The Ottawa were somewhat appeased by the British Proclamation of 1763 that closed the region W of the Allegheny Mts. to white settlement in an attempt to protect the Native American fur trade and lands; yet this action caused resentment among the American frontiersmen and contributed to the American Revolution. The mysterious machinations of Robert Rogers, an American frontiersman, further endangered the British hold on the Old Northwest. During the Revolutionary War, an expedition led by the American general George Rogers Clark penetrated deep into the region in 1778–79, in one of the most daring and valuable exploits of the war.

An American Territory

The Old Northwest became U.S. territory in 1783 by the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolution and soon was one of the most pressing problems before the U.S. Congress. The four so-called landed states—Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut—claimed portions of the Old Northwest, while states with no western land claims, especially Maryland, argued that if the claims of the landed states were recognized, the wealth and population of the other states would be attracted to the western lands. The final solution was the cession of all the lands to the U.S. government, which was thus greatly strengthened; New York made its cession in 1780, Virginia in 1784, Massachusetts in 1785, and Connecticut in 1786. Two reserves were kept, the Virginia Military District and the Connecticut Western Reserve in Ohio. The Ordinance of 1785 established the Township System for surveying, which used a rectangular grid system in order to divide the land.

American Settlement

The Ordinance of 1787 set up the machinery for the organization of territories and the admission of states. Its terms prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, encouraged free public education, and guaranteed religious freedom and trial by jury. The Ohio Company of Associates, the most active force in early colonization, was followed by later companies that brought settlers into the territory.

British traders, however, opposed American expansion, and the Native Americans were also hostile to their encroachment. A series of campaigns against the indigenous tribes culminated in 1794, when Gen. Anthony Wayne won an American victory at Fallen Timbers; his victory was solidified by the Greenville Treaty of 1795. Meanwhile, Jay's Treaty and subsequent negotiations smoothed out some of the British-American difficulties. The Northwest posts were transferred to Americans in 1796, although British influence remained strong among the Native Americans.

Settlers poured into the southern part of the Territory, and in 1799 a legislature was organized. In 1800 the western part was split off as Indiana Territory, and by 1802, the eastern portion was populated enough to seek admission as a state; it was admitted as Ohio in 1803. Other territories were then formed—Michigan in 1805, Illinois in 1809, and Wisconsin in 1836.

The surviving British traders, however, wanted the Northwest set aside as Native American land, and continued unrest led Tecumseh and Shawnee Prophet to seek a permanent foothold for the Native Americans. Some western Americans, meanwhile, sought to extend the Northwest to Canada. The quarrel over the Northwest was a major cause of the War of 1812. The Treaty of Ghent (see Ghent, Treaty of), which ended the war, solved the problem of the Northwest. Despite opposition from British merchants in the region, Great Britain irrevocably gave the Northwest to the United States.


See H. N. Scheiber, The Old Northwest (1969); H. Bird, War for the West (1971); H. B. Johnson, Order Upon the Land (1976).

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Northwest Territories, territory (2001 pop. 37,360), 532,643 sq mi (1,379,028 sq km), NW Canada. The Northwest Territories lie W of Nunavut, N of lat. 60°N, and E of Yukon. Until 1999, when the Northwest Territories were divided and the eastern portion became Nunavut, the region occupied more than one third of Canada's area. Yellowknife is the territorial capital.

Land and People

Geographically, the region is largely south of the tree line, which runs roughly northwest to southeast, from the Mackenzie River delta in the Arctic Ocean to the southeastern corner of the territory. Tundra characterizes the land north of the tree line; there the native inhabitants depend on hunting, fur-trapping, and making arts and crafts for income, and obtain many necessities from fish, seals, reindeer, and caribou. Most of the development in the territory has taken place south of the tree line, where the land is well covered with soft woods and rich in minerals. Here, too, are two of the largest lakes in the world, Great Slave and Great Bear, linked to the Arctic Ocean by one of the world's longest rivers, the Mackenzie, which runs 1,120 mi (1,800 km) from its source in Great Slave Lake. The Northwest Territories are the site of the northern end of Wood Buffalo National Park (est. 1922) and all of Nahanni National Park (est. 1972).


Agriculture in the Northwest Territories is virtually impossible except for limited cultivation south of the Mackenzie River region. Trapping, the region's oldest industry, ranks second after mining. A thriving commercial fishing industry, based on whitefish and lake trout, is centered on the village of Hay River, on Great Slave Lake. Minerals are now the Territories' most valuable natural resource. Oil is pumped and refined at Tulita (formerly Fort Norman) and Norman Wells on the Mackenzie River; copper is extracted on the Coppermine River; and diamonds and gold are being produced in increasing quantities. The region also has tungsten, silver, cadmium, nickel, zinc, and lead. Important hydroelectric developments are on the Talston and Snare rivers.

Transportation and Communication

Transportation and communication in the Northwest Territories are difficult. Long winters close the rivers to navigation for all but two months of the year. Despite the Great Slave Railway and the Mackenzie highway system, which links Alberta to the Great Slave area, commerce, supply, and travel continue to be largely airborne. The region has scores of airfields. An ongoing northern roads program, launched in 1966, is helping to open up the area. The Liard Highway, opened in 1984, ties Ft. Simpson to the Alaska Highway. Other highways link Inuvik to the Yukon and Hay River and Yellowknife to the highways of Alberta. In winter, some frozen rivers and lakes are used for road traffic. There are also extensive telecommunications services.


The territory is governed by a 19-member assembly that elects a premier and cabinet; an appointed commissioner holds a position similar to that of a lieutenant governor in the Canadians provinces. The territory sends one senator and one representative to the national parliament.


When European incursions into the area began, they encountered the hunting and fishing Inuit and Dene. Vikings from Greenland may have been the first Europeans to venture into the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories, now Nunavut. Sir Martin Frobisher was the first in a long line of explorers to seek a Northwest Passage, but it was Henry Hudson who discovered the gateway to the Northwest (Hudson Bay) in 1610.

For several decades the Hudson's Bay Company sent trader-explorers through the northern sea lanes and along the coast, and in 1771, Samuel Hearne walked from Hudson Bay and descended the Coppermine River. In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie, exploring for the North West Company, journeyed to the mouth of the Mackenzie River. Sir John Franklin made scientific expeditions to the Arctic Northwest in the first half of the 19th cent., obtaining valuable geographical data.

The area that is now the Northwest Territories and Nunavut was part of the vast lands sold by the Hudson's Bay Company to the new Canadian confederation in 1870. Some of those lands were added to the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The province of Manitoba was carved from them in 1870, and Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905, all south of 60°N. Yukon had become separate in 1898. The boundaries of the Northwest Territories were then set in 1912 and remained fixed until the creation of Nunavut in 1999. In 2013 an agreement between the territorial and federal governments called for Northwest Territories to assume control over public lands and natural resources in 2014.

Since the 1982 patriation of the Canadian constitution (see Canada Act), several land claims by native peoples have been making their way through the courts and the federal government. In 1992, Northwest Territories residents voted to divide the territory roughly along ethnic lines, with the Inuit in the east and the Dene in the west. The new territory of Nunavut, dominated by the Inuit, came into existence on Apr. 1, 1999. This split the Northwest Territories along a zigzag line running from the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border through the Arctic Archipelago to the North Pole. Other native groups with claims are the Métis and the Inuvialuit. Bob McLeod became the Territories' premier in Oct., 2011.


See R. A. Phillips, Canada: The Story of the Yukon and Northwest Territories (1966); K. J. Rea, Political Economy of the North (1968, repr. 1981); W. C. Wonders, ed., The North (1972); T. R. Berger, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland (1976).

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NORTHWEST TERRITORY. Part of the vast domain ceded by Great Britain to the United States in the Treaty of Paris (1783), the Northwest Territory encompassed the area west of Pennsylvania, east of the Mississippi River, and north of the Ohio River to the border with British Canada. The "Old Northwest, " as the region later came to be known, eventually included the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the part of Minnesota east of the Mississippi River. The creation of the Northwest Territory was first implied in the Articles of Confederation (1780), which stipulated that all lands beyond the bounds of the original thirteen states would be owned and administered by the national government.

The establishment of a federal public domain reconciled and negated the competing claims of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, and New York to lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. While this cleared the way for confederation, the means for administering these lands was not fully established until 1787, when Congress passed An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory

of the United States Northwest of the River Ohio. This Northwest Ordinance provided for the orderly survey of all lands into square sections of 640 acres and established the procedures for their sale to individuals and corporations. Besides the grid pattern of states, counties, towns, farms, and roads that would spread out across the continent, the ordinance also established the methods for creating new states and their admission into the Union "on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever."

Although some form of territorial governance continued in the Old Northwest until Minnesota achieved statehood in 1858, the administrative history of the Northwest Territory is fairly brief. The celebrated revolutionary war general Arthur St. Clair established the first territorial government on 15 July 1788. Because of increased migration, Congress in 1800 divided the Northwest Territory for administrative purposes and designated the western portion as the territory of Indiana. The reduced Northwest Territory ceased to exist as an official geopolitical entity in 1803, when the state of Ohio was admitted to the Union and Congress designated the region to the north as the territory of Michigan.

Despite its short duration, the history of the Northwest Territory is marked by some of the most brutal and aggressive warfare in U.S. history. Based on a vision of expanding agricultural settlement and motivated by a desperate need for the revenue that would come from the sale of public lands, federal policy was geared toward the rapid conversion of Indian lands into private property. Native alliances initially took a severe toll on U.S. forces, and at times as much as 80 percent of the entire federal budget went to fighting and removing Indians from their lands. By the end of the short territorial period, Native communities decimated by warfare and disease had moved beyond the bounds of Ohio to areas farther west. The scenario was repeated over the course of three decades, as new states entered the Union and the fertile soils of the Old Northwest were converted into the vast expanse of farms and towns that became a hallmark of the region.


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.

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Mark DavidSpence

See alsoIndian Removal ; Territorial Governments ; Western Lands .

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Ordinance of 1787, adopted by the Congress of Confederation for the government of the Western territories ceded to the United States by the states. It created the Northwest Territory and is frequently called the Northwest Ordinance. It was based on the ordinance of 1784, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, which provided for dividing the region into numerous territories. The 1784 ordinance never went into effect. In 1785 an ordinance was passed providing for division and sale of the lands. Subsequently, the application of the Ohio Company of Associates to purchase a large tract of land in the region forced Congress to act on political administration for the area. The able leaders of the company, Rufus Putnam and Manasseh Cutler, were influential in the drafting of the ordinance, which was passed July 13, 1787. It set up a government in the region N of the Ohio River. A territorial governor, a secretary, and three judges were to be appointed by Congress, which would retain control until the population reached 5,000 voting citizens, when an elected legislature would be set up and the territory would obtain a nonvoting representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. When any portion of the territory reached a population of 60,000 or more, it could apply for admission to the Union as a state according to conditions laid down in the ordinance; there were to be not less than three or more than five states created out of the region (five were ultimately created). The ordinance also provided that no one born in the Northwest Territory should be a slave, that no law should ever be passed there that would impair the obligation of contract, that the fundamental rights and religious freedom be observed, and that education be promoted. The ordinance was the most significant achievement of Congress under the Articles of Confederation. It set the form by which subsequent Western territories were created and later admitted into the Union as states and marked the beginning of Western expansion of the United States.

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Legislative Assembly - Northwest Territories
Commissioners - Northwest Territories
The Handley Administration - Northwest Territories
Legislatures Since 1951 - Northwest Territories
List of Members - Northwest Territories
List of Constituencies - Northwest Territories
Biographies - Northwest Territories
Principal Officials of the Legislative Assembly - Northwest Territories
General Election - 2003: Northwest Territories
Previous General Elections - Northwest Territories


Reconstituted / Reconstitué
September 1, 1905 / le 1er septembre 1905

Area / Superficie
Land / Terre - 1,183,085
Water / Eau - 163,021
Total - 1,346,106

(Census / Recensement): 1891 - 99,000; 1901 - 20,000; 1911 - 7,000; 1921 - 8,000; 1931 - 9,300; 1941 - 12,000; 1951 - 16,000; 1956 - 19,300; 1961 - 23,000; 1966 - 28,700; 1971 - 34,800; 1976 - 42,600; 1981 - 45,700; 1986 - 52,200; 1991 - 57,649; 1996 - 66,568; 2001 - 37,360; (Estimate / Estimation 2004) - 42,810

Capital / Capitale

Major Centres / Centres principaux (2001)
Yellowknife: 16,541
Hay River: 3,510
Inuvik: 2,894
Fort Smith: 2,185

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Northwest Territories Region in n Canada, covering more than 33% of the country and consisting of mainland Canada n of latitude 60°N, and hundreds of islands in the Arctic Archipelago. The capital is Yellowknife. Much of the n and e of the province is tundra, inhabited by Inuit and other native peoples. The Hudson's Bay Company acquired the area under a charter from Charles II in 1670. In 1869, the Canadian government bought the land from the company. The present boundaries were set in 1912. In 1999, part of the Northwest Territories became the Inuit land of Nunavut. Most economic development has occurred in Mackenzie district, which has large tracts of softwoods and rich mineral deposits. Area: 3,426,000sq km (1,320,000sq mi). Pop. (2001) 37,360.