A Brief History of the Great Lakes Region – The Old Northwest


sfcdvdb The region that is the subject of this site (now the group of five states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) was from the late 1600s until 1763 a part of France’s North American empire, or ‘New France’. The French colonial government profited from the business of about four thousand French traders in the region, who obtained furs from Indian hunters and trappers in exchange for goods made in France or Canada. Over the years, the French Canadian government erected military forts at strategic locations in the region, and most forts were surrounded by small communities of French-Canadian settlers. Away from the safety of the forts however, French Canadian settlement was almost non-existent. Only Catholic missionaries and fur traders lived at any distance from the forts.

The 1763 treaty that ended the French and Indian War (known in Europe as the ‘Seven Years War’) awarded Canada and this Northwest region to Great Britain. The British government, which still ruled the American colonies, took possession of the French forts and also began taking over part of the fur trade. Great Britain issued the ‘Proclamation of 1763′ that prohibited American colonialists from settling west of the Appalachian mountains. This law, along with a very active threat from Native Americans living there, virtually shut off any settlement in the region until the end of the American Revolution (1775-83).

In the Treaty of Paris (1783) after the Revolutionary War the new U.S. government formally acquired the area, then called ‘The Northwest Territory’, from Great Britain. This would be the northwest corner of the new United States, with its western border at the Mississippi River. It was a huge acquisition for the U.S.; two-thirds the size of the original 13 states. However, the American government faced a huge hurdle in making use of the territory. Native American tribes in the region still considered the land theirs. They had never ceded the land to either Great Britain or the U.S., and had not been represented in the Treaty of Paris negotiations.

The new Federal government wished to expedite settlement of the southern part of the region. The Federal government was granted only very limited powers to raise taxes under the Articles of Confederation, and was counting heavily on revenue from land sales in the Northwest Territory. State governments wanted to pay off their debts to their Revolutionary War veterans with grants of land in Ohio Territory. However, the Native Americans who lived in the region fiercely resisted the influx of settlers, preventing governments and thousands of prospective settlers from exploiting the new land. The tribes were supported in their resistance by British army detachments and British fur traders, who mostly remained in place for about 15 years after the territory was ceded to the U.S.

Over the years from the 1790s through at least the 1830s various representatives of the Federal and State governments negotiated land cessions from Native American tribal chiefs throughout the region, gradually enabling settlement. In the area closest to the existing states, Ohio Territory, Indian hostility prevented widespread settlement until the late 1790s. The last organized resistance by Native Americans in the Old Northwest took place in the western part of the Territory, in Illinois and Wisconsin, as the Black Hawk war of 1832. It had taken fifty years for the U.S. to take the territory from the Indians who inhabited it.

In 1787 the U.S. Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which put the entire territory temporarily under one territorial government and laid out a plan for it to be divided into several territories. Each territory would then have to meet certain specified conditions to become a full U.S. state, with the same powers and privileges as the original 13 states. With various modifications in the plan along the way, the Northwest Territory eventually resulted in five states. (The extreme northwest corner of the Territory would be joined to land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 to become Minnesota). Ohio was the first territory to achieve statehood, in 1803, and Wisconsin was the last, in 1848. Although the region had not formally remained the ‘Northwest Territory’ for long, it continued for generations to be widely referred to as ‘The Old Northwest’. However, most Americans today know the region as the ‘Upper Midwest’ or the ‘Great Lakes states’. We use the latter term throughout this website.

Go to the Directory for 90+ web pages with links to thousands of free online books and articles in this collection at History of the Great Lakes States.

 


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