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Northwest Territory

Originally referred to as the “Territory Northwest of the River Ohio,” the Northwest Territory was the first organized incorporated territory that was created by the Confederation Congress by the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. The vast territory included the entire land area that was located east of the Mississippi River, northwest of the Ohio River, south of the Great Lakes and west of Pennsylvania. Ultimately, six US States including Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and the northeastern portion of Minnesota were created from the Northwest Territory.

Northwest Territory
Northwest Territory

First Settlement 

A large part of continental North America was occupied by the Kingdom of France from 1534 onwards, called New France. After being defeated in the French and Indian War by the British forces, the territory of New France was ceded by France to Great Britain as per the Treaty of Paris in 1763. After the American Revolutionary War and as per the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the entire area to the west of the Appalachian Mountains and north of the Ohio River was handed over to the United States by the British Crown.

Initially, the US states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia laid claims over parts of this extensive area to the Confederation Congress. Between 1780 and 1802, the states gradually surrendered their claims. Therefore, the western territory now eventually came under the public domain of the United States.  

For the smooth induction of the western territory into the Union, the Confederation Congress developed a national policy and subsequently enacted three ordinances. The 1784 Land Ordinance was the first ordinance that was introduced by Thomas Jefferson, which provided a procedure for dividing the entire territory into many individual states. The 1785 Land Ordinance established a standardized method for surveying and subdividing the area.

Becoming A US Territory

Map of current US territory with divisions from 1789-1790.

The 1787 Ordinance known as the Northwest Ordinance was eventually passed by Congress on July 13, 1787. This ordinance created the Northwest Territory and established a territorial government with General Arthur St. Clair, as the first Governor. The ordinance also proposed that the Northwest Territory should be divided into more than three states and not less than five states. It was also decreed that when the adult male population of the area would reach 5,000, the inhabitants could elect their own legislature. When the population would increase to 60,000 inhabitants, then the area would be admitted to the Union on an equal basis with the original US states.

On July 15, 1788, General Arthur St. Clair formed his government and made the city of Marietta the territorial capital. However, in 1790, the administrative capital and military center was shifted to Fort Washington in the city of Cincinnati. In 1800, the Northwest Territory was further divided into two parts. The larger portion was known as the “Indiana Territory” and included the areas which are currently the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, parts of Michigan, and Minnesota as well as a major part of Indiana. The smaller portion was known as the “Northwest Territory” and included parts of Ohio, Michigan, and a small portion of Indiana.

On March 1, 1803, the State of Ohio became the first US state to be created from the vast areas of the Northwest Territory. It was followed by the creation of the US States of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.


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