The Ohio Country (sometimes called the Ohio Territory or Ohio Valley by the French) was the name used in the 18th century for the regions of North America west of the Appalachian Mountains and in the region of the upper Ohio River south of Lake Erie. The eponymous name is based on an 1740 act of the colonial Virginia legislature when the colony claimed many of the trans-Allegheny territories and monied interests actively tried to encourage settlement west of the Ohio River hoping to gain that Ohio River watershed with enabling legislation forming the Ohio Company.
One of the first frontier regions of the United States, the area encompassed roughly all of present-day Ohio, northwestern West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and eastern Indiana. An area sometimes referred to as the near-west in news accounts, historians believe that the issue of Anglo-American settlement in the region was a primary cause of the French and Indian War and a contributing factor to the American Revolutionary War.
These Virginia colonial property claims led to the employment of many, including George Washington as a surveyor, his career as a militia officer and frictions with the French, various rival native Amerindian nations (the Iroquois, Miami, and Shawnee)— and disputes with properties claims by other Colonies, which in part the act was trying to minimize. Virginia retained a claim to those territories into the American Revolutionary years, one less well publicized cause of which was the British Crown's attempt to hold in check emigration and settlement to the west of the Appalachians, while proof of its importance at the end of the colonial era is amply given in that the Virginia Colony formally declared war in 1774 on the region's Shawnee Nation, soon after winning Lord Dunmore's War gaining rights by treaty to settle the east bank Ohio Valley; results adverse to official British Crown policy.
After the Revolution and resolution of state claims to the territory, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established the boundaries of the Northwest Territory, which was larger than the Ohio Country. The territory included all the land of the United States west of Pennsylvania and northwest of the Ohio River. It covered all of the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota. The area covered more than 260,000 square miles (670,000 km2).
In the 17th century, the area north of the Ohio River had been occupied by the Algonquian-speaking Shawnee and some Siouan language-speaking tribes. Around 1660, during a conflict known as the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois seized control of the Ohio Country, driving out the Shawnee and Siouans, such as the Omaha and Ponca, who settled further northwest and west. The Iroquois conquered and absorbed the Erie tribe, who were one of the Iroquoian language family. The Ohio Country remained largely uninhabited for decades, and was used primarily as a hunting ground by the Iroquois.
In the 1720s, a number of Native American groups began to migrate to the Ohio Country from the East, driven by pressure from encroaching colonists. By 1724, Delaware Indians had established the village of Kittanning on the Allegheny River in present-day western Pennsylvania. With them came those Shawnee who had historically settled in the east. Other bands of the scattered Shawnee tribe began to return to the Ohio Country in the decades that followed. A number of Seneca and other Iroquois also migrated to the Ohio Country, moving away from the French and British imperial rivalries south of Lake Ontario. The Seneca were the westernmost of the Iroquois nations based in New York.
In the late 1740s and the rest of the second half of the eighteenth century, the British angled for control of the territory. In 1749, the British Crown, via the colonial government of Virginia, granted the Ohio Company a great deal of this territory on the condition that it be settled by British colonists.
Seven Years' War
With the arrival of the Europeans, both Great Britain and France claimed the area and both sent fur traders into the area to do business with the Ohio Country Indians. The Iroquois League claimed the region by right of conquest. The rivalry between the two European nations, the Iroquois, and the Ohio natives for control of the region played an important part in the French and Indian War from 1754 through 1760. After initially remaining neutral, the Ohio Country Indians largely sided with the French. Armed with supplies and guns from the French, they raided via the Kittanning Path against British settlers east of the Alleghenies. After they destroyed Fort Granville in the summer of 1756, the colonial governor John Penn ordered Lt. Colonel John Armstrong to destroy the Shawnee villages west of the Alleghenies.
The British defeated the French and their allies. Meanwhile other British and colonial forces drove the French from Fort Duquesne and building Fort Pitt, the origin of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the 1763 Treaty of Paris, France ceded control of the entire Ohio region to Great Britain, without consulting its native allies, who still believed they had territorial claims. Colonies such as Pennsylvania and Virginia claimed some of the westward lands by their original charters.
Trying to improve relations with the Native Americans to encourage trade and avoid conflicts with colonists, George III in his Royal Proclamation of 1763 placed the Ohio Country in what was declared an Indian Reserve, stretching from the Appalachian Mountains west to the Mississippi River and from as far north as Newfoundland to Florida. The British ordered the existing settlers (mostly French) to leave or get special permission to stay, and prohibited British colonists from settling west of the Appalachians.
American Revolution and early Republic
The area was officially closed to European settlement by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The Crown no longer recognized claims that the colonies made on this territory. On June 22, 1774, the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act; it annexed the region to the province of Quebec. Colonists in the Thirteen Colonies considered this one of the Intolerable Acts passed by Parliament, without their consent, and contributing to the American Revolution.
Despite the Crown's actions, frontiersmen from the Virginia and Pennsylvania colonies began to cross the Allegheny Mountains and coming into conflict with the Shawnee. The Shawnee referred to the settlers as the Long Knives. Because of the threat posed by the colonists, the Shawnee and other nations of the Ohio Country chose to side with the British against the rebel colonists during the American Revolutionary War.
Americans wanted to establish control over the region. In 1778, after victories in the region by the Patriot general George Rogers Clark, the Virginia legislature organized the first American civil government in the region. They called it the Illinois County, which encompassed all of the lands lying west of the Ohio River to which Virginia had any claim. The high-water mark of the Native American struggle to retain the region was in 1782: the Ohio Nations and the British met in a council at the Chalawgatha village along the Little Miami River to plan what was the successful rout of the Americans at the Battle of Blue Licks, south of the Ohio River, two weeks later.
In 1783, following the Treaty of Paris, Great Britain ceded the area to the United States (US). The government immediately opened it to settlement by American pioneers, considering it unorganized territory. The Ohio Country quickly became one of the most desirable locations for Trans-Appalachian settlements, in particular among veterans of the Revolutionary War.
In the Treaty of Fort McIntosh in 1785 and the Treaty of Fort Harmar in 1789, the US fixed boundaries between United States and tribal lands. The Shawnee and other tribes continued to resist US encroachment into their historic lands. This resistance led to the Northwest Indian War after the Revolution, in which a coalition of Native American tribes tried to repulse US settlement; it lasted until 1795 but the Indians were finally defeated.
By 1800, many of the Shawnee had ceded their lands to the control of the United States in exchange for lands in Missouri. The last great resistance to white settlement in the area was during the War of 1812, when Tecumseh led a war against the Americans that ended in the defeat of him and his people. By 1817, the Shawnee, as well as the other Algonquian-speaking tribes in the region, had ceded all their lands to the United States.
Claims of the states
Considered highly desirable, the area was subject to overlapping and conflicting territorial claims of several eastern states. These claims arose from existing colonial charters. Specifically:
- Connecticut claimed a strip of land across the northern part of the region delineated by the westward extension of its northern and southern state boundaries.
- New York claimed the entire region.
- Pennsylvania claimed land as a westward extension of its boundaries.
- Virginia, based on the charter of the Virginia Colony, claimed the entire region, and later onto a smaller portion of the land.
Unlike the rest of the Northwest Territory, which was surveyed more or less uniformly under the Public Land Survey System, sections of the Ohio Lands were incrementally granted to various parties and were surveyed using disparate survey systems. This created numerous problems with land deeds and claims in later years.
In 1784 the area was included within the Trans-Appalachian region, as defined by Thomas Jefferson in his proposal to the Continental Congress to use the territory for the development of future states to be admitted to the Union. Jefferson proposed that the existing states surrender their respective claims to the region in order for its development to take place under national authority. One of the most contentious issues was whether or not slavery would be allowed in the area. At a time when northern states were abolishing slavery and individual manumissions were high, northern representatives wanted to prohibit its expansion.
In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, establishing the boundaries of the region. Pennsylvania was granted the area around the headwaters of the Ohio River, and Virginia was granted the land south of the Ohio. The remaining area west of the Pennsylvania boundary and north of the Ohio became part of the newly formed Northwest Territory, which included all the land of the United States west of Pennsylvania and northwest of the Ohio River. It covered all of the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota. The area covered more than 260,000 square miles (670,000 km2).
The existing states surrendered all their claims to the Ohio Country land within the Northwest Territory. Connecticut and Virginia reserved the right to use certain lands in the new territory for grants as payment to veterans of the Revolutionary War, without claiming sovereignty over the reserved areas. These were known respectively as the Connecticut Western Reserve and the Virginia Military District.
The Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the territory, but it did not free slaves who had already been taken into the territory by their masters. In some cases, it took decades for such slaves to gain freedom.
It was the first organized territory in the United States. Its civil government was to be under the jurisdiction of the Congress. Pioneers to the Ohio Country arrived at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers on April 7, 1788, and established Marietta, Ohio as the first permanent American settlement in the Territory.
The Ordinance acknowledged that the territory, as in the Jeffersonian proposal, would eventually be organized as future states of the Union, to be admitted when a jurisdiction achieved sufficient population to support a government. The "Ohio Territory" is sometimes used as a synonym for the Northwest Territory.
In 1802, the Enabling Act specifically provided for the admission of new states, the first of which, Ohio, was admitted to the Union on February 19, 1803. Its admission has been celebrated as March 1, 1803, which was the date of the first meeting of the Ohio state legislature.
- American pioneers to the Northwest Territory
- Illinois Country
- Ohio Company
- Ohio Company of Associates
- Ohio Lands
- Northwest Indian War
- MacCorkle, William Alexander. "The historical and other relations of Pittsburgh and the Virginias". Historic Pittsburgh General Text Collection. University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
- "Addresses delivered at the celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bushy Run, August 5th and 6th, 1913". Historic Pittsburgh General Text Collection. University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
- Ohio History Central: The Ohio Country
- Ohio Lands in the History Community at RootsWeb
- Ohio Territory Grant Map
- National Archives: Historical Documents Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Ohio Statehood
- Ohio Division of Geological Survey: Map of Original Land Subdivisions of Ohio (1.9 MB pdf)
- Shawnee History