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The state cessions are those areas of the United States that the separate states ceded to the federal government in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The cession of these lands, which for the most part lay between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, was key to establishing a harmonious union among the former British colonies.
The areas ceded comprise 236,825,600 acres (958,399 km²), or 10.4 percent of current United States territory, and make up all or part of 10 states. This does not include the areas later ceded by Texas to the federal government, which make up parts of five more states.
Most of the British colonies on the east coast of North America were established in the 17th and early 18th century, when geographical knowledge of North America was incomplete. Many of these colonies were established by royal proclamation or charter that defined their boundaries as stretching "from sea to sea"; others did not have western boundaries established at all. These colonies thus ended up with theoretical extents that overlapped each other, and conflicted with the claims and settlements established by other European powers.
By the time of the American Revolution, the boundaries between the various colonies had been for the most part surveyed and agreed upon in the eastern part of the country, where European settlement was densest. (The one notable exception to this trend was the ongoing dispute between New York, New Hampshire, and independent Vermonters over the land that in 1777 became the independent state of Vermont and in 1791 was recognized and admitted to the Union.) The British government's Royal Proclamation of 1763, while not resolving the disputes over the colonies' trans-Appalachian claims, sought to cool them by placing significant restrictions on European settlement in the region. The proclamation was largely ignored on the ground, however, and various frontier settlement enterprises, owing allegiance to conflicting colonial governments, continued.
The claims of the colonies corresponded in varying degrees to the actual reality on the ground in the west at the eve of the Revolution. Kentucky, for instance, was organized into a county of Virginia in 1776, with Virginia serving as practical sovereign over the area until its admission into the Union as a separate state in 1792. Massachusetts' claims to land in modern-day Michigan and Wisconsin, by contrast, amounted to little more than lines drawn on a map.
The resolution of the claims
The Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution established American sovereignty over the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi; the jobs of determining how that land should be governed, and how the conflicting claims to it by several of the states should be resolved, were one of the first major tasks facing the new nation.
The potential for trouble arising from these claims was twofold. One problem was obvious: in many cases more than one state laid claim to the same piece of territory, but clearly only one would be ultimately recognized as the sovereign. The other conflict also threatened the peace of the new union. Only seven of the thirteen states had western land claims, and the other, "landless" states were fearful of being overwhelmed by states that controlled vast stretches of the new frontier. Virginia in particular, which already encompassed 1 in 5 inhabitants of the new nation, laid claim to modern-day Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, and the smaller states feared that it would come to completely dominate the union.
In the end, most of the trans-Appalachian land claims were ceded to the Federal government between 1781 and 1787; New York, New Hampshire, and the hitherto unrecognized Vermont government resolved their squabbles by 1791, and Kentucky was separated from Virginia and made into a new state in 1792. The cessions were not entirely selfless—in some cases the cessions were made in exchange for federal assumption of the states' Revolutionary War debts—but the states' reasonably graceful cessions of their often-conflicting claims prevented early, perhaps catastrophic, rifts among the states of the young Republic, and assuaged the fears of the "landless" states enough to convince them to ratify the new United States Constitution. The cessions also set the stage for the settlement of the Upper Midwest and the expansion of the U.S. into the center of the North American continent, and also established the pattern by which land newly acquired by the United States would be organized into new states rather than attached to old ones.
Georgia held on to its claims over trans-Appalachian land for another decade, and this claim was complicated by the fact that much of the land was also disputed between the United States and Spain. When Georgia finally sold the land west of its current boundaries to the United States for cash in 1802, the last phase of western cessions was complete.
Details of the cessions
- Date ceded: 1780-02-19
- Date accepted: 1782-10-29
- Claims, cessions and dispute resolutions: Ceded claims west of Lake Ontario, sold Erie Triangle to Pennsylvania.
- Date ceded: 1781-01-02
- Date completed: 1784-03-01
- Claims and cessions: Ceded its territory north and west of the Ohio River, which was to become the Northwest Territory. The land south and east of the Ohio, known as Kentucky, was retained by Virginia and organized into counties: Fayette, Jefferson and Lincoln counties. Kentucky was finally admitted in 1792, after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and multiple attempts to agree upon a state constitution that was acceptable to both Virginia and the U.S. Congress.
- Date ceded: 1784-11-13
- Date completed: 1785-04-19
- Claims and cessions: Ceded swath between present north and south border-latitudes across present-day New York, Michigan and Wisconsin, to which it was entitled by its interpretation of its original sea-to-sea grant from the British crown.
- Date ceded: 1786-05-11
- Date completed: 1786-05-28
- Claims and cessions: Ceded land from western border to Mississippi River, notably the Wyoming Valley disputed in the Pennamite–Yankee War, but held back Connecticut Western Reserve in Ohio Country until 1800.
- Date ceded: 1787-03-08
- Date completed: 1787-08-09
- Claims and cessions: The State of South Carolina claimed a narrow, approximately 12-mile strip of land from its northwestern tip westward to the Mississippi River, running north of the State of Georgia and south of the State of North Carolina (which included the State of Tennessee until 1796), and the northern edges of what would later become Mississippi and Alabama. South Carolina ceded this land to the Federal Government and adjusted the boundary with Georgia in a separate agreement.
Note that the claim by South Carolina had been for land between the headwaters of the Savannah River and the southern boundary of North Carolina, and thence westward. In fact, however, later and more accurate surveying showed that the headwaters of the Savannah River actually extended into North Carolina. This meant that this strip of land for South Carolina had actually been illusory.
- Date ceded: 1789-12-22
- Date effective: 1790-02-25
- Claims and cessions: Ceded its western claim that extended to the Mississippi River to the Federal Government. This became the Southwest Territory, which just six years later was admitted to the Union as the State of Tennessee in 1796.
- Georgia ceded this land on 1802-04-24, 12 years after all other western land cessions had been completed (except for Connecticut's "Western Reserve" – which was given up the year 1800).
- Ratified by the Georgia Legislature on 1802-06-16
- This land consisted of the "Yazoo lands", lying between the 35th parallel and the 31st parallel of latitude westward through the Mississippi River. Its eastern boundary was the present western boundary of Georgia with Alabama.
- Unique among these "cessions", Georgia charged the U.S. Government $1.25 million for this land, and apparently, this sum was paid.
Note: Some of these states might have had some claims to western (or other) lands during the colonial era, but by about 1785, they were no longer planning on expanding west at all.
- Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Its original land grant from the British Monarch to William Penn was for the land between the 42nd parallel and the 38th parallel in latitude, and extending westward five degrees in longitude. This land grant extended from the western and northwestern boundaries with New Jersey and Delaware westwards. Pennsylvania claimed the land of the northwestern Erie Triangle along Lake Erie, which had been ceded during 1781–85 to the Federal government by New York State and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Federal government, in turn, sold this land to Pennsylvania in 1788.
- New Hampshire: Claimed New Hampshire Grants area (present-day Vermont), until 1764, renewing claims to some areas thereafter during subsequent disputes between New Hampshire, New York, and independent Vermont. New Hampshire gave up its claims to Vermont in 1782 but New York did not give up its claims to Vermont until Vermont agreed to pay compensation for New York claimants to real estate in Vermont; Vermont was admitted to the Union as the 14th state in 1791.
- Rhode Island never did claim any land farther west.
- Delaware never did claim any land farther west, and its western boundary was part of the Mason–Dixon line.
- Maryland never did claim any land farther west, and the land to its west was part of the Commonwealth of Virginia
- New Jersey never did claim any land farther west, and its western boundary was established quite early along the Delaware River.
Later in the 19th century, there was one more case of a state ceding some of its land to the Federal Government. Before the Republic of Texas joined the United States in 1845, it claimed a good deal of land that had never been under the de facto control of the Texan government - Texan attempts to exercise control of these territories as a sovereign state (most famously, the Santa Fe expedition) had ended in disaster. Thus, there was a border dispute between Texas, Mexico, and Native American tribes that the U.S. Government inherited upon the annexation of Texas. This was one of the causes of the Mexican–American War of 1846 – 47 (another being the western land greed of the U.S. coupled with the Mexican refusal to sell its territory to the U.S.) After the American victory in this War, the Mexican government recognized American sovereignty over the disputed Texan lands and also ceded/sold the land extending west to the Pacific Ocean. The Mexican government was paid $25,000,000 under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848.
In addition, the maximalist land claims of the Republic of Texas did not set the northern and western borders of the State of Texas. Most, but not all, of its northern boundary had been set by a treaty between the United States and the Spanish Empire – along the Red River. The joint resolution of the United States that admitted Texas to the Union gave Texas the right to divide itself up into no more than five states.
In an act of Congress, the Compromise of 1850, Texas ceded its conflicting northern and western territorial claims to the U.S. in return for debt relief, removing its conflicting claims from the U.S. territorial gains of the Mexican–American War. This ceded land eventually became portions of the states of Kansas (1861), Colorado (1876), Wyoming (1890), Oklahoma (1907), and New Mexico (1912).
- Thirteen Colonies
- Pennamite–Yankee War
- Connecticut Western Reserve
- Yazoo lands
- Mason–Dixon line
- Northwest Territory
- Ohio Country
- Illinois Country
- Historic regions of the United States
- United States territorial acquisitions
- Territorial evolution of the United States
- Table 1.1 Acquisition of the Public Domain 1781–1867
- Thomas Donaldson, The Public Domain, Its History with Statistics, p.87 (1884)
- Worthington C. Ford; et al., eds. (1904–37). Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. pp. Vol. 33, pp. 466–477.
- Donaldson, (1884), p.41–42
- Paul Wallace Gates, History of Public Land Law Development, Chapter III State Cessions of Western Land Claims. Public Land Law Review Commission, (1968), Washington D.C.