Northwest Territory


The Northwest Territory was an important region of North America that played a key role in many of the events that led to the American Revolutionary War, the Westward Expansion of the United States, and the removal of Indian tribes from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River.

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale

Thomas Jefferson played an important role in organizing the Northwest Territory. Image Source: Google Arts & Culture.

Northwest Territory Facts

  1. The Northwest Territory was one of the most important regions in America during the Colonial Era.
  2. The Northwest Territory played an important role in wars for control of the Fur Trade, the Ohio River, and the Mississippi River.
  3. The Northwest Territory was transferred from France to Britain and then to the United States.
  4. The United States organized the Northwest Territory with a series of laws in the latter half of the 1780s.
  5. The American victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (August 20, 1794) secured control of the Northwest Territory for the United States.
Northwest Territory Map, 1790, Illustration
This map shows the states and territories of the United States from August 1789 to April 1790. Image Source: Wikimedia.

The Northwest Territory Covered Portions of 5 States

The Northwest Territory — also known as the Old Northwest — included an estimated 260,000 square miles that included the present-day states of:

  1. Ohio
  2. Indiana
  3. Illinois
  4. Michigan
  5. Wisconsin
  6. Minnesota

All the land in the first five states was in the Northwest Territory and the eastern portion of Minnesota.

The Northwest Territory was Vital to the Fur Trade

The region was valuable to both France and England because it was populated by Native American Indians who were partners in the Fur Trade, and it provided access to the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and the Ohio River.

The Northwest Territory was Bordered by Waterways

The borders of the territory were formed by the Great Lakes (North), the Mississippi River (West), and the Ohio River (South and East).

The Ohio Company Invested in the Region

In 1747, colonists established the Ohio Company of Virginia, which intended to invest in the region through the fur trade and land speculation. After receiving a grant for 200,000 acres of land in Western Virginia, the company sent Christopher Gist, a famous frontiersman, to scout the region. Gist traveled as far as present-day Piqua, Ohio, and made at least three trips to the region.

On the journey back from his first trip, Gist followed the path through the Cumberland Gap that became the Wilderness Road where he saw the fertile lands in Ohio and Kentucky. It is very likely the Ohio Company would have established settlements in the Ohio Valley if the French and Indian War had not started when it did.

Christopher Gist, Exploring Ohio Country, Illustration
This illustration depicts Christopher Gist exploring the Ohio Country. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Britain and France Fought for Control of the Northwest Territory

The ongoing rivalry between Great Britain and France carried over to North America in a series of wars;

  1. King William’s War (1688–1697)
  2. Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713)
  3. King George’s War (1744–1748)
  4. The French and Indian War (1754–1763)

During the wars, control of the region came into play. The first three wars started in Europe and carried over to North America. The French and Indian War started in North America when Colonel George Washington led Virginia forces in an attack on a French scouting party at the Battle of Jumonville Glen.

Britain Gained Control of the Region Following the French and Indian War

The British won the French and Indian War, which was concluded by the 1763 Treaty of Paris. As part of the treaty, France gave up its claims to the region, leaving Britain in control of a vast new empire in North America. This territory included lands in the Ohio Country, Illinois Country, and the Great Lakes Region. Although the French laid claim to the land, very few French colonists lived in the region. The primary inhabitants were from the Native American Indian tribes, like the Ottawa, who also utilized it for their hunting grounds.

Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Engraving
This engraving by Hervey Smyth depicts British troops attacking the French outside of Quebec City at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Pontiac’s Rebellion was Fought for Control of the Region

The fighting between the French and English in North America ended in 1760. Over the next four years, the British asserted their authority over the Indian tribes living in the Northwest Territory. At first, when the Indians found out the French were leaving and they would be expected to be loyal to the British, they were upset and skeptical, due to the ongoing encroachment of British colonists on their lands.

Sensing colonial ambitions, an Ottawa chief, Pontiac, and a Seneca chief, Kyashuta, urged Indian tribes in the Ohio Country and the Great Lakes region to resume warfare with the British to push them off their lands. Pontiac worked with the tribes in the west, toward Detroit, and Kyashuta worked with tribes in the east, toward western New York.

Pontiac’s Rebellion started with an attack against Fort Detroit in May of 1763. The uprising was initially successful and the Indian forces captured most of the British forts they targeted. However, they were never able to capture Fort Pitt or Fort Detroit, and the rebellion against British rule gradually collapsed by the end of 1764. At first, Pontiac refused to surrender but finally did in 1766.

Battle of Bushy Run, Watercolor
This watercolor by C.W. Jeffreys depicts British troops attacking Indian warriors at the Battle of Bushy Run. Image Source: Wikimedia.

The Proclamation of 1763 Closed the Northwest Territory to American Expansion

Pontiac’s Rebellion underscored Britain’s weak hold on its new territory. Faced with massive debts incurred by fighting the French and Indian War, British leaders had no desire to become embroiled in prolonged warfare with Native Americans to protect colonists eager to settle the Ohio Country.

As a result, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, on October 7th, reserving the lands west of the crest of the Appalachians for the native inhabitants and forbidding colonists from settling in the area.

George Rogers Clark Fought for Control of the Territory

During the American Revolutionary War, George Rogers Clark led American forces against the British in the Northwest Territory. With support from Virginia’s government, he set out with a small force in 1778 and successfully captured Kaskaskia and Vincennes. While Clark initially planned to launch an operation against the British in Detroit, it never came to fruition due to Loyalist and Native American Indian attacks on Patriot settlers. In the late stages of the war, Clark responded to these attacks with more raids, including two on Chillicothe.

Siege of Fort Vincennes, Surrender of Hamilton, Illustration
This illustration depicts British forces surrendering to George Rogers Clark at Vincennes. Image Source: George Rogers Clark by Russell Roberts, 2007,

Western Land Claims in the Territory

Some of the colonial charters issued by England and Britain were “Sea to Sea Charters” that granted land from the East Coast to the West Coast. Those charters, along with other boundary issues, led some states to have claims west of the Allegheny Mountains. Some of the states with western land claims were: New York, Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and North Carolina.

Ratification of the Articles of Confederation Was Delayed Due to Land Claims in the Territory

As the individual states wrestled with ratifying the Articles of Confederation, Congress adopted the “Resolution on Public Lands” on October 10, 1780. The resolution called upon existing states to cede their claims to western lands to the United States. 

By that time, twelve of the states had ratified the Articles of Confederation, but the document required unanimous consent to become law. The lone holdout, Maryland, did not ratify until March 1, 1781, after Virginia became the last state to relinquish its claims on lands north and west of the Ohio River. 

Following Maryland’s ratification, the new Confederation Congress, which succeeded the Second Continental Congress, controlled the Northwest Territory pending the outcome of the American Revolutionary War.

Britain Ceded the Territory to the United States in 1783

In 1783, the United States and Great Britain agreed to the Treaty of Paris, which ceded all the land east of the Mississippi River, north of Florida, and south of Canada to the United States — excluding the City of New Orleans. This included the Northwest Territory.

The Confederation Congress and the Northwest Territory

Following the war, the Confederation Congress was tasked with organizing the Northwest Territory. It also intended to sell the land and use the revenue to pay off debts incurred during the American Revolutionary War.

Congress Started Organizing the Northwest Territory in 1784

The Ordinance of 1784 provided a blueprint for governing the territory Britain ceded to the United States after the American Revolutionary War.

In 1783, Congress formed a committee “to prepare a plan for the temporary government of the Western territory.” Thomas Jefferson was a member of the committee and helped draft a report that recommended a systematic process to prepare new areas for statehood. The committee also recommended prohibiting slavery in the new territory.

Congress discussed the committee’s recommendation for seven weeks. On April 23, 1784, the members enacted a revised version of the report, known as the Ordinance of 1784. However, the final version did not include the prohibition of slavery.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 Required Surveying the Northwest Territory

The Land Ordinance of 1785 made adjustments to the Ordinance of 1784 and divided the land into six-mile-square townships. 

The Ordinance also required land in new territories, including the Northwest Territory, to be surveyed before it could be sold. It was believed this would help avoid confusing land claims that plagued Colonial America and led to various conflicts between colonies.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 Revised the Blueprint for Governing the Northwest Territory

As Americans moved into the Northwest Territory, they began petitioning Congress to provide a plan for self-government in the region. On July 13, 1787, the Confederation Congress enacted “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, 1787,” more commonly known as the Northwest Ordinance. The new law replaced the Ordinance of 1784 and:

  1. Established a three-stage process for creating new states in the Northwest Territory.
  2. Created a Bill of Rights for Americans living in the Northwest Territory.
  3. Prohibited Slavery in the Northwest Territory.
  4. Affirmed the “good faith” of the United States toward Indians and their lands.
General Arthur St Clair, Portrait, Peale
Arthur St. Clair was appointed as the first Governor of the Northwest Territory on October 5, 1787. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Britain Refused to Abandon Forts Along the Frontier

Britain agreed to abandon its forts in the Northwest Territory as a provision of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. However, issues continued between the two nations and Britain refused to abandon the forts. The Jay Treaty (1795) addressed the situation by granting Britain elevated trade status with the United States. In return, Britain agreed to abandon the forts. However, the treaty angered the French and the American public. Over time, disagreements over the Jay Treaty contributed to the XYZ Affair, the Quasi-War, and the War of 1812.

The Northwest Indian War

Many of the Indians living in the Northwest Territory did not acknowledge American authority or ownership of lands in the West. As early as 1783, Joseph Brant started organizing a confederation of Indian Tribes in the Northwest Territory. His first meeting is believed to have been held at modern-day Fremont, Ohio.

Some tribes agreed to make treaties with the United States that ceded their lands.

  • 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix
  • 1785 Treaty of Fort McIntosh
  • 1786 Treaty of Fort Finney

However, tribes that were part of the Northwest Indian Confederacy carried out raids on American settlements, which slowed Westward Expansion.

From 1786 to 1795, the Northwest Indian War carried on. It was finally resolved when American forces under the command of General Anthony Wayne won the Battle of Fallen Timbers (August 20, 1794). The Northwest Indians signed the Treaty of Greenville on August 3, 1795, ending the war and giving control of most of Ohio to the United States.

Joseph Brant, Portrait
Joseph Brant. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Order of States Created from the Territory

Five full states and part of another were eventually carved out of the Northwest Territory. It is also important to note that all six states were “Free States,” that did not allow slavery.

  1. Ohio became the 17th state admitted to the Union on March 1, 1803.
  2. Indiana became the 19th state admitted to the Union on December 11, 1816.
  3. Illinois became the 21st state admitted to the Union on December 3, 1818.
  4. Michigan became the 26th state admitted to the Union on January 26, 1837.
  5. Wisconsin became the 30th state admitted to the Union on May 29, 1848.
  6. Minnesota became the 32nd state admitted to the Union on May 11, 1858.

Northwest Territory Significance in U.S. History

The Northwest Territory is important to United States history for the role it played in Manifest Destiny and the Westward Expansion of the United States. The region also played an important part in the Beaver Wars, the Colonial Wars between France and Britain, the Northwest Indian War, and the forced removal of Indians.

Northwest Territory APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study the Northwest Territory, Manifest Destiny, and the Northwest Indian War for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Northwest Territory Definition APUSH

The Northwest Territory for APUSH is defined as significant land acquisition by the United States during the late 18th century. Established by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, it encompassed the region north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River. The Northwest Territory was notable for several reasons: it prohibited slavery, encouraged public education, and established a process for territorial and eventual statehood for its inhabitants. This territory would later become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota, playing a pivotal role in westward expansion and shaping the nation’s development.

Northwest Territory Video for APUSH Notes

This video from NBC News Learn discusses the history of the Northwest Territory.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Northwest Territory
  • Date 1607–1803
  • Author
  • Keywords Northwest Territory, Ordinance of 1784, Land Ordinance of 1785, Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Western Land Claims
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 7, 2024