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United States Expansion, Expansion: Northwest Territory

way farmers, Native American resistance, Louisiana Territory, geographic center, new lands

In the 1780s there were few white settlers in the Northwest Territory (the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and eastern Minnesota). By 1860 more than one in five Americans lived in the Northwest, and the geographic center of the population of the United States was near Chillicothe, Ohio. Nearly all white migrants were farmers, and they reached the area in two streams.

Before 1830 most migrants were Southerners, mainly poor and middling farmers from Kentucky, Tennessee, and western Virginia. In the southern regions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, they settled near rivers that empty into the Ohio River, providing access to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.

Southern migrants in the Northwest worked their land Southern style. They planted cornfields but left most of their land wooded, allowing hogs to roam freely and fend for themselves. In this way farmers subsisted (within their households and through bartering with neighbors) with relatively little labor or reliance on outside markets.

Trade down the Mississippi became safe only after Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and the army ended Native American resistance in the Northwest and Southwest in the War of 1812. The trade route became efficient and profitable only with the development of river steamboats in the 1810s.

After 1830 a new stream of migration reached the Northwest Territory from the northeastern states. Most of the new settlers were New Englanders (many of whom had spent a generation in western New York) who reached their new lands via New York’s Erie Canal, Great Lakes steamboats, and other new forms of transportation. By the 1840s they were joined by immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. Most of these were intensive commercial farmers. Rather than allow cattle and hogs to roam freely (often trampling tilled fields), they put their animals in pens. They also planted huge fields of grain and put up fences.

In 1820 the Northwest Territory sent only 12 percent of its farm produce to markets outside the region—a sign that nearly all Northwestern farmers limited their economic lives to their families and neighbors. By 1840 exports accounted for 27 percent of what Northwestern farmers produced, and by 1860—with railroad connections to the east completed—the figure stood at 70 percent. The figures were even higher in the northern, grain–growing areas. Increasingly, the market for Northwestern farm products was not in Europe but in the towns and cities of the east as well as such local centers as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois. In turn, these cities provided farmers with manufactured goods. Land that only a generation earlier had been occupied by independent Native American peoples was now the center of a great internal commercial revolution.

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