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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·THE FARMERS BEYOND THE APPALACHIANS · The Western Migration and New States·»

Preparation for Western Settlement

The West and the American Revolution.—The excessive attention devoted by historians to the military operations along the coast has obscured the rôle played by the frontier in the American Revolution. The action of Great Britain in closing western land to easy settlement in 1763 was more than an incident in precipitating the war for independence. Americans on the frontier did not forget it; when Indians were employed by England to defend that land, zeal for the patriot cause set the interior aflame. It was the members of the western vanguard, like Daniel Boone, John Sevier, and George Rogers Clark, who first understood the value of the far-away country under the guns of the English forts, where the Red Men still wielded the tomahawk and the scalping knife. It was they who gave the East no rest until their vision was seen by the leaders on the seaboard who directed the course of national policy. It was one of their number, a seasoned Indian fighter, George Rogers Clark, who with aid from Virginia seized Kaskaskia and Vincennes and secured the whole Northwest to the union while the fate of Washington’s army was still hanging in the balance.

Western Problems at the End of the Revolution.—The treaty of peace, signed with Great Britain in 1783, brought the definite cession of the coveted territory west to the Mississippi River, but it left unsolved many problems. In the first place, tribes of resentful Indians in the Ohio region, even though British support was withdrawn at last, had to be reckoned with; and it was not until after the establishment of the federal Constitution that a well-equipped army could be provided to guarantee peace on the border. In the second place, British garrisons still occupied forts on Lake Erie pending the execution of the terms of the treaty of 1783—terms which were not fulfilled until after the ratification of the Jay treaty twelve years later. In the third place, Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts had conflicting claims to the land in the Northwest based on old English charters and Indian treaties. It was only after a bitter contest that the states reached an agreement to transfer their rights to the government of the United States, Virginia executing her deed of cession on March 1, 1784. In the fourth place, titles to lands bought by individuals remained uncertain in the absence of official maps and records. To meet this last situation, Congress instituted a systematic survey of the Ohio country, laying it out into townships, sections of 640 acres each, and quarter sections. In every township one section of land was set aside for the support of public schools.

The Northwest Ordinance.—The final problem which had to be solved before settlement on a large scale could be begun was that of governing the territory. Pioneers who looked with hungry eyes on the fertile valley of the Ohio could hardly restrain their impatience. Soldiers of the Revolution, who had been paid for their services in land warrants entitling them to make entries in the West, called for action.

Congress answered by passing in 1787 the famous Northwest Ordinance providing for temporary territorial government to be followed by the creation of a popular assembly as soon as there were five thousand free males in any district. Eventual admission to the union on an equal footing with the original states was promised to the new territories. Religious freedom was guaranteed. The safeguards of trial by jury, regular judicial procedure, and habeas corpus were established, in order that the methods of civilized life might take the place of the rough-and-ready justice of lynch law. During the course of the debate on the Ordinance, Congress added the sixth article forbidding slavery and involuntary servitude.

This Charter of the Northwest, so well planned by the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, was continued in force by the first Congress under the Constitution in 1789. The following year its essential provisions, except the ban on slavery, were applied to the territory south of the Ohio, ceded by North Carolina to the national government, and in 1798 to the Mississippi territory, once held by Georgia. Thus it was settled for all time that “the new colonies were not to be exploited for the benefit of the parent states (any more than for the benefit of England) but were to be autonomous and coördinate commonwealths.” This outcome, bitterly opposed by some Eastern leaders who feared the triumph of Western states over the seaboard, completed the legal steps necessary by way of preparation for the flood of settlers.

The Land Companies, Speculators, and Western Land Tenure.—As in the original settlement of America, so in the opening of the West, great companies and single proprietors of large grants early figured. In 1787 the Ohio Land Company, a New England concern, acquired a million and a half acres on the Ohio and began operations by planting the town of Marietta. A professional land speculator, J.C. Symmes, secured a million acres lower down where the city of Cincinnati was founded. Other individuals bought up soldiers’ claims and so acquired enormous holdings for speculative purposes. Indeed, there was such a rush to make fortunes quickly through the rise in land values that Washington was moved to cry out against the “rage for speculating in and forestalling of land on the North West of the Ohio,” protesting that “scarce a valuable spot within any tolerable distance of it is left without a claimant.” He therefore urged Congress to fix a reasonable price for the land, not “too exorbitant and burdensome for real occupiers, but high enough to discourage monopolizers.”

Congress, however, was not prepared to use the public domain for the sole purpose of developing a body of small freeholders in the West. It still looked upon the sale of public lands as an important source of revenue with which to pay off the public debt; consequently it thought more of instant income than of ultimate results. It placed no limit on the amount which could be bought when it fixed the price at $2 an acre in 1796, and it encouraged the professional land operator by making the first installment only twenty cents an acre in addition to the small registration and survey fee. On such terms a speculator with a few thousand dollars could get possession of an enormous plot of land. If he was fortunate in disposing of it, he could meet the installments, which were spread over a period of four years, and make a handsome profit for himself. Even when the credit or installment feature was abolished in 1821 and the price of the land lowered to a cash price of $1.75 an acre, the opportunity for large speculative purchases continued to attract capital to land ventures.

The Development of the Small Freehold.—The cheapness of land and the scarcity of labor, nevertheless, made impossible the triumph of the huge estate with its semi-servile tenantry. For about $45 a man could get a farm of 160 acres on the installment plan; another payment of $80 was due in forty days; but a four-year term was allowed for the discharge of the balance. With a capital of from two to three hundred dollars a family could embark on a land venture. If it had good crops, it could meet the deferred payments. It was, however, a hard battle at best. Many a man forfeited his land through failure to pay the final installment; yet in the end, in spite of all the handicaps, the small freehold of a few hundred acres at most became the typical unit of Western agriculture, except in the planting states of the Gulf. Even the lands of the great companies were generally broken up and sold in small lots.

The tendency toward moderate holdings, so favored by Western conditions, was also promoted by a clause in the Northwest Ordinance declaring that the land of any person dying intestate—that is, without any will disposing of it—should be divided equally among his descendants. Hildreth says of this provision: “It established the important republican principle, not then introduced into all the states, of the equal distribution of landed as well as personal property.” All these forces combined made the wide dispersion of wealth, in the early days of the nineteenth century, an American characteristic, in marked contrast with the European system of family prestige and vast estates based on the law of primogeniture.

«·THE FARMERS BEYOND THE APPALACHIANS · The Western Migration and New States·»