Prior to this time, the area had been hotly contested by the French and the British. The French needed access to the area to conduct their fur trade and ship their wares over the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, while the British viewed the region as the natural expansion of their seaboard colonies. The rivalry between the two great powers had been contested in a series of colonial wars, the last of which was the French and Indian War.
The land was awarded to the United States in the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War in 1783. In 1784, an ordinance was passed by Congress to divide the territory into a handful of self-governing districts.
Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 to provide for the administration of the territory and establish rules for future statehood. The ordinance was affirmed by Congress in August 1789. The territory now forms the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and part of Minnesota, comprising more than 260,000 square miles.
Despite the promises of Britain to withdraw from the Northwest Territory, many fur traders and trappers remained behind and the Brtish kept their forts there. In the 1780s, there were far more British citizens here than Americans. The vast wilderness was also populated by Indians including the Delaware, Miami, Potawatomi, Shawnee, and others.
As American pioneers moved into the area, the British frontiersmen were highly successful in stirring up animosity between the natives and the Americans and sold weapons and ammunition to the Indians. In 1785, the Northwest Indian War began over control of the Northwest Territory between the United States and a confederation of numerous Native American tribes, with support from the British.
In the early 1790s, the George Washington administration tried and failed to tame a growing Indian confederation effort in the Northwest but it wouldn’t end until “Mad Anthony” Wayne quieted matters with a victory in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and the following Treaty of Greenville in 1795.
In July 1800 the territory was reduced with the formation of Indiana Territory and ceased to exist when the southeastern portion of the territory was admitted to the Union as the state of Ohio. By this time, there were dozens of towns and settlements, a few with thousands of settlers, mostly in Ohio and around the Great Lakes.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.