A Sketch of the Early “Far West”

Ohio Valley

Ohio Valley

The Indian title to a large part of the territory of Ohio having become extinguished, Congress, before settlements were commenced, found it necessary to pass ordinances for the survey and sale of the lands in the Northwest Territory. In October 1787, Manasseh Cutler and Winthrop Sargeant, agents of the New England Ohio Company, made a large purchase of land, bounded south by the Ohio River, and west by the Scioto River. Its settlement was commenced at Marietta in the spring of 1788, which was the first made by the Americans within Ohio. A settlement had been attempted within the limits of Ohio, on the site of Portsmouth, in April 1785, by four families from Redstone, Pennsylvania, but difficulties with the Indians compelled its abandonment.

About the time of the settlement of Marietta, Congress appointed General Arthur St. Clair, Governor; Winthrop Sargeant, Secretary; and Samuel Holden Parsons, James M. Varnum, and John Cleves Symmes, Judges in and over the Territory. They organized its government and passed laws, and the governor erected the county of Washington, embracing nearly the whole of the eastern half of the present limits of Ohio.

In November 1788, the second settlement within the limits of Ohio was commenced at Columbia, on the Ohio River, five miles above the site of Cincinnati, and within the purchase and under the auspices of John Cleves Symmes and associates. Shortly after, settlements were commenced at Cincinnati and at North Bend, sixteen miles below, both within Symmes’s purchase. In 1790, another settlement was made at Galliopolis by a colony from France — the name signifying city of the French.

On January 9, 1789, a treaty was concluded at Fort Harmer, at the mouth of the Muskingum River, opposite Marietta, by Governor St. Clair, in which the treaty, which had been made four years previous, at Fort McIntosh, on the site of Beaver, Pennsylvania, was renewed and confirmed. It did not, however, produce favorable results anticipated. The Indians, the same year, committed numerous murders, which occasioned the alarmed settlers to erect block-houses in each of the new settlements. In June, Major Doughty, with 140 men, commenced the erection of Fort Washington, on the site of Cincinnati. In the course of the summer, General Josiah Harmer arrived at the Fort with 300 men.

Negotiations with the Indians proving unfavorable, General Josiah Harmer marched in September 1790, from Cincinnati with 1,300 men, less than one-fourth of whom were regulars, to attack their towns on the Maumee River. He succeeded in burning their towns; but in an engagement with the Indians, part of his troops met with a severe loss. The next year, a larger army was assembled at Cincinnati, under General St. Clair, composed of about 3,000 men. With this force, he commenced his march toward the Indian towns on the Maumee River. Early in the morning of November 4, 1791, his army, while in camp on what is now the line of Darke and Mercer Counties, within three miles of the Indiana line, and about 70 miles north from Cincinnati, was surprised by a large body of Indians, and defeated with terrible slaughter. A third army, under General Anthony Wayne, was organized. On August 20, 1794, they met and completely defeated the Indians, on the Maumee River, about 12 miles south of the site of Toledo. The Indians, at length, becoming convinced of their inability to resist the American arms, sued for peace. On August 3, 1795, General Wayne concluded a treaty at Greenville, sixty miles north of Cincinnati, with eleven of the most powerful northwestern tribes, in grand council. This gave peace to the West, of several years’ duration, during which, the settlements progressed with great rapidity. Jay’s Treaty, concluded November 19, 1794, was a most important event to the prosperity of the West. It provided for the withdrawal of all the British troops from the northwestern posts. In 1796, the Northwestern Territory was divided into five counties. Marietta was the seat of justice of Hamilton and Washington counties; Vincennes, of Knox County; Kaskaskia, of St. Clair County; and Detroit, of Wayne County. The settlers, out of the limits of Ohio, were Canadian or Creole French. The headquarters of the northwest army were removed to Detroit, at which point a fort had been built by De la Motte Cadillac, as early as 1701.

Originally, Virginia claimed jurisdiction over a large part of Western Pennsylvania as being within her dominions, yet it was not until after the close of the American Revolution that the boundary line was permanently established.

Then this tract was divided into two counties. The one, Westmoreland, extended from the mountains west of the Alleghany River, including Pittsburgh and all the country between the Kishkeminitas and the Youghiogeny Rivers. The other, Washington, comprised all south and west of Pittsburgh, inclusive of all the country east and west of the Monongahela River.

Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania

Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania

At this period, Fort Pitt was a frontier post, around which had sprung up the village of Pittsburgh, which was not regularly laid out into a town until 1784. The settlement on the Monongahela at “Redstone Old Fort,” or “Fort Burd,” as it originally was called, having become an important point of embarkation for western emigrants, was the next year laid off into a town under the name of Brownsville. Regular forwarding houses were soon established here, by whose lines goods were systematically wagoned over the mountains, thus superseding the slow and tedious mode of transportation by pack-horses, to which the emigrants had previously been obliged to resort.

In July 1786, The Pittsburgh Gazette, the first newspaper issued in the west, was published; the second being the Kentucky Gazette established at Lexington, in August of the next year. As late as 1791, the Alleghany River was the frontier limit of the settlements of Pennsylvania, the Indians holding possession of the region around its northwestern tributaries, with the exception of a few scattering settlements, which were all simultaneously broken up and exterminated in one night in February of this year, by a band of 150 Indians. During the campaigns of Harmer, St. Clair, and Wayne, Pittsburgh was the great depot for the armies.

By this time, agriculture and manufactures had begun to flourish in western Pennsylvania and Virginia, and extensive trade was carried on with the settlements on the Ohio River and on the lower Mississippi River, with New Orleans and the rich Spanish settlements in its vicinity. Monongahela whiskey, horses, cattle, and agricultural and mechanical implements of iron were the principal articles of export. The Spanish government soon after much embarrassed this trade by imposing heavy duties.  The first settlements in Tennessee were made in the vicinity of Fort Loudon, on the Little Tennessee River, in what is now Monroe County, East Tennessee, about the year 1758. Forts Loudon and Chissel were built at that time by Colonel Byrd, who marched into the Cherokee country with a regiment from Virginia. The next year, war broke out with the Cherokee. In 1760 the Cherokee besieged Fort Loudon, into which the settlers had gathered their families, numbering nearly 300 persons. The latter was obliged to surrender for want of provisions, but, agreeably to the terms of capitulation were to retreat unmolested beyond the Blue Ridge. When they had proceeded about 20 miles on their route, the Indians fell upon them and massacred all but nine, not even sparing the women and children.

The only settlements were thus broken up by this war. The next year, the celebrated Daniel Boone made an excursion from North Carolina to the waters of the Holstein River. In 1766 Colonel James Smith, with five others, traversed a great portion of Middle and West Tennessee. At the mouth of the Tennessee River, Smith’s companions left him to make farther explorations in Illinois, while he, in company with an African-American lad, returned home through the wilderness, after an absence of eleven months, during which he saw “neither bread, money, women, nor spirituous liquors.”

Chickasaw tribe

Chickasaw tribe

Other explorations soon succeeded, and permanent settlements first made in 1768 and1769, by emigrants from Virginia and North Carolina, who were scattered along the branches of the Holstein, French Broad, and Watauga Rivers. The jurisdiction of North Carolina was in 1777 extended over the Western District, which was organized as the county of Washington and extending westward to the Mississippi River. Soon after, some of the more daring pioneers made a settlement at Bledsoe’s Station, in Middle Tennessee, in the heart of the Chickasaw Nation, and separated several hundred miles, by the usually traveled route, from their kinsmen on the Holstein.

A number of French traders had previously established a trading post and erected a few cabins at the “Bluff” near the site of Nashville. To the same vicinity Colonel James Robertson, in the fall of 1780, emigrated with 40  families from North Carolina, who were driven from their homes by the marauding incursions of Tarleton’s cavalry, and established “Robertson’s Station,” which formed the nucleus around which gathered the settlements on the Cumberland. The Cherokee having commenced hostilities upon the frontier inhabitants about the commencement of the year 1781, Colonel Campbell, of Virginia, with 700 mounted riflemen, invaded their country and defeated them. At the close of the American Revolution, settlers moved in large numbers from Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia. Nashville was laid out in the summer of 1784, and named from General Francis Nash, who fell at Brandywine.

The people of this district, in common with those of Kentucky, and on the tipper Ohio River, were deeply interested in the navigation of the Mississippi River, and under the tempting offers of the Spanish governor of Louisiana, many were lured to emigrate to West Florida and become subjects of the Spanish.

North Carolina, having ceded her claims to her western lands, Congress, in May 1790, erected this into a territory under the name of the “Southwestern Territory,” according to the provisions of the ordinance of 1787, excepting the article prohibiting slavery.

The territorial government was organized with a legislature, a legislative council, with William Blount as their first governor. Knoxville was made the seat of government. A fort was erected to intimidate the Indians, by the United States, in the Indian country, on the site of Kingston. From this period until the final overthrow of the northwestern Indians by Wayne, this territory suffered from the hostilities of the Creek and Cherokee, who were secretly supplied with arms and ammunition by the Spanish agents, with the hope that they would exterminate the Cumberland settlements. In 1795 the territory contained a population of 27,262, of whom about 10,000 were slaves. On June 1, 1796, it was admitted into the Union as the State of Tennessee.

By the treaty of October 27th, 1795, with Spain, the old sore, the right of navigating the Mississippi River, was closed, that power ceding to the United States the right of free navigation.

The Territory of Mississippi was organized in 1798, and Winthrop Sargeant appointed Governor. By the ordinance of 1787, the people of the Northwest Territory were entitled to elect Representatives to a Territorial Legislature whenever it contained 5,000 males of full age. Before the close of the year 1798, the Territory had this number, and members to a Territorial Legislature were soon after chosen. In the year 1799, William H. Harrison was chosen as the first delegate to Congress from the Northwest Territory. In 1800, the Territory of Indiana was formed, and the next year, William H. Harrison appointed Governor. This Territory comprised the present States of Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, which vast country then had less than 6,000 whites, and those mainly of French origin. On April 30, 1802, Congress passed an act authorizing a convention, to form a constitution for Ohio. This convention met at Chillicothe in the succeeding November, and, on the 29th of that month, a constitution of State Government was ratified and signed, by which act Ohio became one of the States of the Federal Union. In October 1802, the whole western country was thrown into a ferment by the suspension of the American right of depositing goods and produce at New Orleans, guaranteed by the treaty of 1795, with Spain. The whole commerce of the west was struck at in a vital point, and the treaty evidently violated. On February 25, 1803, the port was opened to provisions, on paying a duty, and in April following, by orders of the King of Spain, the right of deposit was restored.

French Louisiana

French Louisiana

After the treaty of 1763, Louisiana remained in possession of Spain until 1803, when it was again restored to France by the terms of a secret article in the treaty of St. lldefonso concluded with Spain in 1800. France held but brief possession; on the 30th of April, she sold her claim to the United States for the consideration of fifteen millions of dollars. On the 20th of the succeeding December, General Wilkinson and Claiborne took possession of the country for the United States and entered New Orleans at the head of the American troops.


On January 11, 1805, Congress established the Territory of Michigan and appointed William Hull, Governor. This same year, Detroit was destroyed by fire. The town occupied only about two acres, completely covered with buildings and combustible materials, excepting the narrow intervals of fourteen or fifteen feet used as streets or lanes, and the whole was environed with a very strong and secure defense of tall and solid pickets.

At this period, the conspiracy of Aaron Burr began to agitate the western country. In December 1806, a fleet of boats, with arms, provisions, and ammunition, belonging to the confederates of Burr, were seized, upon the Muskingum, by agents of the United States, which proved a fatal blow to the project. In 1809, the Territory of Illinois was formed from the western part of the Indiana Territory, and named for the powerful tribe which once had occupied its soil.

The Indians, who, since the Treaty of Greenville, had been at peace, about the year 1810, began to commit aggressions upon the inhabitants of the west, under the leadership of Tecumseh. The next year, they were defeated by General Harrison, at the battle of Tippecanoe, in Indiana. This year was also distinguished by the voyage, from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, of the steamboat New Orleans, the first steamer ever launched upon the western waters.

In June 1812, the United States declared war against Great Britain. Of this war, the west was the principal theater. Its opening scenes were as gloomy and disastrous to the American arms as its close was brilliant and triumphant.

Northwest Territory

Northwest Territory

At the close of the war, the population of the Territories of Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan was less than 50,000. But, from that time onward, the tide of emigration again went forward with unprecedented rapidity. On April 19, 1816, Indiana was admitted into the Union, and Illinois, December 3, 1818. The remainder of the Northwest Territory, as then organized, was included in the Territory of Michigan, of which, that section west of Lake Michigan, bore the name of the Huron District. This part of the west increased so slowly that, by the census of 1830, the Territory of Michigan contained, exclusive of the Huron District, but 28,000 souls, while that had only a population of 3,640. Emigration began to set in more strongly to the Territory of Michigan in consequence of steam navigation having been successfully introduced upon the great lakes of the west. The first steamboat upon these immense inland seas was the Walk-in-the-Water, which, in 1819, went as far as Mackinaw; yet, it was not until 1826, that a steamer rode the waters of Lake Michigan, and six years more had elapsed before one had penetrated as far as Chicago, Illinois

The year 1832 was signalized by three important events in the history of the west — the first appearance of the Asiatic Cholera, the Great Flood in the Ohio River, and Black Hawk War.

The west has suffered serious drawbacks, in its progress, from inefficient systems of banking. One bank frequently was made the basis of another, and that of a third, and so on throughout the country. Some three or four, shrewd agents or directors, in establishing a bank, would collect a few thousand in specie, that had been honestly paid in, and then make up the remainder of the capital with the bills or stock from some neighboring bank. Thus, so intimate was the connection of each bank with others, that, when one or two gave way, they all went down together in one common ruin.

In 1804, the year preceding Louisiana Purchase, Congress formed from part of it, the “Territory of Orleans,” which was admitted into the Union in 1812, as the State of Louisiana. In 1805, after the Territory of Orleans was erected, the remaining part of the purchase from the French was formed into the Territory of Louisiana, of which the old French town of St. Louis was the capital. This town, the oldest in the Territory, had been founded in 1764, by M. Laclede, agent for a trading association, to whom had been given, by the French government of Louisiana, a monopoly of the commerce in furs and peltries with the Indian tribes of the Missouri and upper Mississippi Rivers. The population of the Territory, in 1805, was trifling and consisted mainly of French Creoles and traders, who were scattered along the banks of the Mississippi and the Arkansas Rivers. Upon the admission of Louisiana as a State, the name of the Territory of Louisiana was changed to that of Missouri. From the southern part of this, in 1819, was erected the Territory of Arkansas, which then contained but a few thousand inhabitants, who were mainly in detached settlements on the Mississippi and on the Arkansas Rivers, in the vicinity of the “Post of Arkansas.” The first settlement in Arkansas was made on the Arkansas River, about the year 1723, upon the grant of the notorious John Law; but, being unsuccessful, was soon after abandoned. In 1820, Missouri was admitted into the Union, and Arkansas in 1836.

Chief Black Hawk, W. Greenough

Chief Black Hawk, W. Greenough

Michigan was admitted as a State in 1837. The Huron District was organized as the Wisconsin Territory, in 1836, and was admitted into the Union, as a State, in 1848. The first settlement in Wisconsin was made in 1665, when Father Claude Allouez established a mission at La Pointe, at the western end of Lake Superior. Four years after, a mission was permanently established at Green Bay: and, eventually, the French also established themselves at Prairie du Chien. In 1819, an expedition, under Governor Cass, explored the territory and found it to be little more than the abode of a few Indian traders, scattered here and there. About this time, the Government established military posts at Green Bay and Prairie du Chien. About the year 1825, some farmers settled in the vicinity of Galena, which had then become a noted mineral region. Immediately after the war with Black Hawk, emigrants flowed in from New York, Ohio, and Michigan, and the flourishing towns of Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Racine, and Southport were laid out on the borders of Lake Michigan. At the conclusion of the same war, the lands west of the Mississippi River were thrown open to emigrants, who commenced settlements in the vicinity of Fort Madison and Burlington, in 1833. Dubuque had long before been a trading post  and as the first settlement in Iowa. It derived its name from Julien Dubuque, an enterprising French Canadian, who, in 1788, obtained a grant of 140,000 acres from the Indians, upon which he resided until his death, in 1810, when he had accumulated immense wealth by lead mining and trading. In June 1838, Iowa was erected into a Territory, and in 1846, became a State.

In 1849, Minnesota Territory was organized; it then contained a little less than 5,000 souls. The first American establishment in the Territory was Fort Snelling, at the mouth of St. Peters, or Minnesota River, which was founded in 1819. The French, and afterward the English, occupied this country with their fur trading forts. Pembina, on the northern boundary, is the oldest village, having been established in 1812 by Lord Selkirk, a Scottish nobleman, under a grant from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

But, here the adventurous spirit of emigration does not pause. The blue waters of the far distant Pacific were the only barrier of the never-ceasing human tide. The rich valleys of Oregon and the golden sands of California then became the lures to attract thousands from the comforts of home, civilization, and refinement, in search of fortune and independence in distant wilds.


By Henry Howe, 1857 – Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.

Also See:

Adventures in the American West

American History

Pushing the Indians Westward

Westward Expansion & Manifest Destiny

About the Author and Article: This article was a chapter in Henry Howe’s book Historical Collections of the Great West, published by George F. Tuttle, of New York, in 1857. Henry Howe (1816 -1893) was an author, publisher, historian, and bookseller. Born in New Haven Connecticut, his father owned a popular bookshop and was also a publisher. Henry would write histories of several states. His most famous work was the three-volume Historical Collections of Ohio. As he collected facts for his writing, he also drew sketches which helped create interest in his work. The article as it appears here is not verbatim, as it has been edited for the modern reader; however, the content essentially remains the same.