A Sketch of the Early “Far West”

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 March 2019.

Also See:

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.


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