Problems in the West plagued Washington during his presidency. Since the end of the French and Indian War, American settlers had pushed farther and farther westward into the Ohio Valley. Although the Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance of 1787 paid lip service to the notion that Native Americans should receive fair treatment from settlers, little was done to ensure that this was the case. By the end of the eighteenth century, relations between settlers and Native Americans, who were angry that they received no compensation for their lands, were tense.
In 1790, Congress passed the first of the Indian Intercourse Acts to resolve the situation peacefully. These acts stipulated that the United States would regulate all trade with Native Americans and that it would acquire new lands in the West only via official treaties. In reality, the acts had little real weight; most American farmers ignored them, and bloody clashes continued. Ultimately, settlers gained the upper hand after U.S. forces routed many of the most powerful tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
Many whites generally looked down on Native Americans as savages who didn’t use the land properly; as a result, they had few qualms about taking native lands. Meanwhile, Democratic-Republicans and their expansionist Jacksonian successors usually turned a blind eye to the suffering of Native Americans in the hopes of winning the support of more rural supporters.
Washington also felt pressure in the West from Spain, which controlled the Louisiana Territory and Florida and areas from British Canada north of the Ohio Valley. Spain was highly suspicious of the new United States and feared that American settlers’ thirst for new western lands would prompt Congress to annex portions of Spanish territory.
As a result, Spain denied American farmers access to the Mississippi River, which was necessary for shipping grain to the East via the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. They also allied themselves with many Native American tribes in the region.
Britain also feared American expansion. Although the Treaty of Paris that had ended the Revolutionary War stipulated that the Ohio Valley was American territory, British troops remained stationed in the region to protect their old trade interests. They also feared another attempt to invade Canada. Worse, however, was the British navy’s continued seizure of American trade ships and cargos in the Caribbean and Atlantic.