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Settling the West


Another challenge for the national government under the Articles of Confederation lay in overseeing the expansion of the United States westward. Settlers, speculators, and state governments all pressed for expansion into the wilderness lands granted to the US under the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The Ordinance of 1785 was the government's first attempt to control western expansion. It outlined the protocol for settlement, and established the basic geography of a township as a parcel of land six miles square. Each township was then divided into subsections to be occupied by settlers. After two successful years of settlement, the Northwest Ordinance, passed July 13, 1787, defined the process of the creation and admission of new states into the union from the area north of the Ohio River, designated the Northwest Territory. The Northwest Ordinance forbade slavery in the area as long as it was merely a territory, but allowed citizens to vote on the legality of slavery upon achieving statehood.

The major obstacles to Western expansion were the interests of foreign nations, most notably Britain and Spain, and the fact that Native Americans largely occupied the land to the west. Many political leaders advocated attempting to integrate the Natives into white American life. However, the Indians were not eager to give up their culture or their land. In postwar negotiations, many Indian tribes that had fought against the Continental Army had to accept treaties that deprived them of much of their land. The Iroquois, Delawares, and Shawnees, all wartime enemies of the US, were forced to give up nearly all of their land. However, most Indians rejected the validity of these treaties and refused to leave their traditional homes.

Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, the commander of the most successful of all Indian forces during the Revolutionary War, led the Indian resistance. In 1786, Brant organized the northwestern Indian tribes into a military alliance to resist the movement of white settlers into the Northwest Territory. The alliance faltered because of a lack of support from certain portions of the Iroquois tribe, but nevertheless, it caused problems for settlers, and was a major concern for the national government. In the South, Spain and its Indian allies mobilized to prevent westward expansion by US settlers. The Creek Indians, under Alexander McGillivray, offered staunch military resistance to the seizure of Indian homelands, most notably in and around Georgia. Spain, for its part, restricted American access to the Mississippi River that had been granted to the US by the Treaty of Paris. Spain had not signed the treaty, and denied its validity with regard to the Mississippi, which it claimed as its own. In a move to further discourage westward settlement, the Spanish closed the port of New Orleans altogether to American commerce in 1784, a fierce blow to the US economy.


The early initiatives of the national government in regard to the settling of the West were the Confederation's only successful and lasting contributions. Both the Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance were effective in outlining the procedures by which the West was settled. Both measures served as models for later legislation outlining the process of creating and admitting states throughout the West. However, the Ordinances had very little immediate effect because of the Indian occupation of the Northwest Territory. The battle against the Indians for land went back to the seventeenth century and the original colonists. For as long as North America had been an area of interest for European powers, the Natives had been harassed and pushed westward, forced out of their traditional homes. In postwar negotiations, many American leaders had taken the stance that the Indians were a vanquished people and that their land, in full, belonged to the United States.

Therefore, it was not surprising that the Indians would have built up such hatred toward the white settlers, and as a result, provided the major obstacle to settling the West during the years of the Confederation. Indian resistance in the northwest stemmed from efforts to maintain control of Native American homeland and the hope that the British would provide support in the form of arms and ammunition should the struggle escalate to the point of military action. During the Revolutionary War the Indians had largely supported the British, fearing an expansionist independent America. Now as their fears were realized, they hoped the British would return the favor, and thought that perhaps they could defeat the forces of the weak and disorganized central government with British help. However, unable to unify the tribes, and receiving far less British support than had been hoped for, the Indian tribes, while not totally defeated and driven out of the Northwest Territory, certainly were not victorious in their attempts at resistance.

Indian resistance in the South was more successful due to both the leadership of Alexander McGillivray and the support of the Spanish government. The Spanish equipped and aided the Indians in their raids of the frontier states that had occupied Indian land, leading a campaign of terror against those who did not evacuate the land the Creeks claimed as their own. Moreover, the efforts at constricting expansion in the South were successful largely because of the restrictions on trade and travel that the closing of the Mississippi imposed on settlers in the Mississippi Valley. The Spanish, like the British earlier in the case of the West Indies, saw the weakness of the US national government under the Articles of Confederation as a chance to protect their own interests. They closed the port of New Orleans without fear of facing repercussions from a weak central government unable to control commerce and unsuccessful in attempts to ward off Indian resistance.

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