The Revolution in the Old Northwest.

By Mark Tully

There was a lot more to the Revolution in the Northwest Territories than the exploits of George Rogers Clark. In fact, the whole conflict started because of the Northwest Territories -- well, sort of.

First of all, for a proper perspective, we need to recognize that in addition to fighting for liberty, the colonists were fighting for money. They wanted to expand westward to exploit the riches of the American wilderness -- which the British Government was dead-set against. The British realized the difficulty of securing, governing, and controlling a vast territory that was larger than all of Europe from a small island some 2,000 miles away, and they were perfectly content to keep the thirteen colonies confined to the costal areas where their powerful navy had easier access and could better defend them if needed.

map of the northwestThe colonists didn't much care for this arrangement, and insisted on expanding their colonies into the territories that lay to their west. Of course, in the wake of the French and Indian War, the frontier was full of hostile Indians and marauding bands of irate Frenchmen, so the colonists put pressure on the British government to defend their frontier towns and villages with land-based troops. The British complied to some degree by placing garrisons at remote frontier outposts like Fort du Chartres, Kaskaskia, Michilimackinac and Vincennes.

The Spanish controlled New Orleans and therefore the Mississippi. Although the British and Spanish weren't at war yet, they didn't get along very well and the Spanish could deny access as they pleased. This meant supplies for the remote British outposts had to come through Fort Pitt (at present-day Pittsburgh) or Quebec. This was an expensive and time-consuming undertaking, so to help cover the costs the British levied taxes on their colonists -- essentially to help pay for their own defense (it was right about this time that the clever phrase "taxation without representation" started to pop up).

Then came The Quebec act of 1774, which restored much of the Northwest Territories England had won in the French and Indian War to Canada. This area included what is now Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and part of Minnesota (see map above). This new policy did not sit well with many of the the colonial businessmen. George Washington, George Rogers Clark, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers were also land speculators and had invested in lands in the Midwest. The Ohio Land Company (1748), Indiana Company (1765), Illinois Company (1766), Military Associates (1766), and the proposed state of Vandalia (1769) also laid claims to parts of the Great Lakes area, and they weren't too happy about seeing "their" land being given back to Canada.

Individual states claimed rights to settle Midwestern lands as well, and Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York all claimed rights to parts of the midwest. Thomas Jefferson was even devising plans to divide the area up into NEW states, complete with great names like Assenisipia (Northern Illinois), Sylvania (Northern Wisconsin), Saratoga (Central Indiana and Ohio), and Pelisipia (Southern Indiana). In all, 10 different states were to be carved out of the area known as the Northwest Territories.

The Quebec Act put a stop to all of these plans and the Colonial businessmen were outraged. They even mentioned The Quebec Act in the Declaration of Independence as one of the "intolerable acts" levied against the colonies. Being mentioned in the Declaration of Independence places the upper midwest at the very root of the American rebellion! So, the next time you find yourself engaged in a conversation about the American Revolution, throw your shoulders back, stand tall and proudly proclaim: "Lexington and Concord? Baa! 'Twas the midwest started the American Revolution!"


Norman Gelb, Less Than Glory, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1984
The Old Northwest in the American Revolution, An Anthology, edited by David Curtis Skaggs, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1977
Kellogg, Louise Phelps, The British Régime in Wisconsin and the Old Northwest, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1935