Today in History: The Northwest Ordinance of 1787

States & territories of the US 1789-1790
States & Territories of the US 1789-1790, via (Click to enlarge.)

Benjamin and McMurray FamiliesLee Family, Springsteen and Beerbower Families,  Roberts Family (Click for Family Tree)

OK, so is this a family history blog or is it boring history class???

Well, to fully understand our family’s history, we need to know the history of the time and place in which they lived. It is the only way to get a feel for the pressures they faced in their daily lives- did they live in the city and have to worry about armed gangs roaming the streets, or out on the frontier where Indians were fighting to preserve their own lands from encroachment? Did they live on a farm and experience the seasonal calendar of crops and livestock? Or were they seafarers who worried about storms and the quality of wood used for the hull of their ship? How did our ancestors meet their daily needs for food, water, and shelter? How did they travel to new homesteads, new places to meet and marry? What wars did they fight in, whether soldier or civilian? Where are they buried, and why there? Answering even some of these questions begins a story about those who came before, and those who have made us who we are. They take the ‘boring’ out of genealogy- who begat who and when is just not that interesting! But if you tell a story of how two parents met, their challenges as they raised their children, and the legacy of grandchildren left behind, THAT makes interesting genealogy, and interesting lessons to apply to our own lives.

Today, 13 July, is the 228th anniversary of the Northwest Ordinance, officially known as “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio.” The Second Continental Congress passed this act in 1787, creating the first official territory of the new country. The territory comprised those lands west of the Appalachian Mountains with the upper Mississippi River becoming the westernmost boundary; the northern boundary was British Canada and the Great Lakes, down to the Ohio River as the southernmost boundary. Our Benjamin and Ford ancestors lived in this territory, so knowing a bit about it will enhance what we understand of their lives. Others of our families moved into these territories or early states, and may have been there even before: Aiken, Russell, Springsteen, Beerbower, McMurray, Roberts, Daniel, and Murrell.

What makes the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 so important is that it explained how the Federal Government would expand via public domain land, and create new states, rather than the previous method of the states just expanding ever westward with their competing claims for land. Note in the first image how Virginia and Georgia claimed property far to the west-  in Georgia’s case, even through much of what is now Alabama and Mississippi. When searching for very old records, one would need to look in records for those original states claiming property, even though the hometown might now be in Indiana!

The Congress approved a bill of rights for the citizens in the Northwest Territory, and guaranteed that the new states would be equal to the original thirteen colonies in all respects. Slavery was outlawed in the new territory, and thus would be outlawed as the areas became states. (The NW Ordinance was therefore a contributing factor to the Civil War.)

Earlier ordinances (1784, 1785) for this territory, provided for self-governing districts and representation to Congress. In 1787,the ordinance required surveying and land grant units to be determined on a township basis, which was six miles square. A settler had to buy at least one square mile (640 acres) and pay at least one dollar per acre. (Land prices in the Midwest now range from about $5,000-10,000 per acre, or even more.) Each township had one section set aside for a school, and the 1787 Ordinance mandated that education would be provided in the territory.

Northwest Territory of USA- 1787 via Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Northwest Territory of USA- 1787 via Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. (Click to enlarge.)

The 1787 NW Ordinance also outlined the steps that parts of the territory would need to take to become a state. Initially, Congress appointed a governor and judges; when a part of the territory reached 5,000 adult free males, it would become a territory and govern with its own legislature, although the governor still had veto power. Attainment of a population of 60,000 allowed a territory to petition to be admitted to the Union as one of at least 3 but no more than 5 states carved from the Northwest Territory. Ohio was the first of the new states, in 1803, followed by Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

We will ‘explore’ the Northwest Territories and our ancestors who walked those lands in upcoming posts.



Notes, Sources, and References: 

1) Some resources used for this post:

2) The first image is from The Federalist Papers Project:

Please note that these articles are submitted by various writers and many are op-ed type articles, some with an agenda and some not necessarily fact-checked. It is a great map, however, for the 1787 NW Ordinance, and we appreciate that they allow use of their graphics.



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