A Quick History of the ‘Great Lakes States’

The region that is the subject of this site (now the five states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) was from the late 1600s until 1763 a part of France’s North American empire. The French colonial government benefited from the profits of about four thousand French traders in the region, who obtained furs from the local Native Americans in exchange for a variety of goods manufactured in France or Canada. Over the years, the French Canadian government erected several military forts at strategic locations. Other than soldiers, French Catholic missionaries and fur traders, there were not many settlers in the region.

The 1763 treaty that ended the French and Indian War (known in Europe as the ‘Seven Years War’) awarded Canada and this Northwest region to Great Britain. The British government, which still ruled the American colonies, took possession of the French forts and began taking over the fur trade. It also issued the ‘Proclamation of 1763′ that prohibited settlement west of the Appalachian mountains. This law, along with a very active threat from Native Americans living there, virtually shut off any settlement in the region until the American Revolution (1775-83).

In the Treaty of Paris (1783) after the Revolutionary War the new U.S. government formally acquired the area, then called ‘The Northwest Territory’, from Great Britain. This would be the northwest corner of the new United States. It was a huge acquisition for the U.S.; two-thirds the size of the original 13 states. However, Native Americans in the region still considered the land theirs. They had not ceded the land to either Great Britain or the U.S., and had not been represented in the Treaty of Paris negotiations.

The new Federal government wished to expedite settlement of the southern part of the region. State governments wanted to pay off their debts to their Revolutionary War veterans with grants of land west of the Ohio River. The Federal government had only very meager tax revenue, and hoped to earn money by selling land in the Northwest Territory. However, the Native Americans who lived in the region fiercely resisted the influx of settlers. They were encouraged in their resistance by British army commanders and British traders, who continued to be active in the region to take advantage of the very profitable fur trade.

Over the years from the 1790s through at least the 1830s various representatives of the U.S. Government and State governments negotiated land cessions from Native American tribal chiefs throughout the region, facilitating settlement in some areas. But not until the conclusion of the War of 1812 did American conflict with Native Americans end in Ohio. Native American resistance didn’t completely end in Illinois and Wisconsin until the Black Hawk war of 1832; a half-century after the U.S. acquired the Northwest Territory.

In 1787 Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which put the entire territory temporarily under one territorial government and laid out a plan for it to be divided into several territories. Each territory would then have to meet certain conditions to become a U.S. state with the same rights as the original 13 states. Although the region did not formally remain the ‘Northwest Territory’ for long, it continued for many years to be widely referred to as ‘The Old Northwest’. However, most Americans today know the region as the ‘Upper Midwest’ or the ‘Great Lakes states’. We use the latter term in this website.

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