Western Expansion


The issue of western expansion was controversial even before the American Revolution. After the British defeated the French in the A worldwide conflict that was fought in North America by Great Britain and France (with Native American allies)Seven Years' War, they took control of vast expanses of western land. Instead of putting the colonies in charge of the land, the British issued that Proclamation of 1763, which would restrict the 13 colonies to the land east of the Appalachian Mountains. This was done in part to pacify Native Americans who feared their land would be taken, and partly to ensure the colonies would not become too sprawling and hard to manage. Keeping the land under British control would also make it easier to sell. However, these efforts to curb expansion only proved ineffective and incendiary, furthering the cause of the revolutionaries. Despite these early attempts to stop expansion, explorers and traders began moving west. After the Revolution, many states initiated land grabs disguised as treaties with Native Americans, acquiring much of the modern day Midwest.

The Problem

One of the greatest barriers to the original passing of the Articles of Confederation was how to fairly distribute acquired western territories. States with Delaware, Maryland, and New Jerseyfixed western boundaries worried about the power that states with extensive western land claims might have. Furthermore they were concerned about the potentially States that had western territories could sell it to gain an unfair advantageunfair monetary advantages of having extensive western territory, and felt that this land should belong to the federal government. Ultimately, Virginia and New York agreed to put their territorial claims under the authority of Congress and the Articles of Confederation passed. However the Confederation Congress made no provisions for future expansion, creation of new states, or governance of the vast unregulated territories.

How Would the West be Governed?

When the United States government acquired the western territories, they were entirely unregulated, and members of Congress were concerned about rising tensions between the colonies and the new frontier. Thomas Jefferson, as a member of Congress, suggested several solutions to this problem. The first was the Ordinance of 1784 which would divide the territory into squares of equal area, creating ten new states. These states could each set up a republican government and then apply for full statehood. While Jefferson put provisions in place for lasting state governments, he also wrote the ordinance with the intention that most of this land would be sold to pay war debts. Many of the founders worries that if the country became much larger, it would be too difficult to govern, and the union would disband. The reception of this decree by frontiersmen was not as positive as Jefferson might have hoped, so the lawlessness of the new frontier continued.


It wasn’t until 1787 with the passage of the Northwest Ordinance, also called the Ordinance of 1787, that the western frontier was able to set up the framework of government. The ordinance created the structure for a system of government, law, and education all while protecting the autonomy of the region. Importantly, the Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery in all Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsinnorthwest territories, impacting future debates concerning the preservation of states’ rights.

Native American Conflicts

Though Britain originally attempted to preserve Native American land claims, mainly to avoid violent conflict, without any formal enforcement mechanism there was no way to stop citizens from pioneering westward. After the Revolutionary War, Americans believed that the Native Americans were defeated along with their British allies, and so their lands could be taken as the spoils of war. Native Americans saw things differently, but were largely unable to prevent the influx of Americans onto their land. This encroachment on land that was the rightful property of Native Americans began a long history of conflict and refusal to recognize the rights of indigenous people.

So What?

The absence of provision for creating government in acquired western territories in the Articles of Confederation left vast swaths of land ungoverned and unregulated for years. The resulting violence caused resentment between the original colonies and the territories, as well as escalated violence between western travelers and Native American tribes. Without guidelines for the preservation of the rights of indigenous populations, western expansion was violent and cruel. The formation of territorial governments also calls into question the role of the United States federal government, and how it should interact with increasingly independent states.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does the problem of western expansion help us understand the importance of state representation?
  2. What do you think is the most important provision of the Northwest Ordinance? Is there anything missing?


Brands, H. W., T. H. Breen, R. Hal Williams, and Ariela J. Gross. American Stories: A History of the United States. Second ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, 2012.

Independence Hall Association. "Proclamation of 1763." ushistory.org. http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/related/proc63.htm (accessed October 11, 2014).

Rohrbough, Malcolm J.. The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

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