MILWAUKEE, Wis. (SPECTRUM NEWS) — On this date 233 years ago, the brand-new United States of America adopted the Northwest Ordinance — a document that paved the way for Wisconsin and the rest of its region to become a part of the union. 

Sandwiched in time between the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 often goes overlooked, says Bryan Rindfleisch, an assistant professor of history at Marquette University. But the document had a huge impact in shaping how the early Americans would go on to create what we now know as the U.S.

“They won a war against Great Britain. Now they have to create a nation,” Rindfleisch says. “Not just a nation of those 13 colonies or states, but a nation that is always looking west, and a nation that always is looking to expand.”

The ordinance set out rules for “the Government of the Territory of the United States North West of the River Ohio,” detailing how these lands would be settled and eventually turned into states (Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, to be exact, plus a chunk of Minnesota). 

In the period after the Revolutionary War, the U.S. claimed this Northwest Territory as part of its winnings from Britain. On the ground, though, the land was still mostly populated by Native American tribes, who had been the area’s main residents even as France, Britain, and now the U.S. had laid claim to it at various points. 

“This was largely the hunting territories or the residence territories of indigenous peoples,” Rindfleisch says. “They're engaged in the fur trade with the French, who are up in Canada and up and down the Mississippi River. But the American presence at this time is just minimal, if anything.”

The leaders of the new United States were eager to acquire more land: As historian Reginald Horsman writes, they had promised land grants to revolutionary soldiers, and hoped that expansion could help accommodate a growing population and erase some of the national debt. 

At the same time that delegates were gathering to draft the U.S. Constitution and decide how to govern the pre-existing colonies, then, they were also discussing how the new nation would expand its reach across the continent. And even though it was widely agreed that these lands should become part of the new nation, the question of how became a hotly contested one.

“The settlement and government of these areas was one of the most controversial issues of these first years of the revolutionary nation,” Horsman writes.

Some individual colonies had their own claims to land in the Northwest Territory, which they had to turn over to the central government in order for this territorial plan to function. Plus, the specifics of self-government for the new Northwest went through several rounds of edits. Thomas Jefferson created an earlier version of the ordinance in 1784 that would create more, smaller states in the area and give the new settlers a lot of freedom, but the 1787 version kept the settlements on a tighter leash with more oversight from Congress.



The final Northwest Ordinance created an orderly process for expansion that “reflected the Enlightenment love of order and balance,” Horsman writes. Surveyors would divide up the land into townships and sell it off in chunks, for the minimum price of $1 per acre. Once a territory reached a population size of 5,000 adult free males, it could form its own legislature to replace its Congress-appointed governor; at a population of 60,000, it could apply for full statehood. (In Wisconsin, it would be another six decades before that milestone was reached, making it the last full state created out of the Northwest Territory land.)

Another major function of the Northwest Ordinance was to establish a bill of rights for the settlers of these lands. In addition to guaranteeing freedom of religion and promoting education (“Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind,” its authors write), the document banned slavery in the region for good — nearly a century earlier than the 13th Amendment was passed.

“It's an important recognition by having, as early as 1787, this document saying ‘Slavery: No,’” Rindfleisch says. “And this will set us up ultimately for the showdown of the American Civil War.”

Even Nathan Dane, one of the delegates who helped author the ordinance, seemed surprised that the other representatives let this rule go through. “I had no idea the states would agree to the sixth [article] prohibiting slavery,” he wrote in a letter shortly after the Ordinance was adopted. 

The Northwest Ordinance also promised that settlers would observe “the utmost good faith” toward Native Americans and would not take their lands without consent. But this promise was not kept over the course of U.S. expansion, Horsman writes. 

Over the course of the early 19th century, Rindfleisch says, the appeal of open land would draw a wave of American settlers into the Northwest Territory — and push many Native Americans out of their traditional homelands and onto reservations. The protocols established in 1787 would serve as a “template” for how the U.S. would keep spreading even beyond the Midwest, he says.

“It basically laid the foundation that the United States was going to expand across the entire continent,” Rindfleisch says. “Those lands will ultimately be inhabited by American citizens and become part of the United States. And indigenous peoples are not seen as part of that image.”