Part II The United States In 1790: Boundaries and Area


Chapter II Page: 17-20

In 1790 the Union consisted of 13 states, Rhode Island, the last of the original 13 to enter the Union, being admitted on May 29. Vermont, the first addition, was admitted in 1791, before the census had been completed. Massachusetts included Maine, Virginia included West Virginia and nominally included Kentucky. Georgia included parts of Alabama and Mississippi. The present state of Tennessee, formed out of territory ceded to the Union by North Carolina, was known as the Territory South of the Ohio River, or Southwest Territory. The vast area between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and the Great Lakes, comprising the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, with part of Minnesota was called the Territory Northwest of the Ohio River, or Northwest Territory.

The United States in 1790 was bounded on the west by the Mississippi river, beyond which stretched a vast unexplored territory claimed by the Spanish king. On the south was the Spanish colony of Florida, of which the northern boundary was in dispute, but between which and the settlements in Georgia stretched an uninhabited region containing vast swamps. The northern boundary also was in dispute for long distances; the boundary between Maine and the Dominion of Canada was a fertile source of contention; as a result of the fact that the water line through the St. Lawrence river and the Great Lakes was undefined, some of the islands in those waters were claimed by both the United States and Great Britain; and the discovery that the Mississippi river did not extend as far north as the Lake of the Woods revealed a gap in the boundary line of the Northwest. It was not until more than fifty years later by the Ashburton treaty, that the boundary of Maine was fully determined and the boundary through Lake Superior and thence to the Lake of the Woods agreed upon.

The gross area of the United States in 1790 was 820,377 square miles, but the settled area was only 239,935 square miles, or about 29 per cent of the total. The thickly populated areas were along the seaboard and in the valleys of the larger rivers. Western New York was a wilderness; rude frontier forts occupied the present sites of Oswego and Utica; and Binghamton and Elmira were outposts of civilization, the former having been settled in 1787 and the latter in 1788. Much of western Pennsylvania, also, was a wilderness.

At the time of the Declaration of Independence only 6 of the 13 American states, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland had definite boundaries. Each of the others laid claim, on the strength of early and often very conflicting grants of territory, to large and ill-defined areas in the vast unexplored region west of the Appalachian mountains.

The ownership of these western lands by individual states was opposed by those states which did not share in their possession, mainly on the ground that the resources of the General Government, to which all contributed, should not be taxed for the protection and development of this region, while its advantages would inure to the benefit of but a favored few. On this ground several of the states refused to ratify the Constitution until this matter had been settled by the cession of these tracts to the General Government.

Moved by these arguments, as well as by the consideration of the conflicting character of the claims, which must inevitably lead to trouble among the states, Congress passed, on October 30, 1779, the following act:

Whereas the appropriation of the vacant lands by the several states during the present war will, in the opinion of Congress, be attended with great mischiefs. Therefore,

Resolved, That it be earnestly recommended to the state of Virginia to reconsider their late act of assembly for opening their land office; and it be recommended to the said state, and all other states similarly circumstanced, to forbear settling or issuing warrants for unappropriated lands, or granting the same during the continuance of the present war. (1)[Page: 19]

By 1790 Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Virginia had ceded to the Federal Government all right and title to lands claimed by them in the Northwest Territory, with the exception of what was known as the "Connecticut Reserve;" North Carolina and South Carolina had yielded up their claims to territory extending to the Mississippi; and Maine, Vermont, and Kentucky were sufficiently distinct to be reported separately at the First Census. Georgia still held out, but Georgia's western territory was practically a wilderness, the enumerated area being merely that part of the present state which lies along the seacoast.

In 1790 the claim of the Federal Government to ownership of the vast areas between the Appalachian mountains and the Mississippi river was still subject, to some extent, to the rights of the Indians; but such rights had never been seriously regarded in the past, and in fact subsequently proved of little consequence in the settlement of the territory.

The greatest length of the Northwest Territory was about 900 miles, and its greatest breadth, approximately 700. It was bounded on the east by Pennsylvania, on the southeast by the Ohio river, and on the north and west by the international boundary. By contemporary writers it was estimated to contain 220-,000,000 acres of land surface. This land, with the exception of a few tracts, was held by the Federal Government, to be sold for the discharge of the national debt. One exception was the narrow strip known as the "Connecticut Reserve, " bordering on Lake Erie and stretching 120 miles west of the western boundary of Pennsylvania. This tract belonged to the state of Connecticut. Title to about one-sixth of it was given to citizens of Connecticut who had lost property in the Revolution, and the remainder was sold by the state, in 1795-96, to the Connecticut land Company, for $1,200,000 the proceeds being used for the support of schools and colleges in that state. It was not until the year 1800 that Connecticut relinquished jurisdiction over this region in favor of the Federal Government.

By an act of Congress passed on the 13th of July, 1787, the Northwest Territory was erected, for the purposes of temporary government into one district subject, however, to a division when circumstances should make it expedient. The fifth article of this act provided that there should be formed in the territory not less than 3 nor more than 5 states. Under its terms tentative state boundaries appear to have been constructed for the maximum number, which are shown upon contemporary maps as First State, Second State, etc. The First State roughly coincided with the present state of Ohio, the Second with a part of the present state of Indiana, the Third with a part of Illinois, the Fourth with a part of Michigan, and the Fifth with more than the present state of Wisconsin. In 1790, therefore, the foundations of 5 great states may be said to have been laid.

Beginning on the meridian line which forms the western boundary of Pennsylvania, seven ranges of townships had been surveyed and laid off by order of Congress. In a portion of the territory the Indian title had been extinguished and 4 counties had been laid off by June, 1790_Washington, erected on July 26, 1788; Hamilton, January 2, 1790; St. Clair, April 27, 1790; and Knox, June 20, 1790. Of these, Washington and Hamilton counties were located in the present state of Ohio, Knox county in Indiana (north of Vincennes), and St. Clair county in Illinois.

The Northwest Territory contained but a few thousand inhabitants, nearly all of whom were in the fertile valley of the Ohio. Bands of marauding savages contested the advance of settlers and made the life of the pioneers hazardous and often tragic. Cincinnati was settled in 1780 and Marietta in 1788; but for years Cincinnati was only a garrison, and the first white child was not born there until 1790. The westernmost settlement on the Ohio was at Louisville. All of the Great Lake ports were in the hands of the British. Across the mountains, south of the Ohio, the only considerable settlements were in Kentucky and western Tennessee, whither settlers had been led by Daniel Boone and other hardy hunters, to make homes for themselves in the fertile blue grass regions. Only about one-twentieth of the people of the country lived west of the crest of the Appalachian mountains. The western country was so vast, and the facilities for transportation and communication so meager, that Jefferson predicted it would be a thousand years before the country as far west as the Mississippi would be thickly settled.

Local Organization

The states differed widely in local government, and hence in the geographic subdivision of their counties. In New England the county was a corporation which existed for judicial rather than for political purposes. The political unit was the town, which received its charter from the state legislature, elected its own officers, and managed its local affairs in its own way.

In the Middle states_ New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, the county was of much greater importance than in New England; on the other hand, the subdivision of the county called the township (except in Delaware, where it is called the hundred), was of less importance than the New England town. In New York the township was created by the county board; in New Jersey, by the state legislature; in Pennsylvania, by the county court of quarter sessions: in Delaware there appears not to have been any definite and systematic subdivision of the counties. New York adjoined New England, and a large part of the population of the state were persons who had migrated from that section, and naturally had carried with them the idea of the town system of local government; consequently, in 1790, the township limits in New York were better defined than those in any other state outside of New England, with the possible exception of New Jersey, the only Middle state in which the township was created by the state. In Pennsylvania the township, as a geographic area, was less important than in New York. The principal maps of Pennsylvania at the period under consideration show the location of mountains and rivers in detail, the names of counties, and the names of the more prominent towns and cities but do not define the township boundaries. Population was increasing and extending with great rapidity, existing townships were being subdivided and new ones were being created. Under these conditions the boundaries of the townships in the more thinly settled portions were very unstable.

In the Southern states the county was the political unit, fulfilling all the functions of both the county and town in New England. Subdivision into townships was made for administrative purposes only; (1)[Page: 20] in some instances these subdivisions corresponded to the election precincts of the present day.

Footnote (1) Page: 19

(1) Henry Gannett, United States Geological Survey, "Boundaries of the United States," third edition, page 30.

Footnote (1) Page: 20

(1) In most of the county-system states the local subdivisions, by whatever name known, are created by the county authorities. They are but skeletons and exist only for convenience as districts for holding elections, for fixing the jurisdiction of the justice of the peace, or for determining the militia-company organization. Justices of the peace and constables are found in these districts, but the districts are in no sense political organs. (Hinsdale: The American Government, page 404.)


Website: The History
Article Name: Part II The United States In 1790 : Boundaries and Area
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:  "A Century of Population Growth-From the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth 1790-1900."
Department of Commerce and Labor Bureau of the Census.
Publisher: Washington Government Printing Office-1909
Time & Date Stamp: