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  • A Nation of Settlers:The Early American Republic and the Colonization of the Northwest Territory
  • Michael Witgen (bio)

The Jefferson-Hartley map, drawn to reflect the Land Ordinance of 1784, represented the settler colonial aspirations of the United States (Figure I). The map was produced by Thomas Jefferson as part of his work on a series of congressional committees tasked with creating a system of government for lands from the Appalachian Mountains west to the Mississippi River valley. The ordinance of 1784 was revised into the Northwest Ordinance, the legal mechanism designed by the federal government to transform Native homelands in the newly organized Northwest Territory into the public domain of the United States.1 The map, in effect, performs the ideological work imagined by the ordinances. It erases the presence of Native peoples and inscribes indigenous land with new meaning, as nascent states poised to enter the union on an equal footing with the original thirteen.

This vision for the western expansion of the United States hinged on a political imaginary that understood North America as "the New World." This was the New World envisioned by John Locke, who wrote in his Second Treatise of Government that "in the beginning all the World was America."2 Locke, like many of his contemporaries, understood Native peoples in North America to be living in a "state of nature," which he described as a universal commons without any organized system of governance. "Labour, [End Page 391] in the Beginning," he wrote, "gave a Right of Property."3 Native peoples, he imagined, had failed to exercise this right. They were stuck as if at the beginning of time, living as a primitive version of humanity. From this perspective Native peoples had not cultivated the land because indigenous territories in North America were not organized around any private property regime discernable to the peoples of European empire.4 Accordingly, Locke asserted that Native peoples had not established "dominion" or possession over their homelands and therefore had not entered into a social compact establishing a legitimate government and civil society.

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Figure I.

Jefferson-Hartley map, 1784.

Courtesy, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Conceptualizing North America as the New World, European empires regarded the continent as unsettled land, which allowed them to claim these lands by right of discovery. The Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution granted the Northwest Territory to the United States. Imagining this space not as Native North America but rather as an unsettled [End Page 392] wilderness, the United States set out to transform Native homelands into American homesteads. Under the terms of the Northwest Ordinance, with the immigration of five thousand free white men, a settlement could be organized as a federal territory, with an appointed governor and judiciary and an elected legislative council. With sixty thousand white inhabitants, a territory could draft a state constitution and petition the republic for admission to the union. The explicit goal of the Northwest Ordinance was to establish the civil society of the American Republic in the region.5 The land law represented a social contract between the federal government and white settlers willing to move west to claim what was assumed to be wilderness for the republic. They would not be colonial subjects; rather, they would be citizens of the United States.

Jefferson's map reflected this ideology and its assumption that North America and the Northwest Territory existed in a "state of nature."6 In colonial regimes an exogenous power establishes its authority over a subordinated population to extract wealth and resources from the colonized territory. Accordingly, colonialism requires an ongoing political relationship rooted in the structural inequality between the colonizer and the colonized. Settler colonialism, in contrast, seeks an end or completion of the colonial project via the elimination of the indigenous population and its replacement by a settler population. This was the outcome projected by the Jefferson-Hartley map. The colonial project of the United States in North America, conceptualized as an experiment in self-government, would come to an end with the elimination of the uncivilized Indigenous population and the successful creation of the settler state...

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pp. 391-398
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