Southwest Territory

Southwest Territory Boundaries

       “ON the 25th of May, 1790, Congress passed a law for the government of the country south-west of the river Ohio. They declared that for the purposes of temporary government it should be one district, the inhabitants of which should enjoy all the privileges, benefits, and advantages set forth in the ordinance of the late Congress, made in July, 1787, for the government of the territory of the United States north-west of the river Ohio, except so far as otherwise provided for in the conditions expressed in the act of Congress of the present session for accepting the cession made by North Carolina. One of these conditions, as will be seen by recourse to the act, was that no regulations made or to be made by Congress shall tend to emancipate slaves.
       “To know precisely what this government was which was now extended over the whole of the ceded territory since called the State of Tennessee, recourse must be had to the ordinance itself, and to an act of Congress, amendatory of the ordinance, passed the 7th of August, 1789, which ordinance and act of Congress with the cession together with the cession act of North Carolina ...” ||

       When North Carolina ceded her western lands the United States, that vast tract became the only land located “Southwest of the River Ohio” that could become a federal territory. It was the North Carolina cession that left the tract surrounded by non-federal entities. To the east was North Carolina proper. To the north was Virginia; Kentucky was not created from Virginia lands until 1792. To west there was the Mississippi River|| and beyond was Spanish land. Lastly, to the south was Georgia, or at least Georgia’s western lands. The boundaries of the Territory of the United States, south of the river Ohio seem to be omitted from the 26 May 1790 Act which created that Territory. In his 1823 book, Judge John Haywood points out that “recourse must be had ... cession act of North Carolina ...” Looking further back, we see that Thomas Jefferson defines the boundaries of the territory in his 1791 report to President George Washington.

Act for Government of the Southwest Territory

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the territory of the United States, south of the river Ohio, for the purposes of temporary government, shall be one district; the inhabitants of which shall enjoy all the privi­leges, benefits and advantages, set forth in the Ordinance of the late Congress, for the government of the territory of the United States, north-west of the river Ohio; and the government of the said ter­ritory, South of the Ohio, shall be similar to that which is now exercised in the territory north-west of the Ohio; except so far as is otherwise provided in the conditions expressed in an Act of Congress of the present session, entitled, “An Act to accept a cession of the claims of the State of North Carol­ina, to a certain district of western territory.”
       Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the salaries of the Officers, which the President of the United States shall nominate, and with the advice and con­sent of the Senate, appoint by virtue of this Act, shall be the same as those, by law established, of similar Officers in the government north-west of the river Ohio. And the powers, duties, and emol­uments of a Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southern department, shall be united with those of the Governor.
Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg
Speaker of the House of Representatives.
John Adams,
Vice President of the United States, and
President of the Senate.
Approved May twenty sixth 1790
G. Washington
President of the United States

Thomas Jefferson to George Washington

Philadelphia, November 8, l791.
I have now the honor to enclose you a report on the lands of the United States within the Northwestern and Southwestern Territories, unclaimed either by Indians or by citizens of these States.
       In order to make the estimate of their quantity and situation, as desired by the Legislature, it appeared necessary, first, to delineate the Indian boundaries which circumscribe those territories, and then to present a statement of all claims of citizens within the same; from whence results the residuary unclaimed mass, whereon any land law the Legislature may think proper to pass nay operate immediately, and without obstruction.
       I have not presumed to decide on the merits of the several claims, nor, consequently, to investigate them minutely; this will only be proper, when such of them as may be thought doubtful if there should be any such, shall be taken up for final decision.
       I have the honor to be, with sentiments of the most perfect respect and attachment,
       Sir, your most obedient and most humble servant,
Th. Jefferson,

The PRESIDENT of the U. States.
       The Secretary of State, to whom was referred, by the President of the United States, the resolution of Congress, requesting the President “to cause an estimate to be laid before Congress, at their next session, of the quantity and situation of the lands not claimed by the Indians, nor anted to, nor claimed by, any citizens of the United States, within the territory ceded to the United States by the State of North Carolina, and within the territory of the United States, northwest of the River Ohio,” makes thereon the following report:
       The territory ceded by the State of North Carolina to the United States, by deed bearing date the 25th day of February, 1790, is bounded as follows, to wit: Beginning in the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina, that is to say, in the parallel of latitude 36½ degrees north from the equator on the extreme height of the Stone mountain, where the said boundary or parallel intersects it, and running thence along the said extreme height, to the place where Watauga river breaks through it; thence a direct course to the top of the Yellow mountain where Bright’s road crosses the same; thence along the ridge of the said mountain between the waters of Doe river and the waters of Rock creek, to the place where the road crosses the Iron mountain; from thence along the extreme height of said mountain to where Nolichucky river runs through the same; thence to the top of the Bald mountain; thence along the extreme height of the said mountain to the Painted rock on French Broad river; thence along the highest ridge of the said mountain to the place where it is called the Great Iron or Smoky mountain; thence along the extreme height of the said mountain to the place where it is called Unaka mountain, between the Indian towns of Cowee and Old Chota; thence along the main ridge of the said mountain to the southern boundary of the said State of North Carolina, that is to say, to the parallel of latitude 35 degrees north from the equator; thence, westwardly, along the said boundary or parallel to the middle it the River Mississippi; thence up the middle of the said river to where it is intersected the first mentioned parallel of 36½ degrees; thence along the said parallel to the beginning: which tract of country is a degree and a half of latitude from north to south, and about three hundred and sixty miles, in general, from east to west, as nearly as may be estimated from such maps as exist of that country …

       In addition to the calls of the ceded tract, the North Carolina cession act also had important certain provisions:
       “ ... the said Congress shall at the same time assume the government of the said ceded territory, which they shall execute in a manner similar to that which they support in the territory west of the Ohio; shall protect the inhabitants against enemies, and shall never bar or deprive them of any privileges which the people in the territory west of the Ohio enjoy: Provided always, That no regulations made or to be made by Congress, shall tend to emancipate slaves ... ”

1.  Haywood, John, Judge; The Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee from its Earliest Settlement up to the Year 1796 Including the Boundaries of the State, 1823. |Return|

2.  The Treaty of Paris, 1763, established the Mississipi River as the western limits of British colonial America. This in effect terminated claims of some British colonies of their rights under original charters to land running westward to the “south seas.”

The Treaty of Paris, Article VII (partial)
VII. In order to re­establish peace on solid and durable foundations, and to remove for ever all subject of dispute with regard to the limits of the British and French territories on the continent of America; it is agreed, that, for the future, the confines between the dominions of his Britannick Majesty and those of his Most Christian Majesty, in that part of the world, shall be fixed irrevocably by a line drawn along the middle of the River Mississippi, from its source to the river Iberville, and from thence, by a line drawn along the middle of this river, and the lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain to the sea; and for this purpose, the Most Christian King cedes in full right, and guaranties to his Britannick Majesty the river and port of the Mobile, and every thing which he possesses, or ought to possess, on the left side of the river Mississippi, except the town of New Orleans and the island in which it is situated, which shall remain to France, provided that the navigation of the river Mississippi shall be equally free, as well to the subjects of Great Britain as to those of France, in its whole breadth and length, from its source to the sea, and expressly that part which is between the said island of New Orleans and the right bank of that river, as well as the passage both in and out of its mouth: ...
Some Southwest Territory Research Sources:
National Archives Microfilm, M-471,
       State Department Territorial Papers: Territory Southwest of the River Ohio, 1790-1795. Roll 1. On the single roll of this microfilm series is reproduced the bound volume of papers of the Department of State relating to the Territory Southwest of the River Ohio. This volume is from the series “Papers and Records of the Territories” and is described by Van Tyne and Leland in Guide to the Archives at Washington, p. 45.
       “The territory was created by the Organic Act of 1790 and the cession of the claims of the North Carolina to a portion of its western land. The territory was terminated with the creation of Tennessee in 1796. Two documents at the beginning concern pre-Revolutionary land grants and loyalty to the British crown. The remainder relate to territorial business. These include appointments, commissions, organization of counties, licensing of Indian traders, and a census. Negotiations with Creek and Cherokee Indians are also described.”

Carter, Clarence Edwin, comp. & ed. The Territorial Papers of the United States. Volume IV: The Territory South of the River Ohio, 1790-1796 Washington: Government Printing Office,

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