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Thomas Jefferson - Ordinance of 1784

Thomas Jefferson acquired an interest in western exploration early in life. His father Peter was a surveyor, map maker, and land speculator on the Virginia frontier. Jefferson spent his childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the western edge of the Virginia Piedmont. Though he never physically ventured beyond the Virginia Blue Ridge, Jefferson had a life-long commitment to supporting western exploration and asserting American claims to western lands.

More than most of his contemporaries, Jefferson realized that the American West was not an empty wilderness, but a land crowded by conflicting nations and claims of sovereignty. Even before holding national office, Jefferson tried on several occasions to organize expeditions to the west. While president, Jefferson successfully acquired the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 and sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803–1806) on a mapping and scientific exploration up the Missouri River to the Pacific. He also sent other expeditions to find the headwaters of the Red, Arkansas, and Mississippi rivers and to gather scientific data and information on Native Americans.

In seeking to establish, what he called “an empire for liberty,” Jefferson influenced the country's policies toward Native Americans and the extension of slavery into the West. Despite a life-long interest in Native American culture, President Jefferson advocated policies that would dislocate Native Americans and their way of life. In 1784, Jefferson opposed the extension of slavery into the northwest territory, but he later supported its westward extension because he feared that any restriction of slavery could lead to a civil war and an end to the nation. At the end of his presidency, Jefferson looked forward to a United States that spread across the entire continent of North America.

Following the American Revolution one of history’s great land rushes began, as settlers poured over the mountains into Kentucky and the “Old Northwest,” the vast triangle of land between the Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

The Continental Congress sought to impose order on the process through diplomacy with the native tribes and legislation regulating the governance of the territory north and west of the Ohio River. The first such was the Land Ordinance of 1784, which among other things dictated the future division of the region into ten states and specified their boundaries.

As a member of Congress, Jefferson developed a plan for the creation of territories and new states that formed the basis of the Ordinance of 1784, which accepted the cession of most of Virginia's old Northwest to the federal government. His original plan envisioned fourteen states, which he named after Native American and historical sources. Jefferson, who helped write the Ordinance, proposed ten names, most now lost to history: Illinoia, Michigania, Saratoga, Washingon, Chersonesus, Sylvania, Assenisipia, Metropotamia, Polypotamia, and Pelisipia.)

Although most were not used, Michigania did evolve into Michigan and Illonia became Illinois, though not in the locations they were originally assigned. Most importantly the ordinance established the principle that new states would be admitted to the union on an equal basis with the older states.

The plan to create new states in the region was documented on just a few maps, including William McMurray’s United States (1784) and John Fitch’s Map of the North West Parts of the United States of America (1785). However the only map to both locate the borders of the proto-states and assign to them Jefferson’s proposed names was A Map of the United States of America, first engraved by Henry Pursell and published in Bailey’s Pocket Almanac for 1785.

The map differs substantially from both the Buell and McMurray maps, and its geographical prototype is uncertain. For the most part it reflects the national boundaries established by the Treaty of Paris, though it generously interprets the terms by extending the Mississippi and Lake of the Woods far to the northwest and the famous “height of land” north of Maine almost to the St. Lawrence. One clear deviation from the Treaty is to the south, where East and West Florida appear to be shown as belonging to the United States, though in reality they had been assigned to Spain.

The map presumed the cessions by New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia of their claims north and west of the Ohio-though in fact these were not accomplished until well after Pursell’s map first appeared in late 1784. By contrast North and South Carolina as well as Georgia are shown extending to the Mississippi. One other interesting feature is a note near the headwaters of the Missouri River, optimistically identifying the “Head of the Oregon which runs W. to the Pacific Ocean.”

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Page last modified: 19-10-2017 15:23:42 ZULU