Unthinkable History: Encounters in Native North America

Michael Witgen

On April 8, 1788, a party of American settlers, employees of the Ohio Company of Associates, docked their flat-bottomed galley boat at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers in the newly organized Northwest Territory of the United States. This Territory included all of the land west of Pennsylvania, north of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi. It had been claimed originally by the French Empire, by right of discovery. It was then ceded by treaty to Great Britain at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, and then ceded to the United States in the 1783 Treaty of Paris that brought an end to the Revolutionary War. In 1787 the company purchased a little over nine hundred thousand acres of Ohio Valley land from the federal government and were under contract to survey, sell, and develop this land as private property. The Ohio Company settlers began their journey in December of 1787, in the state of Massachusetts. Traveling west they crossed the Appalachia and Allegheny mountains until they reached Sumerill’s Ferry, a small settlement on the Youghiogheny River roughly thirty miles from Fort Pitt. Here they passed the winter. To complete their journey the settlers built a boat, christened it The Mayflower, and descended a series of rivers until they reached the Ohio River, which they descended until they reached the Muskingum River where they planned to make their settlement.

Like the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, the men of the Ohio Company who disembarked from The Mayflower at the Muskingum River believed that they had arrived in a new world. That is, they imagined the Northwest Territory to be an unsettled wilderness. Similarly, they imagined their enterprise, the settlement they planned to build, to be part of a civilizing mission. They came to claim their land, and make their fortune, but they also came to bring civilization to a continent that remained in a state of nature. They were not the first settlers to undertake this mission. In fact, before the territory was organized the federal government deployed the army of the United States to prevent squatters from staking claims to Ohio lands that had yet to be surveyed. The soldier in charge of this detail informed his commanding officer, “While men who wish to act orderly and under good government anxiously await for arrangements being made, others of speculative and enterprising genius step forward and there is little doubt but most of the valuable spots will be seized … a few may be dislodged but they will soon become too numerous for this to be easily effected.” The soldier expressed concern about his ability to fulfill his mission, stopping the tide of illegal settlers, but he also expressed sympathy and understanding for the squatters, “tis hard to look tamely on and see people of all ranks acquire property, which is or ought to be equally in my power—This world or at least this new part of it, is in almost a state of nature.” This was the promise that America represented—the idea of free land, or at least unsettled land that could be improved and claimed as private property.[1]

This was the formula, the theoretical construct, that allowed the United States, and the European empires that proceeded the republic, to claim possession of the Northwest Territory. They simply insisted that Indigenous peoples who lived in the Ohio country and the Great Lakes lived in a state of nature. They had not improved their land. They had not refashioned the commons, in which they all lived, into individual parcels of land. They had not created homesteads, mixing their labor with the resources they all shared, thereby improving the land and removing it from the commons in order to make it into private property. As such, the homelands of Native peoples remained in a state of nature—an unsettled wilderness, which could be claimed by any civilized person, or polity, willing to improve the land and claim it for their own. Hence the rush to organize this territory under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Ordinance was a land law which granted the federal government, not states or individuals, the exclusive right to survey and sell western lands. Enforcing this law would make certain that the federal government profited from the development of new territories. It also made certain that these new settlements did not become independent or get absorbed by rival empires, but were incorporated into the republic as new states. The Northwest Territory was not, however, an unsettled wilderness. It was the homeland to a multitude of sovereign Indigenous nations. The United States ignored this reality because the republic, like the other colonial powers in North America—the British, French and Spanish Empires— simply refused to recognize Indigenous nations as polities in full possession of their natal territory.[2]

A map of the Northwest Territory
A map of the Northwest Territory. By Joseph Scott, 1795.

Much like the pilgrims who came to North America on the original Mayflower, the Ohio Company settlers immediately confronted the reality that they had not landed on the shores of an empty wilderness. “We arrived,” one settler wrote in a letter to his family, “most heartily congratulating each other upon the sight of our new country, and our yellow brethren, who, with the kindest embraces, received us on the banks of the Muskingum.” Their “yellow brethren,” people they thought of as Indians, greeted them “In great numbers,” the settler wrote, “men, women and children of different tribes. Numbers of their Chiefs, have returned to their towns, to inform the nations, of the arrival of their Brother Yankees, as they call us; and have since come back, bringing large quantities of furs.” The Indians wanted peace and were interested in trade the settler assured his family. He then noted, “This country, for fertility of soil, and pleasantness of situation, not only exceeds my expectations, but exceeds any part of America or Europe I ever was in.”[3]

This moment of encounter, captured in a letter home, explains a great deal about how Americans understood the colonial project they had embarked upon in volunteering to settle the Old Northwest. The Ohio Company settlers were greeted by Native peoples who awaited their arrival. Native people visited their camp on a daily basis seeking opportunities to trade. The settlers were not surprised by their presence. These Native people, Shawnee Indians, were not citizens of the republic and were understood to be an independent people. And yet The Ohio Company settlers insisted on seeing the Shawnee homeland as an unsettled wilderness. To them it was “our new country,” a territory they came to possess and settle after buying it from the United States. Accordingly, when The Mayflower arrived at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum, Jervis Cutler, the nineteen-year-old son of one of the company founders, grabbed his ax, leapt off the boat, and proceeded to chop down the first tree he encountered. He made the journey west to be a settler, which meant clearing land. The Muskingum River country, which flowed south from Lake Erie to the Ohio river, was a landscape distinguished by dense broadleaf forests, which included stands of maple, hickory, black walnut, sycamore, hemlock, cedar, beech, and buckeye trees, bordered by natural meadows along the river bottoms. Early settlers believed that these forested spaces produced the best land for growing crops. Consequently, men like Jervis Cutler began to clearcut the forests of the Ohio Valley as soon as they stepped off the boat.[4]

Jervis Cutler and the settlers of the Ohio Company imagined that they were bringing civilization to the Northwest Territory. They did not imagine that they were encountering Native North America. Instead, they confronted a state of nature, and they meant to subdue it for God and country. This meant chopping down trees and clearing land. Indians, whether there to welcome them or trade with them, were inconsequential. Like the trees, they would soon be gone because Indians, like the wilderness, existed in a state of nature. They were uncivilized and would disappear once the Ohio country was transformed from a wilderness into a landscape of family farms, towns, cities, and counties that would be formed into a new state and incorporated into the republic. This was the legal logic behind the Northwest Ordinance, and it was the essence of the colonial project that was the United States. Inviting citizens to tame an unsettled wilderness, which it claimed as public domain, the expansion of the republic into the western interior beyond the original thirteen states could be understood as the conquest of nature, rather than the stealing of a continent. Jervis was performing that conquest. In fact, he was engaged in a performative act that the historian Jean O’Brien has identified as “firsting.” Jervis wanted to be the first off the boat. He wanted to be the first to cut down a tree, making a clearing that would become the first homestead in the first town in the Ohio country. Jervis Cutler was doing the political and cultural work of performing civilization. Performing and documenting firsts was an important part of the ideological project of American settler colonialism. “Firsting” marked the beginning of history, it signaled the arrival of civilization and modernity in the form of the republic.[5]

: Arrival of Rufus Putnam and the forty-eight pioneers at the mouth of the Muskingum River at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, on April 7, 1788.
Arrival of Rufus Putnam and the forty-eight pioneers at the mouth of the Muskingum River at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, on April 7, 1788. This image is from the book by John T. Faris, On the Trail of the Pioneers, published in 1920.

For the peoples of the United States, established citizens and newly arriving immigrants, to imagine Native North America as anything other than an unsettled wilderness was simply impossible. To think of the continent as settled land, as a viable alternative to the United States would be “in the domain of the unthinkable.” That is, to imagine that the self-determination of indigenous peoples had resulted in the creation of permanent dominion over their North American homelands would have been what the historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot has described as “unthinkable history.” For the congressmen who wrote the Northwest Ordinance it was simply inconceivable to think about land in North America and imagine it as the inalienable land base of autonomous indigenous Nations. Such a history would have been unthinkable. On the other hand, the congressmen found it entirely plausible that the French Empire could claim this territory by right of discovery, and that this claim could be transferred to the republic through a series of treaties between rival colonial powers. This was plausible because European colonial powers and their American successor insisted on imagining North America as a land without history.[6]

The original claim of possession by right of discovery might have been akin to magical thinking, but the Northwest Ordinance provided the republic with a legal mechanism to make good on this claim. The Ordinance was designed to organize the Territory for political and economic development. It established the political authority of the federal government in newly formed western territories through the appointment of a Territorial governor, secretary, and three judges. It also stipulated that the Northwest Territory would be further divided into no less than three, and no more than five districts or states. Once the population reached five thousand free white males the new Territory would elect a general assembly that would govern in consultation with appointed officials. The Northwest Ordinance stipulated that “all states which may be formed therein, forever shall remain part of the confederacy of the United States.” When the population reached sixty thousand free inhabitants the Territory would be authorized to draft a state constitution and request admission to the Union on an equal footing with the original states. Significantly, all states created by the Northwest Ordinance would be free states, and all state constitutions must contain a fugitive slave law.

The Northwest Ordinance shifted the focus of western settlement away from the establishment of new, fully enfranchised sovereign states. Instead, the ordinance sought to establish an effective territorial government that could secure property rights, enforce the rule of law, and manage relations with Native peoples. Section Eight of the land law stipulated that the Governor “shall proceed from time to time as circumstances may require to lay out the parts of the district in which Indian titles shall have been extinguished, into counties and townships.” The Ordinance also guaranteed the right of inheritance for the estates of both residents and non-residents, asserted the right of habeas corpus, the right to a trial by jury, and ensured the sanctity of contracts, as well as freedom of religion. It also stipulated that all navigable waterways leading to the Mississippi and St. Lawrence Rivers “shall be common highways and forever free.”  In effect, the Northwest Ordinance was designed to facilitate the sale and settlement of land in the public domain under a legal regime recognizable by the United States. In creating the legal mechanism for the orderly transfer of Native land to white property holders, federal authorities hoped to attract a steady flow of immigrants onto western territory claimed by the United States.[7] 

In providing for the possible creation and settlement of up to five free states, the Northwest Ordinance provided a solution to the rapid expansion of slave power and slave states in the southwest. The ordinance designated the vast public domain of the trans-Appalachian west as a subsidized land base for white settlers. In exchange for this transfer of wealth to white settlers, the free states of the Northwest Territories would guarantee the property rights of white southerners. The fugitive slave law required in each new state constitution secured their right to hold enslaved black people as chattel property and to recover this property if enslaved individuals sought to secure freedom by moving to northern free states.

Native dispossession underpinned this system of property rights, land transfers, and the eventual extension of the full franchise to white men willing to move into the Northwest Territories. To underscore this fact let us turn to section eight of the Northwest Ordinance, which required federally appointed governors to “lay out” or convert Indian land into new counties and townships once Native title had been extinguished. This instruction assumed that Indigenous nations would willingly forfeit the title to their homelands. But it also took into account the possibility that Native peoples might resist their dispossession. Article three of the Ordinance, described as a “compact” between the republic and the settler/immigrants of the Northwest Territory, declared that “The utmost good faith should always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by congress.”  Thus, the pledge not to take and settle Native land without consent came with a vailed threat of state sponsored, violent dispossession. Like the U.S. constitution, also drafted in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance was a legal document designed to create and preserve a politically legitimate settlement on territory that was part of the public domain of the United States, but which remained unsettled from the perspective of the common law courts of the republic. In this way, the Northwest Ordinance provided a legal mechanism for reproducing the original thirteen states of the union in the west. In effect, the land law crafted by the republic represented a totalizing colonial project that would make the idea that sovereign Indigenous nations could have produced Native homelands that were permanent settlements—as opposed to unsettled wilderness—unthinkable.[8]    

The American Republic was founded as a nation of settlers struggling to colonize Native North America. This project began as an extension of the original European colonial project in the western hemisphere, imagined as the discovery of a New World. Both the original colonial scheme, and the one undertaken by the United States, imagined North America as unsettled wilderness and imagined colonization as a civilizing mission. Framed in this way the expansion of the republic could be imagined as a benign conquest of nature, when in fact it was an audacious colonial project—a grandiose scheme to steal a continent.


Michael Witgen is a professor in the Department of History and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. He is a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Witgen studies Indigenous and Early American history with a particular focus on the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi Valley


[1] Armstrong to Harmar, April 13, 1785, Harmar Papers II, 77, The Clements Library, University of Michigan.

[2] For North America as unsettled wilderness and claiming possession by right of discovery see Carole Pateman, “The Settler Contract,” in Carole Pateman and Charles Mills, eds., Contract & Domination, (2007), 35-105.

[3] Independent Chronicle, Boston MA, June 12, 1788.

[4] For the Ohio country before the formation of the Northwest Territory see Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690-1792, (2018), 15-17; for Jervis Cutler see David McCullough, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Setters Who Brought the American Ideal West, (2019), 43.

[5] For the concept of firsting see Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England, (2010), 6-7.

[6] For domain of the unthinkable, and unthinkable history see Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the past: Power and the Production of History, (1995).

[7] Northwest Ordinance, July 13, 1787, NA microfilm publications, m 332 Roll 9, National Archives; For a discussion of the land ordinance as a method of territorial expansion see Robert J. Berkhofer, “Jefferson, the Ordinance of 1784, and the Origins of the American Territorial System,” William and Mary Quarterly 29, No. 2, (April 1972: 231-262); Peter S. Onuf, Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance, (1992).

[8] Northwest Ordinance, July 13, 1787, NA microfilm publications, m 332 Roll 9, National Archives.