The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820
burgundy border icon: Encountering the american west burgundy border burgundy border icon: Contested lands burgundy border icon: Peoples and migrations burgundy border icon: Empires and politics burgundy border icon: Western culture burgundy border icon: Constructing a western past burgundy border
Peoples and Migrations
-- Selling the West
-- Settler Migrations
-- Slavery and Indenture
Kentucky and territories cropped image
The opening of the trans-Appalachian West launched one of the greatest land rushes in American history. Contrary to legend, however, most of the land was won not by hardy pioneers seeking a family farmstead but by wealthy individuals and powerful companies who quickly claimed possession of all the prime areas.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the population of Kentucky had swelled to more than 200,000. Many came over the Wilderness Road, the route first laid out by Daniel Boone for the Transylvania Company. But a majority of settlers avoided overland the passage and made their way to Kentucky by traveling down the Ohio River.

Land speculation was a big business in Kentucky in the eighteenth century, and the potential for making a quick fortune was unprecedented in American history. The rush of land claims and settler migrations came so quickly that they overwhelmed the limited skills of many poorly-trained frontier surveyors, including Daniel Boone, and the unscrupulous practices of buyers and sellers soon left Kentucky landholding in a legal jumble.

One out of every five Kentucky pioneers was an African American, and nearly all were slaves. Many migrated with the initial groups of European American settlers coming from Virginia and North Carolina, where law and custom recognized slavery as an accepted institution.

Selling the West
Surveying transitBack to Top

One of the most famous of the western corporate land developers, the Transylvania Company, was formed to exploit and colonize the area now comprising much of Kentucky and Tennessee.

  • Surveyor's notes

  • Plat of six surveys lying between the Ohio River and Panther Creek
  • In March 1775, at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River in Tennessee, Richard Henderson and other members of the association secured a deed from members of the Cherokee tribe for all of the territory embraced by the Ohio, Kentucky, and Cumberland Rivers, a tract of more than twenty million acres. Although the land grant was voided, Virginia and North Carolina each awarded Henderson and his associates 200,000 acres in compensation.

    One consequence of the Transylvania venture was the spur it offered to immediate settlement of Kentucky. In 1774, James Harrod led the first group of permanent settlers into the heart of the Bluegrass and founded Harrodsburg. In 1775, Daniel Boone and a work party representing the Transylvania Company cut the path of the Wilderness Road across Cumberland Gap and laid out the frontier settlement of Boonesborough on the Kentucky River.

    Surveying lines laid out crudely from tree to rock to creek bed could easily be misinterpreted. "Shingling" or overlapping claims of ownership for the same piece of land became commonplace. When inaccurate or spurious land surveys were used to identify land as collateral for further purchases, the resulting layered claims and counterclaims could require years of court proceedings to unravel.

    Settler Migrations
    A journey in North AmericaBack to Top

    Boats used by settlers descending the Ohio varied in size and construction. The earliest settlers fashioned pirogues from hollowed out logs or loaded their possessions into wooden skiffs maneuvered with oars. Larger families and groups favored keelboats that could be ridden downcurrent and dragged or poled upstream. Flatboats, sometimes called "Kentucky boats" or "family boats," held the most passengers and cargo and could be 40 to 100 feet in length.

  • Mrs. Mary Dewees's journal from Philadelphia to Kentucky

  • The navigator : containing directions for navigating the Monongahela, Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers;
  • The best time to descend the Ohio was in the spring, when seasonal rains raised the river's water level and made it easier to avoid snags on buried tree limbs and sandbars. Many settlers carried Zadok Cramer's Navigator, a frequently updated guidebook that described each stretch of the Ohio and suggested the safest course of passage down the river.

    While European travelers described their western journeys in detail, relatively few migrant settlers kept diaries or wrote about their experiences. Many were illiterate, and those who could read and write were preoccupied with the daily dangers and physical demands of the journey. Once in Kentucky, settlers' attention had to turn to the immediate needs of securing a claim, building shelter, clearing land, and planting the first crop to carry a family through the winter.

    Slavery and Indenture
    Affidavit of Isaac ShelbyBack to Top

    African American slaves brought westward to Kentucky shared the rigors of mountain crossings and downriver journeys, and they labored to clear land, build houses, and plant crops. Slaves also played a role in defending forts and frontier stations during periods of hostile attack and accompanied militia and army units on punitive expeditions against the British and their Native American allies.

  • Hiring out agreement for an African American family

  • Emancipation deed from Robert Kearney Moore to Nanny
  • Slavery in the West was not a uniform practice. By the end of the 1780s, Kentucky counties of Virginia reported varying levels of households owning slaves, ranging from 15 per cent in western Nelson County to 31 per cent in the Bluegrass county of Fayette. Half of Kentucky slaveowner households had only one or two slaves each.

    Socializing and family formation among Kentucky slaves presented more difficulties than in the Deep South because slaves were thinly scattered and, except for those on the larger hemp and tobacco plantations, physically isolated from each other.

    Not all Kentuckians bound to service were African American. By 1790, six per cent of the Kentucky population was composed of white indentured servants. The indenture system held laborers to a restrictive covenant of employment for a fixed period, typically four to seven years.

    The prime candidates for indentured service in the West were those on the eastern seaboard facing poverty or escaping legal difficulties. Under law, indentured servants were entitled to adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, but many had masters who treated them little better than slaves.

    Encountering the First American West

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