The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820
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Empires and Politics
-- Campaigns and Conquests
-- Crafting Statehood
-- Imperial Conspiracies
-- Political Ambitions
-- Western Commerce
-- Western Law
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From the time of the first French and Spanish expeditions into the American interior in the seventeenth century, the trans-Appalachian West was an arena of continuing conflict. Western territory was crucial to continuing international struggles for control of waterways, natural resources, and areas for settlement.

As France moved south from Canada through the Great Lakes, as Spain pushed northward along the Mississippi River and across the Great Plains, and as Britain and its colonies moved inland from the Atlantic seaboard, the West was repeatedly enveloped in global geopolitical warfare.

The arrival of large numbers of settlers from the eastern seaboard created a new political order in the trans-Appalachian territory. American nationalism and western regionalism soon combined to produce strong pressures for Kentucky statehood. On June 1, 1792, Kentucky was admitted as the fifteenth state of the Union and became the first state west of the Appalachians.

Campaigns and Conquests
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For those living in the Ohio River Valley, recurring hostilities were marked by a succession of strikes into enemy territory, whether invading force considered the enemy to be the British empire, tribes of Native Americans, or settler outposts in the Bluegrass region.

  • An historical account of the expedition against the Ohio Indians

  • A view of Colonel Johnson's engagement with savages (commanded by Tecumseh) near the Moravian town, October 5, 1812
  • Western wars followed a cyclical pattern and were frequently as brief as they were bloody. Campaigns opened with the mustering of military troops and local militias, often in the spring, followed by a forced march against the enemy, a fixed battle or series of skirmishes, and retreat or withdrawal, invariably accompanied by the burning of enemy villages, houses, and crops.

    From Bouquet's expedition into the Ohio country of 1764, through Clark's attack on Vincennes in 1779, to the Kentuckians' defeat at Blue Licks of 1782, St. Clair's defeat of 1791, and Fallen Timbers in 1794, the cycle of conflict appeared irresolvable. Only after Harrison's victory over the British and Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 was it possible to foresee the end of warfare east of the Mississippi.

    The victors of the Thames returned home to write flattering narratives of their exploits and claim the political power made possible by enlarged public reputations. Native Americans were left without their ancestral land and with no written accounts in their own languages to document the experience of dispossession.

    Crafting Statehood
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    In 1776 Kentucky became a separate county of Virginia, and in 1792 it was admitted to the federal Union. The fifteen years between legal recognition by Virginia and statehood were clouded by complex maneuvers and alliances and struggles between partisans of America's nascent political party system.

  • Letter from James Madison to George Nicholas

  • Slavery inconsistent with justice and good policy : proved by a speech, delivered in the convention, held at Danville, Kentucky
  • Kentucky became a county just as the first waves of settlers were making their way over the Cumberland Gap and down the Ohio River. At the time of the first federal census in 1790, Kentucky already had more than 73,000 residents, more than 12,000 of them slaves.

    The great distance between Kentucky and the eastern seaboard and continuing fears of attacks by Native Americans encouraged Kentuckians to feel that Virginia was not sufficiently attentive to the needs of the West. A separation movement grew in strength, and it led to nine successive constitutional relations with Spain, which controlled all commerce on the Mississippi south to the port of New Orleans.

    In the end, slavery proved to be the most deeply divisive issue. Slavery was legal in Kentucky so long as it remained governed by the laws of Virginia, but anti-slavery activists like Presbyterian clergyman David Rice argued that it should not be retained in a new state. Pressing just as adamantly for maintaining slavery were powerful figures such as George Nicholas and John Breckinridge. The forces of slavery won the constitutional contest, with results that would leave Kentucky divided along lines of race, class, and religious belief.

    Imperial Conspiracies
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    In 1798, the Federalist-dominated Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts granting the President power to imprison or deport aliens suspected of subversive acts and to imprison Americans speaking out against the government, Congress, or President. Jeffersonian Republicans responded with the Kentucky Resolutions adopted by the Kentucky legislature in November 1798. Written by Jefferson himself, these resolutions declared that the Constitution had established nothing more than a compact among states and that states had the right to declare void, or nullify, any federal legislation that exceeded constitutional limits on central power.

  • Circular containing questions concerning the Burr Conspiracy

  • The report of the Select committee
  • General James Wilkinson, a veteran of Revolutionary and frontier battles who had settled in Kentucky, was one of the strong voices in opposition to the federal Constitution. In 1787, he had navigated a boatload of goods to New Orleans and secured from Spanish authorities a monopoly on all American trade on the Mississippi. Taking advantage of the charged atmosphere surrounding the Alien and Sedition Acts, Wilkinson sought a grant of land from the Spanish to establish a colony and secured a monopoly on emigration to the land. Wilkinson's political enemies fastened on these and other rumored schemes to charge that Wilkinson was involved in a "Spanish conspiracy" evidenced by traitorous involvement with a foreign power and attempts to separate Kentucky from the United States. Once Kentucky was successfully admitted to the Union in 1792, the appeal of Wilkinson's schemes dissipated.

    Only a few years later, however, Wilkinson became involved in another international intrigue, the Burr conspiracy. In 1804, U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr privately offered the British minister in Washington his support in separating the western territories from the United States. The next year, after his term of office had ended, Burr traveled west to Kentucky and New Orleans, securing men and equipment for his plan and enlisting the aid of western leaders, among them James Wilkinson.

    Burr's hopes for a western empire collapsed when Wilkinson withdrew from the plot and released the text of an incriminating coded letter he had received from Burr. Burr was tried for treason but acquitted by Chief Justice John Marshall because the government could not produce two sworn witnesses to Burr's acts as required by the Constitution.

    Political Ambitions
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    Political careers in the trans-Appalachian West were shaped by a combination of influences including family lineage, land holdings, social and business alliances, and military reputation. Early in the period of settlement and statehood, power in Kentucky devolved upon a relatively small elite dominated by names such as Shelby, Adair, Breckinridge, Brown, and Henderson.

  • The history of Kentucky : including an account of the discovery, settlement, progressive improvement, political and military events, and present state of the country

  • To the citizens of Fayette County. To the poor and indigent citizens of Fayette (on back)
  • Into this group came an aspiring young attorney, Henry Clay, who was born in Virginia and in 1799 married Lucretia Hart, youngest daughter of Thomas Hart, a wealthy and influential Lexington businessman and landholder. Quickly gaining entry to Kentucky's most influential circles, Clay became widely known for his legal skills and was retained to defend Aaron Burr against charges of treason in Kentucky courts. In 1811, he was elected to Congress and chosen Speaker of the House on his first day of service. He subsequently served twenty years as one of the most powerful members of the U.S. Senate.

    Clay's career was not without controversy, including a duel fought with a bitterly partisan rival, Humphrey Marshall. Clay was also shadowed by his difficult relationship to Masonry. The Masonic order was at the height of its prominence and proud to point to a roster of members that had included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and others of the Revolutionary generation.

    For the young Henry Clay, Masonic membership was an important avenue to social and political power, and he was glad to accept appointment as Master of Lexington Lodge No. 1 and Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky. With the founding of the Anti-Masonic Party in the late 1820s, however, the tide of public opinion turned, and Clay was among those who broke publicly with Masonry and attacked it for wielding a dangerous, hidden influence in American political affairs.

    Western Commerce
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    With access to the Ohio River and astride the Wilderness Road bringing settlers westward, Kentucky was well positioned for commercial success. Agriculture became the economic mainstay of the area, and by the late 1780s burley tobacco was the primary cash crop.

  • Letter from James Wilkinson and Peyton Short to Isaac Shelby

  • Day book and ledger containing a record of salt sales and barters
  • Kentucky was also a leading producer of the nation's supply of hemp, which was used to manufacture rope and other fiber products such as bag cloth. By the early nineteenth century, Kentucky industries included tobacco processing houses and ropewalks as well as gristmills, sawmills, ironworks, meatpacking plants, and glassworks.

    One Kentucky staple crop that was initially difficult to transport was corn. By the mid-1780s, however, a number of Kentucky distillers including Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, and Jacob Beam had developed a new variety of corn-based whiskey that acquired the name bourbon from one of its principal counties of origin. Thereafter, Kentucky's corn crop could be converted from hulled kernels into kegged liquor and shipped to markets in the eastern United States or down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

    Kentucky's early experience with banking was less successful. The War of 1812 spurred economic prosperity, but once peace returned financial difficulties threatened many with ruin. The state responded in 1818 by chartering a number of new banks that were authorized to issue their own currency. These banks soon collapsed, and the state legislature passed measures for the relief of the banks' creditors.

    These measures were declared unconstitutional by a state court, and the electorate became deeply divided between pro-relief and anti-relief factions. Political debates erupted over the proper role of banks, a struggle that moved to the national stage in the 1830s with President Andrew Jackson's attack on the Bank of the United States.

    Western Law
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    Kentucky inherited its common law system from Virginia, the state of which it was a part until 1792. The opening of the trans-Appalachian West created a vast field of activity in the region for local, state, and federal courts and the attorneys and judges who built their careers on legal practice.

  • The confession of Jereboam O. Beauchamp

  • Commissioner's report for the allotment of Lydia Blanks' dower
  • The law was involved in every transaction of consequence to the new society in the West, from the purchase and sale of land to the formation of corporations, operation of businesses, prosecution of crime, conveyance of dowries, and settling of estates.

    Legal documents provide a unique perspective on the workings of the western social order. This is especially true of legal records related to slavery, since court proceedings and other legal documents preserve some of the few surviving facts about individual slaves of the period.

    Slaves were considered an important and valuable form of property, and they were thus included in court proceedings as subjects in legal contests, sales, inheritances and estates, and marriage portions and dowers. As with other forms of property, slaves could be mortgaged or used as security for payment of loans, and they were recoverable in a suit of law. Slaves could also be attached by government officers as assets for their owners' nonpayment of debts or taxes.

    Encountering the First American West

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