Season 1, Episode 11 - The Yankee Diaspora: The North-Mid-Old-West

Beginning in the late 1780s, Yankees really start breaking into relatively new lands. West of the original 13 states and north of the Ohio River laid the newly-established Northwest Territory, consisting basically of every western state that touches a Great Lake.

Up first on this trek: Ohio

P.S. Ruth clearly thinks that nothing burned down in this episode. Can any eagle-eared listeners prove her wrong?



L: You’re listening to Episode 11 of Migration Nation with Lyman Stone and Brian Hudson, a Podcast about the history of migration in America. B: Lyman’s an economist and I’m a social studies teacher. For this and the next 2 episodes, we’re going to continue exploring the migrations of Yankees into the Midwest. L: That means that for this episode we’ll be talking about the largest city in the midwest, by which of course we mean Kaskaskia, Illinois. B: And of course we’ll talk about other major metropolitan hubs like Vincennes, Marietta, Chillicothe, and Zanesville. Those are the big midwestern cities, right? L: I mean, it sounds right to me. I think those are the biggies? B: We’ll also talk about wars with Native americans, the accidental slavery ban in the Northwest Ordinance, and, in keeping with a theme, something in the episode will be burnt to the ground. So buckle up. This episode will cover a lot!


L: If you looked at the midwest in 1790, it would look quite different than it does today. The largest hubs of European settlement were in southern Illinois, where the town of Kaskaskia had 1,000 or more residents. Not far up the Mississippi River, the small village of St. Louis had 400 residents, mostly French, with a fair number of African and native American slaves, all subject to the Spanish crown. On the border of Indiana and Illinois, you’d find another town called Vincennes with about 300 residents. These three villages made up probably half the midwestern pre-urban population. B: And of those three, only 1 remains today as a major city, St. Louis. L: Right. The reason for that is simple. When the United States was founded, it gained the midwest from Britain. Britain had gained the area from France after an earlier war. The original settlers were French, and the towns were largely French-dominated. But the British governed the whole area from Detroit, which I didn’t mention, but which probably had about 900 to a thousand residents, so almost equal to Kaskaskia. B: Okay, but how does that explain why St. Louis is large today? L: Well when Americans took over administration of the midwest, they set up new hubs for governance, mostly in the eastern parts of the area, rather than the river-ports that the French had preferred. French settlers had founded towns along the major rivers that could be reached from their hub in New Orleans. British rule had made Kaskaskia a backwater inaccessible from the governance hub of Detroit, but had also prevented further settlement to compete with it. But American rule created new hubs in the east, while opening the gates to new settlement. B: Okay, but that still… L: Right, hold on! St. Louis became a Spanish holding after 1763, then French again briefly, before being returned to the United States. But no matter who held it, St. Louis was always the administrative seat for all the areas north and west of it. B: Oh, that makes sense. L: Yeah; because it maintained political pre-eminence, it was able to hang onto its early urban establishment and grow rapidly into a major city. But because Kaskaskia and Vincennes became political backwaters, they declined. Today, Kaskaskia has a grand total of 14 residents, while Vincennes has a more respectable 18,000. B: So then the land that Yankee migrants were entering, in Ohio and Indiana at first, was largely devoid of European settlement, while the major urban centers of the region, like Kaskaskia and Detroit, were on the fringes, their locations determined by access to colonial headquarters. L: Right. Which means that when Americans arrived, they got to found brand-spankin’-new cities. The first new midwestern city is called Marietta. Founded in the late 1780s, it had probably 200 people in 1790. It was on the Ohio River, on the border of West Virginia and Ohio; of course West Virginia was part of Virginia at the time. B: Marietta? I’m… not familiar with that city. L: I’m not surprised! Today it has under 14,000 residents. But at the time, people thought it was going to be the big western city. George Washington himself said, quote, “No colony in America was ever settled under such favorable auspices as that which has just commenced at the Muskingum...If I was a young man, just preparing to begin the world, or if advanced in life and had a family to make provision for, I know of no country where I should rather fix my habitation.” B: Um, wow. Okay. So Marietta was gonna be a big deal. But hold on, I think you’re getting ahead of yourself. Before we can talk about these settlements, we need to explain the Northwest Ordinance. L: Sorry, I just get excited!


L: So the Northwest Ordinance, then. I think this one is in your wheel house. B: Sure thing! The Congress of the Articles of Confederation established a law in 1784 called the Land Act of 1784, very creative I know, which set up some basic rules for the distribution of the newly-acquired Western lands, won from Britain in the Treaty of Paris that ended the War of Independence. This law gave lots of rights to private purchasers, but also restricted a lot of independent and free settlement, and didn’t provide much in the way of an outline of government. L: So this isn’t the classic Northwest Ordinance, with its schools and precise townships and stuff like that? B: No, this is pretty much just an order that the land be surveyed and garrisoned. But that doesn’t go so well. Everybody had hoped land sales would help reduce the national debt, but within a few years the surveyors come back and say, sorry, not much land is selling because we can’t survey much land because the natives keep attacking us, and the army isn’t up to the task of protecting us. Remember, this is in 1786 or so, 5 years before St. Clair’s Defeat, when a native confederacy will wipe out basically the entire mobile strength of the U.S. army in one battle. L: Okay, so then this whole bit about natives harassing the surveyors sounds pretty plausible. B: Sure. Anyways, Congress wanted a solution. Plus, they got word that the troops deployed on the border spent most of their time hunting for illegal settlers and squatters, to boot’em back east. Americans were no fonder of Congressional laws against westward settlement than they were British crown proclamations of the same kind. L: I’m sure that the experience of Federal troops blocking your migrations, even deporting you, also contributed to some of that frontier rebelliousness we saw in the Bourbon episodes. B: That seems likely. And by 1787, the problem was big enough that Congress set to work on a solution, not least because a big real estate and settlement company called the Ohio Company was pressuring them to make a decision so that major land sales could commence. L: The original corporate lobbying! B: Actually, uh, yes. That’s exactly what it is. So a committee is formed to write new laws. And these guys who write this law, they deserve to be named and recognized, because, as we’ll show, the Northwest Ordinance is going to be one of the most important single laws in American history. L: I’m assuming it was written by Jefferson or something. B: See, I thought so too; I at least assumed I’d recognize the names. But no. They’re mostly forgotten guys, who have cool backstories and deserve recognition. Richard Henry Lee is the most famous: he’s the one who introduced the motion for Independence that led to the Declaration of Independence, and he presided over the Land Ordinances of 1784 and 1785, which ultimately failed. Nonetheless, his credibility and experience on the issue made him vital to the 1787 ordinance, and resulted in the survey methods pioneered in 1784 and 1785, that’s the gridded squares, being preserved. L: Okay, now I remember this: those gridded squares with each bit parceled off in an organized way, those were Jefferson’s idea, right? B: Yeah, but again, the 1784 and 1785 land ordinances did not succeed. Only the 1787 ordinance finally saw success, as it brought to bear a new set of tools, introduced by other committee members. First we have Nathan Dane, a Massachusetts lawyer who was the chief writer for the new ordinance. Keep that in mind: a Yankee wrote the Northwest Ordinance. Then comes Melancton Smith. He was a war veteran, but had also served as basically the political commissar for Dutchess County, New York, hunting down loyalists, compelling loyalty oaths to the Continental Congress, and generally making life miserable for Royalist sympathizers. L: So, he’s a thug for freedom. B: Yeah. Like liberty’s bruiser. But he was also a leading anti-Federalist. Shortly after the Northwest Ordinance is passed, he will head to his state convention and vigorously argue against the constitution being ratified. He was also an instrumental advocate pushing for the abolition of slavery in New York. But his commitment to a unified American nation shines through: he wrote the Northwest Ordinance, and wanted the whole nation to succeed, so he became the first anti-Federalist to break ranks and vote for the Constitution when New York finally voted on the question. After that, anti-Federalist moderates swung heavily towards the Constitution, and New York ratified. In other words, Melancton not only helped design a key law, he as the swing voter in the swing state for the constitution. L: Dang. So basically his personal decisions to compromise on behalf of the union can be given much of the credit for, well, there being a union. B: I think so. Next up we have Abraham Yates, a New York shoemaker and merchant, who chaired the patriotic committee of correspondence in Albany, New York before and during the Revolution. Yates himself isn’t vitally important, but his nephew Robert Yates was the author of the majority of the anti-Federalist papers, under the pseudonyms “Brutus” and “Sydney.” Abraham Yates was also probably an anti-Federalist, but eventually came around to the constitution. Rounding things out, we have Edward Carrington, a Virginia veteran who would later serve as foreman of the jury for Aaron Burr’s trial, and then finally John Kean, a South Carolina veteran who would end up dying young of a respiratory disease he contracted while a POW on a British warship. L: Wow. So 2 Virginians, 2 New Yorkers, a South Carolinian, and a Yankee. And they ended up working together to produce a law that guaranteed freedom of religion, established a system for territorial governance, set rules for the addition of new states, provided military force to secure Federal authority, and prohibited slavery. That’s remarkable. B: Actually, the slavery bit was an accident. L: Wait, what? B: Yeah. So we have a letter from Nathan Dane that’s worth reading in detail. I’ll just read a big chunk of it here. He says: “We met several times and at last agreed on some principles; at least Lee, Smith, & myself. We found ourselves rather pressed, the Ohio Company appeared to purchase a large tract of the federal lands, about 6 or 7 million of acres, and we wanted to abolish the old system and get a better one for the Government of the Country, and we finally found it necessary to adopt the best system we could get. All agreed finally to the inclosed except Abraham Yates. He appeared in this Case, as in most other not to understand the subject at all. I think the number of free Inhabitants 60,000, which are requisite for the admission of a new State into the Confederacy is too small, but having divided the whole territory into 3 States, this number appeared to me to be less important, each State in the Common Course of things must become important soon after it shall have that number of Inhabitants. The eastern State of the 3 will probably be the first, and more important than the rest---;and, will no doubt be settled cheifly by Eastern people, and there is, I think, full an equal chance of it's adopting Eastern politics.” Just to pause here: by “Eastern” he means more-or-less what we are calling “Yankee.” He’s saying he expects that Ohio will be mostly settled by Yankees, and adopt Yankee-friendly political priorities. Picking up again, he writes: “When I drew the ordinance which passed as I originally formed it, I had no idea the States would agree to the sixth article prohibiting Slavery, as only Massachusetts of the Eastern States was present, and therefore I omitted it in the draft. But finding the House favourably disposed on this subject, after we had completed the other parts I moved the article, which was agreed to without opposition.” L: Wow, that’s amazing. So he just slipped it in there and everybody was like, “Uh, sure, that sounds fine.” B: Pretty much. But the letter’s conclusion is really fun. Dane writes: “We are in a fair way to fix the terms of our Ohio sale. We have been upon it three days Steadily. The magnitude of the purchase makes us very cautious about the terms of it, and the security necessary to ensure the performance of them.” L: Wait so he’s the guy writing the law… and he refers to the sale he’s overseeing as “our sale”? That’s a little sketchy. B: Yeah, the Ohio Company got to review an earlier draft of the law and suggest revisions, got a special treasury land charter later in the year, and ultimately made out like a bandit under the new law. And, conveniently, they’re the ones who founded Marietta, Ohio, about which George Washington had such nice things to say. L: And that sketchy land deal, then, brings us back around to the top at hand: the settlement of Ohio.


L: As we said, Ohio’s first real city was Marietta. But Cincinnati isn’t far behind; remember Kentucky has had some settlement for over a decade at this point, so the Ohio River was pretty well mapped. B: But most Ohio settlers aren’t from Kentucky, right? L: Most come from further east: Pennsylvania, New York, but especially from New England. Ohio’s net annual inflows rose from a few hundred a year in the late 1780s, to a few thousand in the early 1790s, to over 10,000 net migrants a year in the 1800s, and over 20,000 net migrants a year in the 18-teens. It remained at about those levels until the 1840s, when it began to experience net outmigration. B: All totalled up, how much net migration do we see to Ohio? L: From 1788, when the Northwest Ordinance was fully in effect, until 1820, I estimate total net migration of about 400,000 people into Ohio, of whom probably half were Yankees, and another quarter from mid-Atlantic states like Pennsylvania, leave just a quarter or less coming from southern states. B: Yankees really were the dominant settlement culture there, then, as Nathan Dane predicted. L: Absolutely. And they found Jefferson’s township system very amenable to their politics and lifestyle, since it mimicked, in many ways, the township structure of their native New England, with its emphasis on community life, local democratic control, emphasis on education, and careful organization. But whereas New England’s social energies had largely been thrown into organized religious life, the final version of the Northwest Ordinance had stricken out all references to the establishment of religion, while eagerly praising the value of education. B: There’s that Yankee prioritization of public support for their social priorities cropping up I guess? L: Exactly. As one Boston merchant put it, he expected to see a time when “New England institutions [were] established from the lakes to the Pacific, and every six miles find a New England village, with its church spires pointing to the skies and the school by its side.” Another Yankee named Lyman Beecher wrote a popular sermon called “A Plea for the West” exhorting Yankees to do their divine task and move west in order to thwart some fantastical Catholic plot to make the western lands into a domain of the Pope. His sermon was so inflammatory that after he shared it, Protestants in Boston torched a nunnery. B: Um, that escalated quickly. L: Yeah, well, aside from having an amazingly cool name and being a distant relative of mine, Lyman Beecher was also, like many Americans of his day, stridently anti-Catholic. And this goes with the story about Dutch waterspouts last time: the Yankee move west has its optimistic side we like to remember, about the churches and schools, public cooperation, compromise for the national good, etc. But it also has a dark side: it’s a story of a people group, Yankees, who so thoroughly believed that they had a unique and exclusive claim on True American-ness that any threat to it, be it native, Catholic, Southern, or anything else, had to be expunged. The truth is, as much as slavery is the south’s original sin, nativist xenophobia goes back as long as there’s been a New England. French culture in Louisiana survived Southerners moving in. Dutch culture in Albany did not survive the Yankees. B: No surprise then to remind readers that after the Puritan immigration to New England in one big wave, very few immigrants went to New England for 100 years or more, when the Irish finally broke the nativist barriers of Boston and more-or-less captured the city, wrestling it away from Yankee control. But we’ll get to that later.


L: For now we’ll finish up by mentioning the course of Ohio’s population and cities. By 1800, Cincinnati is the largest urban center, with 850 people. Next up is the state capital of… Chillicothe. B: What? L: Yeah. Chillicothe, that bustling metropolis. Marietta had just 320 residents. But then in 1809, the capital moves to Zanesville, which makes sense given that, in 1810, Zanesville had over 1,100 residents compared to Chillicothe’s 750. But then again, by 1810, Cincinnati had 2,500 residents. In 1812 the capital moves back to Chillicothe, then in 1816, Columbus is founded, and becomes the capital. By 1820, Cincinnati has 9,600 people, Chillicothe has 2,400, Zanesville has 2,000, Marietta has about 750, Cleveland has been founded and has 600 residents, and the tiny state capital of Columbus has just 400 residents. B: Why’d they move the capital so many times? L: Chillicothe was near the Ohio River, beyond the Appalachian foothills, so made sense as an early capital. The move to Zanesville came as a result of the founders of that city building a road connecting to Marietta, and ultimately the National Road, which we haven’t discussed but will, passing through. The capital was moved there as part of a set of legislative compromises and budgetary negotiations. B: And it moved back because…? L: Because Ohio’s southern-tier population quite disliked going all the way to Zanesville, especially those along the Ohio, like in Cincinnati, the largest city. Eventually, the contest between these factions led to Columbus being founded, which was further from everybody, but very close to the geographic center of the state, meaning a good site to be centered around all future settlement. B: And given the eventual boom of cities like Cleveland and Toledo, this seems like some good planning. L: Yeah you know it really does; so, kudos to Ohio. Anyways, the upshot of all this is that Ohio’s American population rises from under 2,000 in 1780 to about 6,700 by 1790, to over 42,000 by 1800, 230,000 by 1810, and then 580,000 by 1820. B: That’s some seriously rapid growth, on par with the growth we saw during the slavery episodes when we talked about the South’s “internal expansion” in the 1820s and 1830s. L: Oh, it’s bigger than that. From 1820 to 1840, Ohio will add a million new residents. But that will have to wait until the next episode, as we shift our gaze westward to Indiana and Illinois.


B: Well, that’s it for the 11th episode of Migration Nation. Thanks for listening in, and we hope you’ll join us again next time as we continue our riveting exploration of our nation’s most exotic region, the Midwest. If you’d like more information about what we’re doing here, or would like to offer us your support, join us on the web at, where you can find transcripts of our episodes, bonus nerdy materials from Lyman and me, and even a look ahead at episodes we have in the works. L: For today’s episode, we wanted to point listeners to some of the resources we found particularly helpful. The Library of Congress has helpfully catalogued the proceedings of the Continental Congress, and you can view them online in high-resolution images for easy reading. They were a key source for our research on the Northwest Ordinance. B: Also, more on the business front, we’re well aware that we owe a few of our Kickstarter supporters hats and t-shirts. That will happen eventually, we’ve just been having trouble working out the logistics. Also, as we release this episode, Lyman is in Ukraine, so we may be a little more delayed in releasing our next episode than we’d like. L: We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the early years of American migration with us! This is Brian and Lyman hoping you’ll get on board with our now official signoff and slogan, let’s Make American Migrate Again!