A Vibrant Capitalist Republic


In the early nineteenth century, people poured into the territories west of the long-settled eastern seaboard. Among them were speculators seeking to buy cheap parcels from the federal government in anticipation of a rise in prices. The Ohio Country in the Northwest Territory appeared to offer the best prospects for many in the East, especially New Englanders. The result was “Ohio fever,” as thousands traveled there to reap the benefits of settling in this newly available territory (Figure).

An 1808 map shows what was then the western territory of the United States, lying between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.
Cartographer John Cary drew this map “exhibiting The Western Territory, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia &c” for his 1808 atlas; it depicted the huge western territory that fascinated settlers in the early nineteenth century.

The federal government oversaw the orderly transfer of public land to citizens at public auctions. The Land Law of 1796 applied to the territory of Ohio after it had been wrested from Indians. Under this law, the United States would sell a minimum parcel of 640 acres for $2 an acre. The Land Law of 1800 further encouraged land sales in the Northwest Territory by reducing the minimum parcel size by half and enabling sales on credit, with the goal of stimulating settlement by ordinary farmers. The government created land offices to handle these sales and established them in the West within easy reach of prospective landowners. They could thus purchase land directly from the government, at the price the government had set. Buyers were given low interest rates, with payments that could be spread over four years. Surveyors marked off the parcels in straight lines, creating a landscape of checkerboard squares.

The future looked bright for those who turned their gaze on the land in the West. Surveying, settling, and farming, turning the wilderness into a profitable commodity, gave purchasers a sense of progress. A uniquely American story of settling the land developed: hardy individuals wielding an axe cleared it, built a log cabin, and turned the frontier into a farm that paved the way for mills and towns (Figure).

A painting depicts a log cabin in the woods. A woman stands in the doorway of the house, surrounded by children. A man returns from fishing in the body of water beside the house, where a small boat is docked. Laundry hangs from the trees.
Thomas Cole, who painted Home in the Woods in 1847, was an American artist. Cole founded the Hudson River School, a style renowned for portrayals of landscapes and wilderness influenced by the emotional aesthetic known as romanticism. In what ways is this image realistic, and how is it idealized or romanticized?

A New Englander Heads West

A native of Vermont, Gershom Flagg was one of thousands of New Englanders who caught “Ohio fever.” In this letter to his brother, Azariah Flagg, dated August 3, 1817, he describes the hustle and bustle of the emerging commercial town of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati is an incorporated City. It contained in 1815, 1,100 buildings of different descriptions among which are above 20 of Stone 250 of brick & 800 of Wood. The population in 1815 was 6,500. There are about 60 Mercantile stores several of which are wholesale. Here are a great share of Mechanics of all kinds.
Here is one Woolen Factory four Cotton factories but not now in operation. A most stupendously large building of Stone is likewise erected immediately on the bank of the River for a steam Mill. It is nine stories high at the Waters edge & is 87 by 62 feet. It drives four pair of Stones besides various other Machinery as Wool carding &c &c. There is also a valuable Steam Saw Mill driving four saws also an inclined Wheel ox Saw Mill with two saws, one Glass Factory. The town is Rapidly increasing in Wealth & population. Here is a Branch of the United States Bank and three other banks & two Printing offices. The country around is rich. . . .
That you may all be prospered in the world is the anxious wish of your affectionate Brother

What caught Flagg’s attention? From your reading of this letter and study of the engraving below (Figure), what impression can you take away of Cincinnati in 1817?

An engraving presents a view of early nineteenth-century Cincinnati from across the Ohio River.
This engraving from A Topographical Description of the State of Ohio, Indiana Territory, and Louisiana (1812), by Jervis Cutler, presents a view of Cincinnati as it may have looked to Gershom Flagg.

Learn more about settlement of and immigration to the Northwest Territory by exploring the National Park Service’s Historic Resource Study related to the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. According to the guide’s maps, what lands were available for purchase?