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The Northwest Territory 1790-1800

The Revolutionary War was an economic disaster for the American Colonies.  Galloping inflation meant that a 25 cent item in 1775 cost $30.00 by 1782.  The men who served in the Continental Army were paid with worthless paper currency and land warrants for land that was far away and occupied by hostile Indians.  Men were unable to farm while serving in the Army and there was no work force available to replace them.  Most men returned home to their land deeply in debt.


            The Continental Congress, which had issued 200 million dollars in notes with nothing to back it up, was eventually forced to assume the states’ war debt and refinance the national debt at a 40 to 1 ratio.  That meant that if you had a government I.O.U. for 40 dollars they gave you a new I.O.U. for a buck! 


            The law required that property taxes be paid in hard money – the state governments would not take the paper currency they had issued.  The veterans were forced to sell their promissory notes and land warrants for a fraction of their value in order to raise hard money.


            Land speculators like John Symmes paid 15 cents an acre for land warrants.  Land he would later sell for $2.00 an acre…a profit margin that would bring tears to the eyes of an Exxon executive!


            Independence did not alter the fact that America was a society of upper and lower classes.  The wealth elite who ruled before the revolution wrote the new federal and state constitutions with voter and candidate requirements that insured that they would retain political power.  “We the People” meant people of their own class!


            Since no conflict of interest laws existed, the speculators who were fleecing the lower class were usually legislators or their cronies.


            A series of small tax rebellions, the best know being “Shays Rebellion” of 1786 eventually forced the federal government to honor some of the promises to its veterans by opening the Northwest Territory to settlement.


            At about the same time, the new federal government made an effort to bring order to the monetary system.  The new standard would be the U.S. dollar -- worth 100 cents (or pennies).  Coins would be minted in silver and copper with values of one dollar, 50 cents, 25 cents, 10 cents (dimes), ½ dimes, one cents, and ½ cents.  Unfortunately, the new U.S. mint did not get up and running until 1797 so the new states resumed the practice of minting their own coins to fill the gap.


            The smartest thing the government did was to give the new U.S. dollar the same silver content as a Spanish dollar so that they both had the same value.  A dollar was a dollar!  Since it was recognized that both the old and new money would be in circulation side-by-side for years to come, the shilling was rated at 8 shillings to a dollar or 12 ½ cents each.


            In the Northwest Territory, which was far removed from the mint and the newly created banks of the east, shillings and Spanish coins would remain in common usage well into the 1820’s.


            The land in the Northwest Territory, what is now Ohio and Indiana, was being surveyed into townships 6 miles square and subdivided into sections 1 mile square, creating 36 sections in each township.  Four sections in each township were set aside for the land warrants issued to the Revolutionary War veterans.  This surveying started in southwest Ohio and gradually moved west.


            The Ordinance of 1787 which created the Northwest Territory authorized the remaining land to be sold by the government for one dollar an acre.  This would have been a disaster for eastern land owners and speculators who had a lot of rocky land to sell for ten dollars an acre.  But Congress took care of their friends by requiring a minimum purchase of an entire section of 640 acres.  Six Hundred Forty Dollars ($640.00) was well beyond the means of the average citizen or newly arrived immigrant.  This insured that most of the land would end up in the hands of speculators who would then sub-divide the sections into more affordable plots which they sold for 2 dollars an acre or more.  One of these speculators was John Symmes who purchased, on credit, all the land between the Big and Little Miami Rivers from the Ohio River north to what is now Monroe.


            The Ordnance of 1787 created the position of Territorial Governor to rule over the territory.  Congress appointed General Arthur St. Clair governor, and with the help of two “Judges” appointed by General Arthur St. Clair, he would rule as a virtual dictator for most of the next 15 years.




            The labor shortage on the east coast was even greater in the Northwest Territory.  People came to the region to obtain their own land and farm it.  About the only able-bodied men who came west seeking to work for someone else were one step ahead of a Sheriff back east.


            As a general rule, men earned about 50 cents per day for unskilled work and twice that if you had a useful skill.


            In Cincinnati, Ohio: 

Unskilled laborer -- 50 cents per day with meals and room

Skilled laborer -- $1.00 per day with meals and room

Carpenter -- $1.00 per day with meals and room

Mason -- $1.00 per day with meals and room

Craftsman -- $1.00 per day with meals and room


Add 25 cents a day for skilled workers without meals and room.


Men clearing land – 50 cents per day

Wood cutters – 65 cents per cord

Pack horseman – 50 cents per day plus meals

Farm workers – 38 cents to 46 cents per day

Soldier -- $3.00 per month

Methodist Circuit Preacher -- $6.65 per month plus travel

Women spinning wool into yarn – 12½ cents per day

Teacher, teaching in their own home – 15 cents per student per week


            Again, I would really like to know what the “room and meals” consisted of, but so far that information has eluded me.




            By 1795 Cincinnati was the largest city in the territory, with a population over 1000.  It did not take long for newspapers to spring-up in which merchants could advertise their prices.  Good information is therefore available.



Tea -- $2.00 - $3.00

Brown sugar – 25 cents

Coffee – 75 cents

Maple sugar – 10 cents

Beef – 5 cents

Pickled bacon – 8 cents

Veal – 5 cents

Pickled ham – 8 cents

Mutton  -- 5 cents

Cheese – 10 cents

Pork – 4 cents

Butter – 14 cents

Venison – 4 cents

Eggs – 12½ cents per dozen

Fowl each:

Geese – 62 cents

Ducks – 25 cents

Turkeys – 5 cents

Hens – 12½ cents



Flour -- $4.00 per barrel

Whiskey – 50 cents per gallon

Cornmeal – 40 cents per 100 Wt.

Peach brandy – 80 cents per gallon

Tobacco – 11 cents per pound

Ohio wine – 60 cents per gallon



Cotton velvet cloth – 95 cents to $1.25 per yard

Gunpowder $1.50 per pound

Spanish cotton cloth – 43½ cents per yard

Lead – 15½ cents per 10 pounds

Coarse muslin cloth – 37½ cents to 62 cents per yard

Used muskets -- $10.00 each

Fine linen cloth -- $1.00 per yard

Axes -- $1.00 to $2.00 each

Calico cloth – 95 cents per yard

Sickles -- $1.00 each

Bonnet ribbon -- $1.00

Knives & forks -- $4.00 per set

Cotton stockings – 45 cents to $1.25

Shirts -- $2.00 each

Wool overcoats -- $8.00

Pins -- 25 cents per paper



Fine Kentucky saddle horse -- $130.00 to $140.00

Milk cows -- $10.00 to $12.00

Beef cattle -- $20.00

Yoke of oxen -- $80.00




            John Symmes, the land speculator, originally sold his uncleared land between the Miami Rivers for two dollars an acre.  But the price rose steadily as more settlers moved in.  Like a lot of entrepreneurs, Symmes mouth was bigger than his bankroll and he soon had trouble making his payments to the government.  This inspired him to sell land before it was surveyed, with the predictable result that he sometimes sold the same land to more than one person!  Normally this sort of thing would get a person sent to jail, but since Symmes was one of the two “Judges” appointed by General St. Clair to administer the territory – the fix was in!


            As a further complication, some land was all ready occupied by people who had moved in before the land was sold to Symmes.  These “squatters” thought they had legal rights, but they did not.  They would eventually be burned out by Army troops from Fort Washington.


            Within a decade, cleared land near Cincinnati would be valued at $20.00 per acre.




            Then, as now, farm prices fluctuated wildly from year to year:




Corn per bushel

12½ cents

25 cents

Oats per bushel

12½ cents

25 cents

Wheat per bushel

62½ cents

62½ cents

Pork per 100 Wt.



Beef per 100 Wt.



Wool – 33½ cents per pound



Well hackled flax – 25 cents pound



Clean, dry, hog bristles – 37 cents to 63 cents per pound depending on length




            With General Anthony Wayne’s victory at Fallen Timbers in 1795, the Indians were finally driven out of the Miami Valley for good and settlement rapidly increased in safety.


            Miami Valley farmers drove herds of hogs and cattle to markets in Philadelphia and Baltimore – a journey of ten weeks or more.  If you thought cowboys were tough, imagine walking behind a herd of pigs for 500 miles! 


One known record for cattle is:

Cost of cattle -- $20.00 each

Feed to market weight -- $45.00 each

Cost of drive to Philly -- $11.00 each

Price sold for -- $133.00 each

Profit -- $57.00 each




            The Territorial government was financed by a land tax of 55 cents per 100 acres.  The counties and townships could levy their own property taxes.


            In 1798 the Hamilton County Assessor appraised property at the following values for taxation:

            Single men without property -- $10.00

            Cleared land per acre -- $20.00

            Cattle per head -- $20.00

            Horses -- $75.00

            Stud horses -- $1,000.00

            Cabins -- $20.00

            Houses -- $600.00

            Grist and sawmills -- $600.00


            The tax rate was about 70 cents per 100 acres for cleared land.  When Warren County was established the tax rate was 50 cents per $100.00 evaluation for houses and lots, 30 cents for horses and 10 cents for cattle.




            With the chronic shortage of hard money, furs and skins were as good as cash.  The first lending library in the territory opened near Marietta with an annual fee of $2.50 payable in cash or coonskins.


            Miami Valley traders were paying the following prices:

Bear skins -- $3.00 to $5.00

Muskrat – 25 cents to 50 cents

Beaver -- $1.25 to $2.00

Mink – 50 cents

Otter -- $2.50 to $4.00

Wildcat – 50 cents

Wolf -- $1.00

Raccoon – 35 cents to 50 cents

Fox – 50 cents to 65 cents

Buckskins -- $1.00

Doeskins – 75 cents







            In 1792 a ferry was authorized to operate across the Ohio River at Cincinnati at the following rates:

Persons – 6 cents each

Horned cattle – 18 cents each

Hogs – 6 cents each

Man and horse – 18 cents

Wagon and team -- $1.00





            The only tavern price I could find in the Miami Valley in the 1790-1800 time periods was a place on the road along the Ohio River at Cincinnati.  Lodging and supper was 62½ cents.


            By 1799 the Colonial era was ending just as the campaign for Ohio statehood was beginning.  In a snit over seeing his dictatorship coming to an end, Governor General Arthur St. Clair wrote that the people of the Northwest Territory are a “multitude of indigent and ignorant people who are but ill qualified to form a constitution and government for themselves”.


Wait a minute!  That may be it!  My new persona – indigent and ignorant clod!  Let’s see, for clothing I am going to need…



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