On this day in 1783, Virginia cedes the vast territory it had previously claimed by right of colonial charter to the federal government of the United States. The Ohio Valley territory, which covered the area north of the Ohio River, east of the Mississippi River, and south of the Great Lakes and Canada, had been contested by Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
A young George Washington began the Seven Years’ War with a failed attempt to secure Virginia’s Ohio Valley outposts in 1754. For some, the British Proclamation line of 1763, banning further European settlement west of Appalachia had been a major incentive for rebellion. To complicate matters, Congress and the states had promised their soldiers land in payment for their service during the War for Independence. The states without western claims worried that they would forever be poor relations without western land to sell and fill their coffers. The new and fragile union remained at risk of dissolution until the land-claims issue found resolution.
Pennsylvanian John Dickinson first suggested that the states cede their lands to the Continental Congress in 1776. Virginia argued that their western claims superceded those of any of the other states because they were made in the first colonial charter, but the desire of leading Virginians for a stable confederated government outstripped their desire for land. They were the first state to cede significant holdings to the national government. Other states soon followed suit, solidifying the strength and wealth of the union and making western expansion a federal project, which culminated in Jefferson’s brilliantly conceived Northwest Ordinance.