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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Growth in Ohio

Following the Revolutionary War, for the next 25 years, Ohio became the primary destination of westward bound pioneers because of the fertile farmland in the Ohio River Valley. Some families stayed for the remainder of their lives. Others simply passed through on their way west. The state is rich in history and bountiful in genealogical records.

Ohio was settled primarily by those claiming military land bounties or by purchasing small acreages from land speculators. Rufas Putnam’s “New Ohio Land Company” alone used 142,9000 military bounty warrants in exchange for land. The bounty land certificates issued to Revolutionary soldiers were originally valued at $1.25 an acre, but Putnam purchased these certificates for a fraction of their cost from veterans who chose not to uproot their families. Initially the government would sell land only in 640-acre sections, which at $2.00 per acre, were too large and costly for most families to purchase. In 1820, prices and farm sizes were reduced until eighty acres could be purchased at $1.25 per acre.

Congress surveyed Ohio land over a period of thirty years. This territory was the first region of the Northwest Territory to be settled because it was nearest to the older settlements. Lawmakers attempted to satisfy all claimants of western lands by carving Ohio into 18 Land Grant districts. A map prepared by Ohio’s State Auditor depicts these complicated groupings of surveys and grants.

Northern Ohio drew many settlers by way of Lake Erie from New England and New York. From the Northeast, many came to the Steubenville area including Zanesville, Columbus, Springfield, Dayton, and often went on west.

By 1800 nearly forty-five thousand persons had either negotiated the rutted road to Pittsburgh, where they purchased a flatboat to navigate the Ohio River, or took the cutoff to Wheeling from which they moved westward by land, dodging stumps on Zane’s Trace, the crude trail opened in 1796 by Ebenezer Zane.

The Firelands of Ohio were for Connecticut to help compensate losses when some of her towns were ravaged during the Revolutionary War. In 1792 the Connecticut State Legislature set aside this compensatory land at the west end of the Connecticut Reserve.

Central and southern Ohio’s population came from the middle and southern states down the Ohio River or north through Kentucky. Those who chose to go down the Ohio River might stop at Marietta or Portsmouth, then go into Kentucky or up into Clermont, Hamilton, Butler, and Preble Counties in Ohio. Cincinnati and the counties surrounding Hamilton County became gathering points as new lands opened up in Indiana.

Early settlers stayed close to the Ohio River, but after 1800 they began to fill the area of the Greenville cessions. In 1803, with more than the required sixty thousand population, Ohio became a state.

Growth in Other Parts of the Northwest Territory

The Ordinance of 1787 established stable government in the newly created Northwest Territory, made up of what would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. The first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory was the New Englander’s town of Marietta, established in 1788.

Gradually, settlers drifted farther down the Ohio River into present southern Indiana and Illinois; population generally followed the Ohio and the Wabash Rivers. North of the Ohio River, settlement came slowly until after Wayne’s campaign ended the Indian threat.

Even before the Revolutionary War, Scots-Irish from Pennsylvania migrated to western Pennsylvania and Maryland, then turned south through the Shenandoah Valley. Still another migration pattern of the Scots-Irish was to go west through Pennsylvania and Maryland into the Virginia panhandle and then cross the Ohio River at Wheeling and Pittsburgh to move westward into the Ohio Military District, Indiana, and Illinois. Particularly in following this migration pattern, they began to lose their Scots-Irish characteristics, intermarrying, changing their religion at times, and finding a variety of employment.

West of Lake Erie, the most important town was the small trading settlement of Detroit, which as late as 1840 was a rather small town with a population of about 9000. Michigan settlers came primarily from New York and New England, concentrating in the southern third of the state. Groups also came from Virginia and North Carolina, by way of Ohio and Indiana. In the ten-year period 1830-1840, Michigan had the greatest population increase of any territory or state; more than 200,000 people were living there in 1840. But the Panic of 1837 and the Depression of 1839 drastically slowed the Michigan boom.

Before the opening of canals, settlement in the Old Northwest was mostly north of the Ohio River; it rarely went beyond the portage sites, leaving sections along Lake Erie vacant while settlers moved on west into southern Indiana and Illinois. The opening of the Erie Canal changed the settlement pattern, with persons using this means of transportation to reach Lake Erie and begin a search for land. Towns were built to accommodate the travelers, to build lake packets, and to provide supplies for further migration. Land which had remained vacant and inaccessible then began to sell for premium prices.

The Early Southwest

The most distinctive characteristic of the Great Migration [1812-1819] was the changing character of the people going to the Southwest, which was making this region far different from the Northwest. The change was due largely to two important developments. The first was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 and its subsequent rapid development after 1800, which made practicable the large cotton plantation operated by slave labor. The second was the opening of large quantities of virgin soil in the Southwest by Jackson’s successful operations against the Creeks. As a result of these two factors there was a westward push by the cotton planters with their slaves. The movement first became noticeable about 1810, and then grew rapidly... By the end of the War of 1812 the southern roads to the west were so crowded with planters and gangs of Negroes that there was a scarcity of provisions. The Negroes, sometimes shackled, traveled on foot while the planters rode. Most groups went overland, although a few moved to the lower Mississippi Valley either by ocean or by way of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The roads, as elsewhere, were very bad, often little more than bridle paths. The most important one in the Far South was the Federal Road...The majority of the planters who moved west came from the Piedmont of the East rather than from the coastal plain.”
Robert E. Riegel and Robert G. Athearn, America Moves West,
5th ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 177.

Removal of southern Indians was more difficult than had been the similar process farther north. Some 18 million acres of land were occupied by the five tribes, numbering about 60,000. Removal was promised Georgia with the 1802 cession, but the federal government’s action was postponed until the 1820s when white pressures mounted, particularly when the normal flow of settlers was accelerated by the news of the discovery of gold. “The subsequent removal of the Indians was one of the least savory incidents in a long story of unhappy racial contacts; the sorry details were repeated with monotonous and depressing regularity.” (Riegel and Athearn, America Moves West, 192.)


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.