News From Terre Haute, Indiana


October 20, 2013

GENEALOGY: The colonies and their claims to unknown land

TERRE HAUTE — When the colonies were established in the 1600s and 1700s, the geography of North America was mostly unknown. Colonies on the East Coast often made claims to land extending west, not knowing what was actually there, and claiming land all the way to the West Coast. Some claims overlapped those of another colony and caused disputes. After the American Revolution, when the colonies became states, the problems with their westward claims were gradually resolved. In most cases, these lands were ceded to the federal government, often to help the states meet their war debts. Seven of the 13 states had made extensive land claims to their west.

1) One of Virginia’s western claims was the land that became Kentucky. Virginia did not cede this land to the federal government, but created a county out of it — Kentucky County, Va. Virginia used some of this land as bounty land for its soldiers who fought in the Revolution. In 1792, the state of Kentucky was created and admitted to the union. Virginia also had claims north of the Ohio River, which it did cede to the federal government. This land became part of the Northwest Territory.

2) New York and New Hampshire both laid claim to the land that eventually became Vermont. In this case, New York was claiming land to its east, while New Hampshire was claiming land to its west. Both colonies had made land grants in the disputed area for years prior to the Revolution. The citizens in the disputed area wanted to become a state and in 1791 Vermont entered the union.

3) North Carolina claimed the land to its west, which eventually became the state of Tennessee. In 1784 North Carolina ceded most of the land to the federal government after first setting aside a reserve of land to be granted to its Revolutionary soldiers as bounty land for their service. In 1790 Tennessee became part of the Southwest Territory and in 1796 it became a state.

4) Massachusetts claimed land in a swath from sea to sea. Realistically, New York was in the way, but Massachusetts had laid claim to the land that was western New York, and then directly west to a sector going through Michigan and Wisconsin. Massachusetts ceded its westernmost land to the federal government in 1785. This land became part of the Northwest Territory. The claim to western New York was resolved in 1786, with New York keeping the land. A modern map of Pennsylvania shows a small triangle of land in the northwest corner of the state, touching Lake Erie. This land had been claimed by Massachusetts. The so-called Erie Triangle was ceded to the U.S. government and then sold to Pennsylvania.

5) Connecticut claimed western lands in a band going across the tops of the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. This territory was ceded to the U.S. government in 1776 and 1800, all except the Western Reserve in Ohio. The reserve was used as bounty land for Connecticut Revolutionary War soldiers.

6) South Carolina claimed a 12-mile-wide strip of land extending across the top of what is now Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, to the Mississippi River. This was ceded to Georgia in 1787. The claim was later found out to be a surveying error and the land description in the survey did not actually exist.

7) Georgia claimed the land that now makes up the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Some of this land had been involved in scandals and fraud: the Yazoo lands and the Pine Barrens. The scandals involved Georgia officials selling land to political insiders and making multiple grants of the same land. The land was ceded by Georgia to the U.S. in 1802 in order for the federal government to take over the legal liabilities for the land. It took until 1814 for a full resolution of these issues.


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