Across the Alleghenies

John Filson, The discovery, settlement and present state of Kentucke Wilmington: James Adams, 1784.  Acquired 1945 (A 1784 .F43)

In 1783 Pennsylvanian John Filson joined the great migration westward to Kentucky. Settling in Lexington, Filson gathered information about the region and interviewed its pioneers, including James Harrod, John Todd, and Daniel Boone. The following year Filson journeyed to Delaware, where he published this work. Its 30-year chronicle of frontier hardships and Revolutionary War battles was enhanced by a large engraved map of Kentucky (pictured) and enlivened by Boone’s memoirs. Quickly translated into French and German, and widely reprinted, Filson’s work helped turn Boone into an American folk hero.

Virginia, An act concerning the erection of the district of Kentucky into an independent state. Jan. 6, 1786. [Richmond, 1786]  Acquired 1967 (A 1786 .V577 A2)

Established first as a county, then as a district of Virginia, Kentucky grew so rapidly during the American Revolution that its residents soon desired independence. No fewer than ten state conventions were necessary from 1784 to 1792 before Kentucky finally achieved statehood. Following the third convention, the Virginia General Assembly agreed to Kentucky’s separation per the terms given in this broadside. But the fourth convention failed to reach a quorum, and the process began anew. This, the only known copy, is one of several choice items in the McGregor Library formerly owned by celebrated Americana collector Thomas W. Streeter.

United States. Continental Congress, An ordinance for the government of the territory of the United States north-west of the River Ohio. [New York?, 1787]  Acquired 1962 (A 1787 .U583)

This first official printing of the Northwest Ordinance is signed in manuscript by Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress. Its modest appearance belies its importance as the most significant legislation (excepting the Declaration of Independence) passed by the Continental Congress. In creating the Northwest Territory, Congress set precedents for distributing unsettled western lands, establishing territorial governments, admitting new states, and guaranteeing individual rights later codified in the Bill of Rights. It also abolished slavery north of the Ohio River while permitting southern slave owners to reclaim fugitives, thereby creating a new and fractious political framework for debate over slavery.

William Sumner, Map of the Western Reserve, including the Fire Lands in Ohio, September, 1826. Nelson, Ohio: William Sumner, 1826.  Original McGregor Library (Area Table 771 1826 Sumner)

American cartography quickly progressed to the point where excellent maps were being issued outside of the major cities. This map has been called “the finest produced by an Ohio engraver and pioneer printer” up to that time. Engraved by William Savory of Pittsburgh, it was published in the small Ohio town of Nelson. Copies were sold either loose or folded into a pocket-size carrying case. The Western Reserve was land claimed by Connecticut and held back from the Northwest Territory. Connecticut then sold it en bloc to a land company, which resold small parcels to settlers.

Society for the Sale of Lands in America. Plan of a Society for which a subscription is opened, containing a very beneficial speculation London, 1794.  Acquired 1955 (A 1794 .S635)

America’s westward expansion was as much a story of land speculation as one of settlement. The McGregor Library contains rich printed and manuscript holdings relating to the many land companies that purchased large tracts and resold them to settlers and investors. In 1794 the Society for the Sale of Lands in America, a group of prosperous London tradesmen, purchased 15,000 acres of choice Kentucky lands south of what is now Louisville. The 150 parcels were to be resold at prices ranging from £30 to £250. This rare prospectus offers shares in the venture at £10 each.