Land Rights and the Formation of the U.S. Army

Land use and land rights within the United States have always been touchy subjects. Just ask the first colonists who landed and were confronted by the natives; for that matter, ask the natives. Right now, ask the armed occupants who are effectively “squatting” on Federal land in Oregon, who state that, “This isn’t going to end until we get our public lands back.”

As colonists expanded along the eastern seaboard of the United States, land rights continued to be an issue. There were squabbles between the English government, the Board of Trade (which controlled most colonial issues), the colonies themselves, the colonies and American Indians, and American Indians with each other. Land, in short, was valuable. And there was a lot of it to squabble over.

At the end of the American Revolution, the new United States gained ownership of huge swathes of land in the northwest, what now compose the states of Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The Northwest Territory, as it was dubbed, became the ownership of the newly formed U.S. government, which was still operating under the severely weak and ineffective Articles of Confederation.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

As part of the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which had ended the American Revolution, the U.S. was to take over military responsibility for this land and maintain garrisons. Now, Americans of the 18th century abhorred standing armies; that is, regular military forces, not soldiers standing up. In fact, with the exception of one artillery battery at West Point, the entire Continental Army had been disbanded at the end of the war. Scrambling, the government ordered the creation of one regiment of soldiers, to consist of eight companies of infantry and two of artillery. That’s it. That was the entire force allocated for the protection of the new nation, as most people believed that the militia could be relied upon in the event of an emergency (the War of 1812 demonstrated the folly of this belief).

Various states sent companies of troops to this new unit, called the First American Regiment, and it went into service in a string of forts in the Northwest Territory in 1784.  The mission of these few hundred troops was to garrison the forts west of the Ohio River that the British were to evacuate, control the flow of “squatters” in search of free land, and try to prevent bloodshed between Indians and squatters. A tall order.

The mission was made even harder by the weak Articles of Confederation. Although the First American Regiment was supposed to number nearly 800 Soldiers, its numbers never broke 600 until 1787. Why? Because Congress (surprise, surprise) rarely managed to pass any legislation to pay, equip, feed, and train their small military force. This force, mind you, was supposed to defend 248,000 square miles of the Northwest Territory. Recruiting and retention for this force was difficult. The passage of the Constitution in 1787 did much to improve conditions in the First American Regiment, increasing it in size, and authorizing dedicated funds for the military every year.

Soldiers of the First American Regiment, circa 1786. Very rarely would they be this clean or well-equipped. (Courtesy U.S. Army Center of Military History)

For the Soldiers in the First American Regiment, life was hard. Not only did they have to survive for long periods of time far away from their families in the wilds of the Ohio Valley, but it was often without pay or proper clothing. Not only that, but their principle adversary was not the feared American Indian warrior, but their own countrymen, hungry for land! Squatters, some 50,000 between 1783 and 1790, flowed into the new territory, inciting the American Indians who lived there to violence, and chasing off government surveyors.

Surveyors for the Confederation (and later Federal) government were actively drawing up maps and gathering data on all this new land. The intent of the Confederation Congress was to use the sale of these lands in the Northwest Territory to help pay down the massive national debt. Portions were also set aside for land grants for veterans of the American Revolution. These surveyors frequently came under attacks or harassment by squatters. Soldiers continuously negotiated with these illegal settlers to leave, and in some cases, evicted them by force. Ensign John Armstrong, of the First American Regiment, wrote in 1785, “[I]f the Honorable Congress, don’t fall on some speedy method to prevent people from settling on the Lands of the United States, West of the Ohio–that country will soon be inhabited by a banditi whose actions are a disgrace to human nature.”

The Northwest Territory would eventually be formed into states that entered into the Union. Much is owed to the brave men of the First American Regiment, who played a major role in preserving Federal lands for the benefit of the nation and its veterans. Coincidentally, the First American Regiment would eventually evolve into the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, nicknamed, “The Old Guard.” It is this unit that holds the responsibility of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, a fitting tribute to such a historic organization.

So, should the Old Guard be deployed to evict the squatters in Oregon? They really can’t, Posse Comitatus and all that. But is interesting to reflect that even in the early days of the New Republic, land, land rights, and government use of land were contentious issues.


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