George Washington Presidency – Opening the West

George Washington

Of all the founding fathers, Washington had the clearest vision for the West, and how it could add to American wealth and stability.

After gaining independence, most Americans had little concept of country. Their state was their country. And they knew little of the vast lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. George Washington had a big vision for the West and how to expand the new nation into it.

Americans Were Constantly Moving West

For at least a half century before the Constitution became the law of the land, the Colonists had been crossing the mountains and claiming land in the West. The Indians, already displaced from the eastern seaboard, fought against this new.

The migration west had been temporarily slows by the French and Indian War and by the British Proclamation of 1763. Nothing, though, would fully halt the westward expansion. By 1789 the West was still thinly populated, but given the vast area that added up to a good size population.

Washington saw some of these lands in his war service under the British, and knew much about the potential for economic development. Occupation and use of these lands would enhance the national wealth.

But Washington had strategic reasons for fully incorporating the West into the nation. Great Britain on the north and Spain on the west and south had designs on this territory. Their aims might not have been to conquer the western territory, but to dominate it by economic ties. Spain closed the Mississippi River to American commerce, presenting Washington with a foreign policy problem on American soil. He needed a way to join the West to the East and South.

Washington Sought to Block British and Spanish Influence by Pacifying the Indians

As Washington saw it, diplomatic efforts to have Spain open the Mississippi River and make the British abandon forts in the United States (as they were required to do by the Treaty of Paris) was futile. The European nations would have to see the United States assert its authority in the West with the hostile Indians before they would back down. Washington saw three steps to this.

  • Maintain peace with the European powers.
  • Secure western settlements by subduing hostile Indian tribes.
  • Open regular routes of commerce between East and West to establish strong bonds of economic interest.

One of Washington’s fears was that the West would develop strong economic ties with the Spanish and British territories, and that from these ties they would want to align politically with them instead of with their fellow Americans in the East.

Washington Well Prepared to Deal With the West

George Washington had many dealings with Indians issued during his long public service to the British. He had negotiated with Indian tribes when he was only 21 years old and fought them when he was 32. He know that the Indians did not fear European style armies and could fight effectively against them on the frontier.

He began obtaining his goals by addressing the grievances of the major southern tribes. First with the Creeks, then with the Cherokees, through agents and by his personal diplomacy, treaties were concluded with each tribe. This increased the prestige of the United States with Europe by demonstrating competence in dealing with the West.

In the Ohio River valley and other parts of the Northwest Territory, negotiations were a non-started due to the power of the major tribes and the influence of the British who armed them. Two military expeditions intended to break up the growing coalition of tribes were failures. The troops were mostly militia, and they did not stand and fight as the regular army did. The government forces suffered many casualties.

Third Military Campaign a Success at Battle of Fallen Timbers

Washington knew he could not suffer a third loss. For the next expedition he put General Anthony Wayne in charge. Wayne spent a long time training his army. In July 1794 he marched with 1,500 regular soldiers and as many militia. Wayne kept his soldiers always on guard against ambush, something that had harmed the prior military campaigns. He was successful at a battle that became known as Fallen Timbers. This broke the hostile coalition, and the tribes sought peace.

Soon after this the European powers realized the new nation would not collapse, and that they would defend the western lands that belonged to them. The British abandoned the forts, and the Spanish concluded a treaty that opened the Mississippi River and halted their designs on American Territories.

George Washington’s determination, knowledge of the West, experience in military matters, and understanding of the nation’s enemies were exactly the right combination of skills needed to cement the West to the rest of the nation.


  1. The Presidency of George Washington by Jack D. Warren, Jr. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 2000, ISBN 0-931917-34-4