Encountering the First American West

Map of the Falls of the Ohio
Map of the Falls of the Ohio, 1816

As late as Thomas Jefferson's presidency, the majority of the United States’ population was still hunkered down close to the original British settlements along the Eastern seaboard. With so many people opting for the security of familiar surroundings, what prompted others to move into what seemed to be uncharted and dangerous territories? What type of land did they hope to find? How would they lay claim to it and establish political, cultural, and financial institutions? Whose societies, institutions, and beliefs would they encounter in this supposedly empty West? What conflicts would result? In over two hundred years of national history, our fascination with this settler colonial era has never diminished.

For more than two centuries, American national identity has been tied inextricably to the idea of the West. The western dream of individual freedom and limitless expansion has shaped American cultural values and political ideologies. Literature, theater, and film have retraced the legends of the West and reinterpreted its heroes for modern audiences. At the same time, the violent acquisition of Indigenous lands and the transplanting of enslavement of African-descended people into new states set the stage for generations of sectional conflict and a lasting legacy of trauma and legal, economic, and geographical structures of inequality.

Encountering the West has become a means of examining America itself, a way of understanding the possibility and loss embodied in the national experience.

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Filson Historical Society has re-launched the First American West, an online collection of letters, financial records, sermons, books, maps, and objects relating to the Ohio River Valley in the mid-1700s through the early 1800s, that was originally a collaboration with the Library of Congress and the University of Chicago. 

In our relaunch, an NEH-funded research team (Hailey Brangers, Marissa Coleman, and Jade Wigglesworth) has expanded the project to highlight the experiences of those originally excluded, including the voices of women, those enslaved, and the Indigenous communities that called our region home. 

On this page, you can browse the vast collection of documents by theme. 

NEH Preferred Seal

Credits

Hailey Brangers, Marissa Coleman, Danielle Spalenka, Jade Wigglesworth, National Endowment for the Humanities