Attention Ohio Residents: New Gambling Law Passed in the Northwest Territory

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In 2013, gaming in the (former) Northwest Territory is a hot topic. Casinos, internet cafes, or Keno games dot our Territory and can be found in just about every city, town, village, or station. Here in Cleveland, the opening of the Horseshoe Casino was big news. The new Racino just opened at Thistledown Race Track. How would these enterprises have fared in 1790 under the laws of Northwest Territory? They would have been shut down, lost their license, and been ordered to pay $100 “to the use of the territory,”1

In August of 1790 in Vincennes, the “act for suppressing and prohibiting every species of Gaming for Money or other Property, and for making void all contracts and payments made in consequence thereof, and also for restraining the disorderly practice of discharging Fire Arms at certain hours and places.” was passed.2 The preamble to the act details why such an act was necessary:

WHEREAS the population, happiness and prosperity of all countries, especially infant communities, necessarily depend upon the sobriety and industry of the people, and their attention to the moral and political duties of life, without which neither the great ends of society can be answered, nor the blessings of good government be felt. And whereas many pernicious games have been publickly practised in this territory, tending to the corruption of morals and the increase of vice and idleness, and by which the honest and unsuspecting citizen may be defrauded, and deserving families be reduced to beggary and want.3

The act  stipulates that:

if any person or persons within this territory, shall on his, her or their own account…publickly set up, permit, or tables, suffer, or cause or procure to be publickly set up, permitted or suffered, any species of gaming…whereby money or other property shall be betted, won or lost, or…may derive any benefit or advantage, in money, goods or other property, as a consideration for permission to play or bett thereat, each and every such person so offending shall forfeit and pay for every such offence…the sum of two hundred dollars.”4

Tavern keepers were also held responsible for any sort of gambling in their establishments or on their property, and were subject to a one hundred dollar fine for any offense.5 Interestingly, tacked onto this legislation was an additional regulation regarding the discharging of firearms. Anyone shooting their gun within a quarter of a mile of the nearest building of a city, town, village, or station would be fined between one and five dollars. Shoot your gun “after the setting of the sun and before the rising of the same” and you can expect another fine of the same amount.6 The exception to this law is one that provides insight into the daily lives and regular threats to those intrepid, early settlers of the Northwest Territory. It tells us a little bit about what was important to our frontier ancestors:

nothing herein contained shall be deemed or construed to extend to any person lawfully using fire-arms as offensive or defensive weapons, in annoying, or opposing a common enemy, or defending his or her person or property, or the person or property of any other, against the invasion or depredations of an enemy, or in the support of the laws and government; or against the attacks of rebels, highwaymen, robbers, thieves, or others unlawfully assailing him or her, or in any other manner where such opposition, defence, or resistance is allowed by the law of the land…. 

Provided also. That nothing herein contained shall be construed in or extend to prevent the necessary military exercise…firings of, or the discharging of cannon or small arms, by any soldiers or troops in the service of the United States…. 

[nor] to the act of killing or destroying…mad or wild animals of the brute kind lurking among, in or near, or preying upon or threatening to prey upon and devour any kind of animal stock, or the corn, grain, and other produce in, of or belonging to any plantation…nor to the hindrance of any person shooting at or killing any of the larger kind of game or wild animals, such as buffaloes, bears, deer, hares, rabbits, turkies, swans, geese that may happen at any time to come in view, or be passing or feeding near any city, town, or other place as aforesaid7.

  1. Theodore C. Pease, The Laws of the Northwest Territory, 1788-1800  (Springfield: Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, 1925.), 31; digital images, Internet Archive, Ebook and Texts Archive (http://archive.org/details/texts: accessed 30 Jun 2013). []
  2. ibid. []
  3. ibid., 30 []
  4. ibid. []
  5. ibid., 31 []
  6. ibid., 33 []
  7. ibid., 33-34 []
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