From Ohio History Central
Squatters were people who illegally moved onto unoccupied land along the frontier and claimed that land as their own.
In many cases, squatters had little money and could not afford to buy land legally. Since the land was uninhabited, squatters often felt that anyone had a right to it. They believed that the land should go to the first person to live on it. This was true even if someone else already owned the land but did not live upon it.
The first squatters moved into the Ohio Country following the French and Indian War. Following England's victory in this conflict, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763. This act stated that English colonists could not live west of the Appalachian Mountains. England hoped that this would prevent conflicts between its colonists and the Indians living in the Ohio Country. British colonists ignored the Proclamation and continued to move west of the Appalachian Mountains. These people were often squatters. They did not purchase the land from the rightful owners who were the Native Americans or the English government.
Squatters became a major concern after the American Revolution. Many Americans moved west of the Appalachian Mountains and hoped to improve their lives. Most of these people had little or no money. In addition, exactly who owned the land west of the Appalachian Mountains remained in dispute. Many states claimed this land, and where one state's claims ended and another state's claims began was unclear. The Ordinance of 1784, the Land Ordinance of 1785, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, resulted in most of this land becoming the property of the federal government. The government hoped to sell this land to pay its numerous debts. However, a large number of squatters already occupied the land.
In 1783, the Articles of Confederation government prohibited settlement of the land in the Ohio Country without the approval of the states that claimed ownership. The squatters ignored the Congress. In 1785, General Josiah Harmar used military force to try to drive these people from the region. The men whom he sent burned many of the squatters' homes to the ground. Nevertheless, many of the illegal settlers refused to leave. Some of these people threatened violence if Harmar's men continued to try to destroy their homes. Other squatters agreed to leave the land if Harmar would allow them enough time to harvest their crops. Harmar agreed to let them do so. However, after the harvest, many of these people still resided on their land. To try to deter the squatters, Harmar ordered the construction of Fort Steuben and Fort Harmar. Rather than driving the squatters from the region, these fortifications attracted more people to the Ohio Country. Many of the new people believed the stockades were there to protect them from Indian attack.
During the late 1700s and the early 1800s, many of the court cases in the Northwest Territory and then the state of Ohio involved land disputes between the actual owners of the land and the squatters. Many of the original European settlers of North America viewed the New World as free for the taking. Some Americans viewed the Ohio frontier in the same way two centuries later.