Land Ordinance of 1785

The Land Ordinance of 1785 was adopted by the United States Congress of the Confederation on May 20, 1785. It set up a standardized system whereby settlers could purchase title to farmland in the undeveloped west. Congress at the time did not have the power to raise revenue by direct taxation, so land sales provided an important revenue stream. The Ordinance set up a survey system that eventually covered over 3/4 of the area of the continental United States.[1]

The earlier Ordinance of 1784 was a resolution written by Thomas Jefferson calling for Congress to take action. The land west of the Appalachian Mountains, north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River was to be divided into ten separate states.[2] However, the 1784 resolution did not define the mechanism by which the land would become states, or how the territories would be governed or settled before they became states. The Ordinance of 1785 put the 1784 resolution in operation by providing a mechanism for selling and settling the land,[3] while the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 addressed political needs.

The 1785 ordinance laid the foundations of land policy until passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. The Land Ordinance established the basis for the Public Land Survey System. The initial surveying was performed by Thomas Hutchins. After he died in 1789, responsibility for surveying was transferred to the Surveyor General. Land was to be systematically surveyed into square townships, 6 mi (9.7 km) on a side, each divided into thirty-six sections of 1 sq mi (2.6 km2) or 640 acres (260 ha). These sections could then be subdivided for re-sale by settlers and land speculators.[4]

The ordinance was also significant for establishing a mechanism for funding public education. Section 16 in each township was reserved for the maintenance of public schools. Many schools today are still located in section sixteen of their respective townships,[citation needed] although a great many of the school sections were sold to raise money for public education. In later States, section 36 of each township was also designated as a "school section".[5][6][7]

The Point of Beginning for the 1785 survey was where Ohio (as the easternmost part of the Northwest Territory), Pennsylvania and Virginia (now West Virginia) met, on the north shore of the Ohio River near East Liverpool, Ohio. There is a historical marker just north of the site, at the state line where Ohio State Route 39 becomes Pennsylvania Route 68.

six mile square divided into 36 mile square sections numbered starting one in the southeast corner and proceeding northward to six in the northeast, then seven west of one to twelve west of six, and so on to thirty six in the northwest corner
Plan for numbering sections of a township adopted May 20, 1785
six mile square divided into 36 mile square sections numbered starting with one in the northeast proceeding westward to six in the northwest corner then to seven south of six eastward to twelve south of one then thirteen to twenty four in like manner and finally twenty five to thirty six in the southwest corner
General Land Office plan for numbering sections of a standard survey township, adopted May 18, 1796
Diagram of the 1785 Land Ordinance showing how the method of subdivision can be applied from the scale of the country down to the scale of a single lot


The Confederation Congress appointed a committee consisting of the following men:

On May 7, 1784, the committee reported "An ordinance for ascertaining the mode of locating and disposing of lands in the western territories, and for other purposes therein mentioned." The ordinance required the land be divided into "hundreds of ten geographical miles square, each mile containing 6086 and 4-10ths of a foot" and "sub-divided into lots of one mile square each, or 850 and 4-10ths of an acre",[8] numbered starting in the northwest corner, proceeding from west to east, and east to west, consecutively. After debate and amendment, the ordinance was reported to Congress April 26, 1785. It required surveyors "to divide the said territory into townships seven miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles. — The plats of the townships, respectively, shall be marked into sections of one mile square, or 640 acres." This is the first recorded use of the terms "township" and "section."[9]

On May 3, 1785, William Grayson of Virginia made a motion seconded by James Monroe to change "seven miles square" to "six miles square." The ordinance was passed on May 20, 1785. The sections were to be numbered starting at 1 in the southeast and running south to north in each tier to 36 in the northwest. The surveys were to be performed under the direction of the Geographer of the United States (Thomas Hutchins).[9] The Seven Ranges, the privately surveyed Symmes Purchase, and, with some modification, the privately surveyed Ohio Company of Associates, all of the Ohio Lands were the surveys completed with this section numbering.[10]

Locations in Ohio using Land Ordinance of 1785 Section Numbering

The Act of May 18, 1796,[11] provided for the appointment of a surveyor-general to replace the office of Geographer of the United States, and that "sections shall be numbered, respectively, beginning with number one in the northeast section, and proceeding west and east alternately, through the township, with progressive numbers till the thirty-sixth be completed." All subsequent surveys were completed with this boustrophedonical section numbering system, except the United States Military District of the Ohio Lands which had five mile (8 km) square townships as provided by the Act of June 1, 1796,[12] and amended by the Act of March 1, 1800.[9][13]

Howe and others give Thomas Hutchins credit for conceiving the rectangular system of lots of one square mile in 1764 while a captain in the Sixtieth, or, Royal American, Regiment, and engineer to the expedition under Col. Henry Bouquet to the forks of the Muskingum, in what is now Coshocton County, Ohio. It formed part of his plan for military colonies north of the Ohio, as a protection against Indians. The law of 1785 embraced most of the new system.[14] Treat, on the other hand, notes that tiers of townships were familiar in New England, and insisted on by the New England legislators.[15]

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