Continental Congress: Land Ordinance of 1785

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Continental Congress

Excerpt from "Land Ordinance of 1785"

Issued on May 20, 1785, by the Continental Congress
Published in Documents of American History, edited by
Henry S. Commager, 1943

When Virginia completed the cession, or turning over, of its western land claims in 1784 (see first excerpt of this chapter), Congress knew it was only a matter of time before other states holding claims would do the same. Congress directed that a committee be formed to establish how western lands were to be divided and sold. The money from sale of the lands would be used to help pay off the national debt, which had accumulated during the American Revolution (1775–83). Virginian Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was appointed chairman of the committee for establishing a land policy. Jefferson had the foresight and scientific knowledge to create a practical western land policy.

The first issue the committee had to decide was how to survey, or determine the exact measurements of, the western land. Two systems of land survey existed in the early 1780s, one type in New England and the other in the South. The New England practice was to survey land in ordered blocks before settlement, then sell the blocks. The Southern practice was called the "metes and bounds" system. With this approach, buyers decided on the precise boundaries of the land they wanted and then had the land officially surveyed along those boundaries. Boundary points were natural markers such as trees and larger rocks. This system led to many boundary disputes because natural markers changed over time. Jefferson decided on a system that closely resembled New England's practice.

Jefferson's committee presented its plan to Congress. On May 20, 1785, after discussion and some changes, Congress adopted the plan under its official title, the Land Ordinance of 1785. Viewed by historians as one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed in the United States, this ordinance provided a process of organized land surveys. This procedure would be used for surveying land all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The Land Ordinance divided land into squares measuring 6 miles by 6 miles and called the squares townships. Each township was split into 36 sections, 1 square mile (640 acres) each and numbered 1 to 36. In addition, the acreage in section 16 of each township could be sold and the money used to build and maintain a school. The Land Ordinance set a minimum purchase amount of one section (640 acres) for $640, $1 per acre.

The survey began on land north of the Ohio River, land that came from Virginia's cession. The survey was conducted under the supervision of Thomas Hutchins (1730–1789), who was the first person to hold the title of U.S. geographer. Surveyor, scientist, and instrument designer David Rittenhouse (1732–1796) of Pennsylvania and Virginia surveyor Andrew Ellicott (1754–1820) established the first survey line. It ran due north from the the starting point they had chosen on the north side of the Ohio River. They used an instrument oriented by observing the North Star (Polaris) and other stars. The starting point was set on August 20, 1785.

In September 1785, Hutchins gathered a group of surveyors in Pittsburgh. The survey got off to a shaky start. Hutchins was supposed to have thirteen surveyors, one from each state, but only eight showed up. Then, only 4 miles into the survey, word came that Native Americans were about to attack the group, so work halted immediately. Despite the rough beginning, the project went forward. Almost all land belonging to the United States was surveyed in the manner first established by the Land Ordinance of 1785 (exceptions included the original thirteen colonies, Texas, and Hawaii).

Things to remember while reading excerpts from "Land Ordinance of 1785":

  • The Land Ordinance of 1785 was one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress. It laid the foundation for the U.S. land ownership system.
  • The Land Ordinance described in detail where the survey's beginning point would be located and how to divide the land into townships, squares that measured 6 miles on each side.
  • The Land Ordinance required that each township be subdivided into 36 sections that measured 1 square mile (640 acres) each. The sections were to be numbered from 1 to 36, and funding from section 16 was to be set aside for a public school.
  • The ordinance was so detailed that it included examples of how the deeds to the property were to be written.
  • The end of the ordinance describes how to reserve portions of townships for soldiers who fought in the Continental (American) Army during the American Revolution.
  • The next-to-the-last paragraph of the excerpt acknowledges the agreements Congress made with Virginia when that state ceded, or surrendered, to Congress lands it previously claimed (see first excerpt in this chapter).

Excerpt from "Land Ordinance of 1785"

An Ordinance forascertaining the mode of disposing of Lands in the Western Territory

Be itordained by the United States in Congress assembled, that the territoryceded by individual States to the United States, which has been purchased of the Indian inhabitants, shall be disposed of in the following manner:

Asurveyor from each state shall be appointed by Congress, or a committee of the States, who shall take an Oath for the faithfuldischarge of his duty. ...

The Surveyors ... shall proceed to divide the said territory into townships of six miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles, as near as may be. ...

The first line, running north and south ... shall begin on the river Ohio, at a point that shall be found to be due north from the western termination of a line, which has been run as the southern boundary of the state of Pennsylvania; and the first line, running east and west, shall begin at the same point, and shall extend throughout the whole territory. ... Thegeographer shalldesignate the townships, or fractional parts of townships, by numbersprogressively from south to north; always beginning each range with No. 1; and the ranges shall be distinguished by their progressive numbers of the westward. ...

The lines shall be measured with achain; shall be plainly marked bychaps on the trees and exactly described on aplat; whereon shall be noted by the surveyor, at their proper distances, all mines, salt springs, salt licks and mill seats, that shall come to his knowledge, and all watercourses, mountains and other remarkable and permanent things, over and near which such lines shall pass, and also the quality of the lands.

The plats of the townships respectively, shall be marked by subdivisions into lots of one mile square, or 640 acres, in the same direction as the external lines, and numbered from 1 to 36; always beginning the succeeding range of the lots with the number next to that with which the preceding one concluded. ...

And the geographer shall make ... returns, from time to time, of every seven ranges as they may be surveyed. ...

There shall be reserved for the United States out of every township, the four lots, being numbered 8, 11, 26, 29, and out of every fractional part of a township, so many lots of the same numbers as shall be found thereon, for future sale. There shall be reserved the lot [number] 16, ofevery township, for the maintenance of public schools, within the said township; also one third part of all gold, silver, lead and copper mines, to be sold, or otherwise disposed of as Congress shall hereafter direct. ...

And whereas Congress ... stipulated grants of land to certain officers and soldiers of the late continental army ... for complying therefore with such engagements, Be itordained, That the secretary at war ... determine who are the objects of the above resolutions and engagements, ... and cause the townships, or fractional parts of townships, hereinbefore reserved for the use of the late continental army, to bedrawn for in such manner as he shall deemexpedient . ...

What happened next...

Since the Land Ordinance set the minimum purchase amount at 640 acres for $640 (considered expensive for the average citizen in the late eighteenth century), few settlers could afford to purchase land from the government. Further, few settlers needed or could maintain 640 acres. However, land speculators were eager to take advantage of the situation. (Land speculators buy land with the hope of reselling it at a profit.) The speculators were wealthy individuals or groups of individuals who were able to buy large blocks of land from the government, sometimes millions of acres. They then sold it in parcels smaller than 640 acres. Holding the price at $1 per acre, they allowed a settler to make a small down payment and then pay off the remainder over a period of time. Despite these more manageable terms, hostilities with Native Americans, who strongly resisted white settlement west of the mountains, discouraged settlers from heading across the Appalachian Mountains to purchase the lands. Congress therefore collected little money from land sales. The impact of the Land Ordinance would not be felt until the 1790s, when military actions and treaties subdued Native American resistance. By 1795–96, settlers were pouring into the western lands.

In 1796, Congress raised the price of an acre to $2. Four years later, Congress restructured the Land Ordinance by reducing the minimum acreage that could be purchased and allowing a small down payment instead of full payment up front. Passed by Congress on May 10, 1800, and welcomed by settlers, the act held the price at $2 per acre but reduced the minimum purchase to 320 acres, for a total cost of $640. It allowed a buyer to pay only one-fourth of the purchase price ($160) up front and take four years to pay off the remainder. Individual settlers could manage these terms. Rather than buy from land speculators, they began buying directly from the government. In time, the U.S. Treasury collected a great deal of cash from these land sales. Thomas Jefferson, who was elected president in 1800 and who strongly supported expansion of farming lands, was delighted. In 1804, he ordered a further reduction of the minimum purchase to 160 acres, with an $80 down payment requirement and four years to pay in full.

In 1819, the United States experienced its first economic downturn. Prices for farm goods fell, unemployment rose, and bank failures multiplied. Land sales slowed dramatically. To make land easier to purchase, Congress passed the Land Act of 1820, which permitted settlers who could pay cash to buy 80 acres at a minimum of $1.25 per acre, for a total purchase price of $100.

Did you know...

  • The township and section system was orderly, ensuring buyers a guaranteed title to specific pieces of land, but it also had drawbacks. The system forced settlers to buy bad land with good land, whatever was within a block. It also set up too much of a structured community for some independent-minded settlers. The "metes and bounds" system, although it often led to boundary disputes, allowed settlers to buy only land they deemed to be of good quality and that they marked off themselves. It also made for a more freewheeling frontier with creative boundaries.
  • By the mid-1790s, settlers outpaced the surveyors. Settlers chose land before the land was surveyed and set their property boundaries by "metes and bounds." On twenty-first-century land survey maps of counties and states, these properties appear as rambling parcels of land at the core of a community. They are surrounded by square parcels, land that the surveyors reached before settlers could claim it.
  • The family of the sixteenth U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65), lived on a Kentucky farm that was established under the "metes and bounds" system. When Lincoln was still a young boy, the family was uprooted from the property after Lincoln's father lost a legal dispute over the property's boundaries. In 1816, the family resettled in Indiana on land with clear boundaries that had been surveyed under the township system set out in the Land Ordinance of 1785.

Consider the following...

  • Look at the property deed of a friend or relative. Notice that the property's legal description still follows the model for a deed outlined in the Land Ordinance of 1785. Locate what township and range the property is in and note the similar wording to the 1785 ordinance.
  • Why was it necessary to change the Land Ordinance's original minimum acreage purchase and the terms of the payment for land?
  • Look at the picture of a divided township; then find the words in the ordinance describing the lines, measurements, and numbering of a township.

Ascertaining the mode: Describing the process.

Ordained: Ordered.

Ceded: Given.

Surveyor: A person who precisely measures and marks the location of a piece of property.

Discharge: Performance.

Geographer: U.S. official who precisely describes the features of the land.

Designate: Mark.

Progressively: Consecutively.

Chain: A measuring device with one hundred links of equal length.

Chaps: Notches in the bark.

Plat: A map of surveyed land.

Ordained: Ordered.

Drawn for: Selected.

Expedient: Practical.

For More Information


Commager, Henry S., ed. Documents of American History. New York: F. S. Crofts and Company, 1943.

Dillon, John B. A History of Indiana from Its Earliest Exploration by Europeans to the Close of Territorial Government in 1816. New York: Arno Press, 1971.

Horsman, Reginald. The Frontier in the Formative Years, 1783–1815. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Web Sites

"Maps of the Northwest Territory." University of Indiana. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

"The Northwest Territory." (accessed on June 30, 2005).