Land Ordinance of 1785 Facts

May 20, 1785

Key Facts about the Land Ordinance of 1785, enacted by the Confederation Congress on May 20, 1785

The Land Ordinance of 1785 divided government lands in the Northwest Territory into townships six miles square, sub-divided into thirty-six lots, defined by lines running due north and south. Image Source: Wikimedia.

After passing the Ordinance of 1784, Congress, eager to raise much-needed revenues, quickly turned its attention to surveying and selling western lands.

Determined to escape the irregularly shaped plots that plagued the original states, Congress created a committee to consider other methods for parceling out the new lands in the West.

On May 7, 1784, the committee comprising Thomas Jefferson (Virginia), Hugh Williamson (North Carolina), David Howell (Rhode Island), Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts), and Jacob Read (South Carolina) represented a report that recommended using a rectangular survey system to create hundreds of ten-mile-square sections of land that could be subdivided into smaller lots for sale to the general public.

An amended version of the committee’s report on April 26, 1785, introduced the term “townships” and reduced the ten-mile-square sections to seven-mile-square townships.

An additional amendment on May 3, 1785, established six-mile-square townships as the basic units of land.

On May 20, 1785, Congress adopted “An ORDINANCE for ascertaining the Mode of disposing of LANDS in the WESTERN TERRITORY,” commonly known as the Land Ordinance of 1785.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 established how Congress would dispose of the western lands ceded by individual states to the United States, and which had been purchased from the Indian inhabitants. Among its major provisions were:

  • Congress would appoint a geographer of the United States to administer and supervise a team of surveyors representing each state.
  • The surveyors would divide the territory into townships.
  • Each township would be six miles square, comprising thirty-six square miles.
  • The surveyors would sub-divide each township into thirty-six lots, defined by lines running due north and south, crossed by lines running due east and west (unless where the boundaries of the late Indian purchases rendered such lines impracticable).
  • Each lot would be one-mile square and comprise 640 acres.
  • Each township would comprise a grid of thirty-six squares. The grid would comprise six columns of six lots numbered from south to north and progressing east to west from lot number one in the southeast corner to lot number thirty-six in the northwest corner.
  • The first line running north and south in the territory would start where Pennsylvania’s western border intersected the Ohio River (near modern-day East Liverpool, Ohio), and the first line running east and west would begin at the same point and extend throughout the whole territory.
  • As they completed their surveys, the surveyors would plainly mark on maps all salt licks and mill seats, all watercourses, mountains, and other remarkable and permanent things.
  • The geographer would report to the Secretary of the Treasury and The Secretary of War each time the surveys of five townships were completed.
  • The Secretary of War would use the reports to disperse a small portion of the surveyed land to satisfy veterans of the Continental Army who had been paid with land claims.
  • Land would be granted to members of the Continental Army according to the following ranks:
    • major general 1100 acres
    • brigadier general 850 acres
    • colonel 500 acres
    • lieutenant colonel 450 acres
    • major 400 acres
    • captain 300 acres
    • lieutenant 200 acres
    • ensign 150 acres
    • noncommissioned officer and soldier 100 acres
  • Following the disbursement of military lots, the board of the treasury will advertise and manage the sale of the remaining lots.
  • Surveyed land not given to military veterans would be sold at one dollar per acre.
  • None of the lands within the territory would be sold under the price of one dollar per acre.
  • The United States government would maintain ownership of lot numbers 8, 11, 26, 29 in each township for future sale (Congress reserved the sale of these lands in hopes that the price would increase in the future).
  • Lot number 16 in each township would be reserved for the maintenance of public schools within the said township.
  • If any township or fractional part of a township or lot remains unsold for eighteen months, the same would be returned to the board of treasury, and be sold in such manner as Congress directed.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 rectified a major shortcoming of the Ordinance of 1784 by instituting the policy of survey before sale. That practice insured a more uniform pattern of settlement in the west.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 indirectly addressed the growing problem of increasingly large numbers of squatters occupying the western lands. By instituting policies and procedures for the survey and sale of lands, Congress established the sovereignty of the federal government in the region.

As an instrument for raising much-needed revenue for the federal government, and promoting settlement in the west, the Land Ordinance of 1785 was unremarkable. Even at the cost of one dollar per acre, average Americans found the 640-acre minimum purchase to be prohibitive.

Even though the first sentence of the Ordinance of 1785 clearly stated that it applied to land purchased from the Indian inhabitants, an unintended consequence of the act was the unfavorable impact it had on Native Americans who inhabited the region.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Land Ordinance of 1785 Facts
  • Date May 20, 1785
  • Author
  • Keywords Northwest Territory, Revolutionary War, Treaty of 1783, Land Ordinance of 1785, Facts
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 24, 2024