Land Ordinance of 1785

May 20, 1785

The Land Ordinance of 1785 was enacted by the Confederation Congress on May 20, 1785. It established policies and procedures for the orderly survey and settlement of lands purchased from Indian inhabitants in areas of North America ceded by Great Britain to the United States after the Revolutionary War.

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale

Thomas Jefferson was a member of the committee that developed the Land Ordinance of 1785. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Land Ordinance of 1785 Summary

The Land Ordinance of 1785 was a bill passed by the Congress of the Confederation. It made adjustments to the Ordinance of 1784 and introduced squares. If first divided the land into six-mile-square townships. It also required the land to be surveyed and for some of it to be given to veterans of the Continental Army.

Land Ordinance of 1785 Facts

  • The Land Ordinance of 1785 was enacted by Congress on May 20, 1785.
  • It was the second of the three Northwest Ordinances, following the Ordinance of 1784 and preceding the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
  • The Land Ordinance of 1785 established a system of dividing land in the Western Territories.
  • The Land Ordinance also established a system of funding public schools in the Western Territories, and reserved land in each Township for a school.

Land Ordinance of 1785 History

Continental Congress Struggles with Western Lands

During the American Revolution, the Second Continental Congress (May 10, 1775–March 1, 1781) acted as the provisional government representing the 13 American Colonies.

Between July 1776 and November 1777, Congress struggled to establish a more formal central government representing all the colonies. As delegates debated the scope and scale of a federal government, one of the major sticking points was the disposition of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.

The original charters of some colonies — known as “landless” — confined their sovereignty to areas defined by specific borders. Other colonies (known as “landed”) claimed that their reach extended to the western edge of the continent.

Unable to reach an agreement, Congress ignored the dispute when it passed the Articles of Confederation on November 15, 1777.

Instead, the delegates urged the landed colonies to cede their western land claims to the newly created federal government, which most agreed to do.

John Dickinson, Illustration
John Dickinson is recognized as the primary author of the Articles of Confederation. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Virginia Cedes Western Lands

By February 1779, twelve of the colonies had ratified the Articles of Confederation, but the document required unanimous consent to become law.

The lone holdout, Maryland, did not ratify until March 1, 1781, after Virginia became the last state to relinquish its claims on lands north and west of the Ohio River.

Following Maryland’s ratification, the new Confederation Congress, which succeeded the Second Continental Congress, controlled the western lands pending the outcome of the War for Independence.

American Independence

On October 19, 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his command to George Washington’s Continental Army at Yorktown, Virginia. Washington’s victory at the Battle of Yorktown brought a successful end to major hostilities in the Revolutionary War.

Following months of negotiations in Paris, representatives from the United States and Great Britain drafted a treaty officially ending the war on November 30, 1782. Signed by dignitaries from both countries on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris formally recognized American independence.

Lord Cornwallis Surrender at Yorktown, Painting, Trumbull
This painting by John Trumbull depicts the British surrender at Yorktown. Image Source: Yale University Art Gallery.

Ordinance of 1784

Besides officially ending the Revolutionary War and acknowledging the independence of the United States, the Treaty of Paris also ceded all the land east of the Mississippi River, north of Florida, and south of Canada to the United States — excluding the City of New Orleans. The Confederation Congress now faced the formidable task of governing the newly acquired lands.

On April 23, 1874, the Confederation Congress (March 1, 1781–March 4, 1789) passed an act known as the Ordinance of 1784 outlining a systematic means for incorporating the new lands into the Union.

The most far-reaching of the many policies outlined in the act was the decision that when a sufficient number of male settlers populated large parcels of the new lands, Congress would empower them to form republican governments and apply to enter the Union as new states on equal footing with the original thirteen states.

Development of the Land Ordinance of 1785

Eager to raise much-needed revenues for the new federal government, Congress quickly turned its attention to surveying and selling western lands.

Many plots in the Original 13 States resembled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle because the earliest landowners used the “metes and bounds” survey system to carve out choice pieces of property when defining their claims. Under that scheme, surveyors avoided undesirable acreage by using natural landmarks — such as trees, rocks, and streams — to establish boundaries.

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. The members of the committee were:

  • Thomas Jefferson, Virginia
  • Hugh Williamson, North Carolina
  • David Howell, Rhode Island
  • Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts
  • Jacob Read, South Carolina

On May 7, 1784, the committee presented 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.

Congress considered the proposal for nearly a year.

An amended version was presented on April 26, 1785, and 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 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: Wikipedia.

Provisions of 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 subdivide 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 a 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.
  • The land would be granted to members of the Continental Army according to the following ranks:
    • Major General — 1100 acres
    • Brigadier General — 850 acres
    • Colonel 5— 00 acres
    • Lieutenant Colonel — 450 acres
    • Major — 400 acres
    • Captain — 300 acres
    • Lieutenant — 200 acres
    • Ensign — 150 acres
    • Non-Commissioned 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.

Land Ordinance of 1785 Significance

The Land Ordinance of 1785  was important because it fixed a major problem with the Ordinance of 1784 by instituting the policy of survey before the sale. That practice ensured a more uniform pattern of settlement in the West.

The ordinance also 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 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. As a result, Congress eventually sold large tracts of land below the established value to speculators. Congress later made land purchases more attractive to small farmers by lowering unit costs and minimum purchases, and by instituting credit purchase plans in subsequent land acts in 1796, 1800, and 1804.

Impact of the Land Ordinance of 1785 on Native American Indian Tribes

Finally, 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.

Despite Great Britain’s concessions in the Treaty of Paris following the Revolutionary War, many of the American Indians did not acknowledge American authority or ownership of lands in the West.

When white settlers crossed the river, their claims, as authorized by the ordinance, often conflicted with native views of communal land usage. The results sometimes led to bloodshed and atrocities on both sides.

Eventually, Congress sent American soldiers to the region to quell Indian resistance. Gradually, the use of force coerced tribes to sign treaties conceding large tracts of land to the U.S. government and moving farther west. Some historians refer to the forced exodus of the Northwest Territory as the “First Trail of Tears.”

Land Ordinance of 1785 APUSH, Review, Notes, Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Land Ordinance of 1785, the Articles of Confederation, and the Confederation Era for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Land Ordinance of 1785 Definition APUSH

The Land Ordinance of 1785 is defined as a law passed by the United States Congress that established a system for the survey and sale of public lands in the western territories of the United States. The ordinance established a system for dividing the lands into townships and sections and provided for the sale of the lands to private individuals. The ordinance was significant because it facilitated the settlement and development of the western territories, and provided for public education

Land Ordinance of 1785 Video for APUSH Notes

This video from Tinkers Thinkers discusses the Land Ordinance of 1785.

Citation Information

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