Enacted by the Confederation Congress on May 20, 1785, the Land Ordinance of 1785 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.
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 thirteen 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; most of them did.
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, Congress, rather than the separate states, held dominion over the western lands pending the outcome of the War for Independence.
On October 19, 1781, British Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his command to George Washington’s Continental Army at Yorktown, Virginia. Washington’s victory 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
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.
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 thirteen 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. 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.
Congress considered the proposal for nearly a year. An amended version 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 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.
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 move farther west. Some historians refer to the forced exodus of the Northwest Territory as the “first trail of tears.”