Surveying the Northwest Territory

The Northwest Territory - land northwest of the Ohio River - had been claimed at one time by Great Britain, France, Pennsylvania and Virginia. At the end of the American Revolution by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the land was ceded to the new United States government.This territory was to become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin (and part of Minnesota).

The Confederation Congress faced hard financial times at the war's end, being in debt to France and Spain and owing payment to veterans. The Articles of Confederation did not allow the federal government to tax its citizens. The Confederation Congress hoped to sell the land in the Ohio Country to raise funds to meet those debts.

To determine the use of the land, the Confederation Congress drew up the Land Ordinance of 1785 which gave specific instructions on how the land was to be surveyed and sold or given away as land grants. The measurements would be done by rectilinear surveys rather than the old geographic "metes and bounds." Government surveyors were to divide the territory into individual townships. Each township was to be square. Each side of the square was to be six miles in length, and the completed square would include a total of thirty-six square miles of territory. The township would then be divided into one-square mile sections, with each section encompassing 640 acres. Each section received its own number. Section 16 was set aside for a public school. The federal government reserved sections eight, eleven, twenty-six, and twenty-nine to provide veterans of the American Revolution with land bounties for their service during the war. The government would sell the remaining sections at public auction. The minimum bid was 640 dollars per section or one dollar for each acre of land in each section.

The first portion of Ohio surveyed became known as the Seven Ranges. The northern boundary was an east to west line beginning where Pennsylvania's western border intersected the Ohio River. (A stone marker in East Liverpool, Ohio today indicates the "Point of Beginning" of the survey.) Pennsylvania's western border also served as the first north to south line. The surveyors plotted a total of eight lines, each six miles apart, in this first survey. The end result was seven north-to-south rows or "ranges" of townships open for settlement.

The government had now opened up parts of the Ohio Country for settlement, but the Confederation Congress continued to face many of the same difficulties that existed prior to the Land Ordinance of 1785. Squatters continued to move into the Ohio Country and many of the Native Americans refused to leave. In 1786, the Congress sent three companies of the First American Regiment who built the original Fort Steuben as they worked to evict the squatters and protect the surveyors from attack by native tribes.

Now the government had to ensure that the states formed from this territory would have a rule of law and a method of becoming equal members of the United States. The Northwest Ordinance, adopted July 13, 1787, by the Second Continental Congress, chartered a government for the Northwest Territory, provided a method for admitting new states to the Union from the territory, and listed a bill of rights guaranteed in the territory.

The following three principal provisions were ordained in the document: (1) a division of the Northwest Territory into "not less than three nor more than five States"; (2) a three-stage method for admitting a new state to the Union—with a congressionally appointed governor, secretary, and three judges to rule in the first phase; an elected assembly and one nonvoting delegate to Congress to be elected in the second phase, when the population of the territory reached "five thousand free male inhabitants of full age"; and a state constitution to be drafted and membership to the Union to be requested in the third phase when the population reached 60,000; and (3) a bill of rights protecting religious freedom, the right to a writ of habeas corpus, the benefit of trial by jury, and the right of women and children to inherit property. In addition the ordinance forbade slavery.

The Northwest Ordinance is one of the three most important founding documents of the United States and spelled out a plan that was subsequently used as the country expanded to the Pacific.

Displays and information about the Northwest Territory and the Northwest Ordinance can be found in the Exhibit Hall of Historic Fort Steuben.

For an article on the history of the Original Land Survey of Ohio click here.