Ordinance of 1785

The Ordinance of 1785 established a system for surveying and selling the vast lands outside the former colonies that were then the property of the U.S. government. It set out the framework for the creation of new states and territories in the newly independent United States.

Summary of Event

By 1779, twelve of the thirteen American states, engaged at that time in the Revolutionary War, had ratified the Articles of Confederation (1781) Articles of Confederation. The recalcitrant state, Maryland, ostensibly refused to ratify the document until the states with land claims in the West ceded those lands to the new government. Pressure from the landless states and the exigencies of the war finally compelled the landed states, particularly New York and Virginia, to cede their western claims to the revolutionary government. Maryland then ratified the Articles of Confederation early in 1781, and the confederation government came into existence as the owner of a vast public domain. Although little was done by that government to dispose of these lands during the war, in October, 1780, Congress passed an act declaring its intent to sell the public lands and create states out of the new territories. [kw]Ordinance of 1785 (May 20, 1785)
Territory distribution;United States
State formation (United States)
Ordinance of 1785
Westward migration (North America)
[g]United States;May 20, 1785: Ordinance of 1785[2640]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 20, 1785: Ordinance of 1785[2640]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;May 20, 1785: Ordinance of 1785[2640]
[c]Government and politics;May 20, 1785: Ordinance of 1785[2640]
Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;Ordinance of 1785
Sargent, Winthrop
Putnam, Rufus
Cutler, Manasseh
Symmes, John Cleves

After the Paris, Treaty of (1783) Treaty of Paris had been signed in 1783, the Confederation Congress Confederation Congress turned to the formulation of a national land policy. To implement the intentions expressed in the Act of 1780, Act of 1780
Land Act of 1780 three problems had to be met. First, security against the natives was necessary before the new lands could be established, and some measure of success in this direction was later achieved with General Wayne, Anthony Anthony Wayne’s victory at the Fallen Timbers, Battle of (1794) Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794). Second, some procedure had to be devised for the political organization of the new regions; this problem would be resolved with the Northwest Ordinance (1787) Northwest Ordinance in 1787. Third, a system for the survey and sale of the lands had to be established, and this was the purpose of the Ordinance of 1785.

The debate over disposal of the public domain brought into view two divergent approaches that persisted into the nineteenth century. There were those who desired rapid settlement of the land and who therefore favored a policy that would attract settlers by the cheapness of the land. Others, moved by a variety of motives, advocated less liberal terms to settlers. Some of this latter group were concerned about the grave financial situation of the government. The Articles of Confederation did not provide the government with an independent and reliable source of revenue. Proceeds from the sale of public lands might alleviate this situation. Some from eastern (tidewater) areas feared that the rapid growth of the West would quickly diminish the political power of the older states. Others, interested in the possibilities of land speculation, Speculation;land looked upon liberal policies as dangerous competition.

There was also disagreement as to the method of land disposal. Two basic forms were available. The more systematic approach was the New England practice of township settlement, which provided for concentrated patterns of ownership, security in communities, and such community institutions as schools and churches. The other approach, generally referred to as the southern method, resulted in dispersed settlement with each individual staking out a claim to hitherto unsettled lands. In the New England plan, survey preceded sale and the possibility of conflicting claims was considerably lessened.

The matter was debated through 1784 and 1785, and when the Ordinance of 1785 was passed, it appeared to incorporate the basic features of the New England practice. The principle that survey should precede sale was adopted, as the act provided for rectangular surveys Land surveys that divided the land into townships of six square miles. Townships were divided into tracts of 640 acres, or sections, which were to be sold at public auction for a minimum price of one dollar per acre. In each township, one lot was set aside for the support of public schools and four for the federal government. A provision giving similar support for religion was narrowly defeated.

This ordinance, with its minimal purchase requirement of 640 acres and its prohibition against indiscriminate settlement, seemed to favor the needs of speculators more than bona fide settlers. Few people of the type willing to carve a farm out of the wilderness in an area open to attack by American Indians had $640 in cash. Moreover, the disposition of the people who moved west was to settle where they lit, regardless of surveys, which were unable to keep up with settlement during the nineteenth century.

Congress itself, in its desperate need for ready money, compromised the intent of the act by disposing of vast tracts of land to private land companies for purposes of sale to settlers at a profit. The most famous of these companies was the Ohio Company of Associates Ohio Company of Associates, whose members included Winthrop Sargent, Rufus Putnam, and Manasseh Cutler. In 1787, Congress agreed to sell one and a half million acres of land to this group and another three and a half million to the Scioto Company. Scioto Company This latter speculative venture included many of the most important men in Congress, and their inclusion in the speculation made possible the passage of the Ohio Company grant. Also in 1787, the Symmes Purchase Symmes Purchase of two million acres—organized by John Cleves Symmes—was made at about sixty-six cents per acre.


The confederation government did not realize much money from the sales authorized under the Ordinance of 1785, nor did these sales greatly stimulate settlement. Conditions were too precarious in the Ohio Country. The Land Act of 1796 Land Act of 1796, which raised the minimum price to two dollars per acre, did little to advance settlement. The change to a more liberal policy began with the Harrison Land Act (1800) Harrison Land Act of 1800 Land Act of 1800.

Nevertheless, the ordinance established an orderly method of disposing of public lands into private hands—a method that solved several problems simultaneously. First, it brought settlers and farmers into the national effort to repay the Revolutionary War debts. Even if the sales did not achieve what Thomas Jefferson hoped, the concept showed that all the nation’s citizens would be called upon to shoulder part of the price of independence. Second, the principle of organized and methodical settlement—although, again, far from perfect in reality—reflected a clear understanding about the importance of keeping populations reasonably dense for purposes of defense and development. Third, and perhaps most significant, the ordinance ratified the fundamental property rights that undergirded the entire economic system. Land, once held only by nobility, was available to anyone for a tiny sum. Along with Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance, the Ordinance of 1785 allowed people to settle new land, bring it into the Union, and participate as equals in the polity.

Further Reading

  • Atack, Jeremy, and Peter Passell. A New Economic View of American History. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Contains an excellent chapter on land, land policies, agriculture, and productivity. Another chapter gives a good review of relevant material on the colonial economy.
  • Harris, Marshall D. Origin of the Land Tenure System in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1953. Evaluates the influence of colonial precedents on the Ordinance of 1785.
  • Hibbard, Benjamin H. A History of the Public Land Policies. New York: Peter Smith, 1960. A good treatment of the adoption and implementation of the Ordinance of 1785. Emphasizes political policies more than Robbins’s book.
  • Linklater, Andro. Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy. New York: Walker, 2002. Recounts how the land west of the Ohio River was purchased by the United States, surveyed, and opened up to settlement. Linklater describes how the the concept of private land ownership originated in the United States and is a crucial component of American democracy.
  • Morris, Richard B. The Forging of the Union, 1781-1789. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. Touches only briefly on the ordinance itself, but sets the political stage for land policies under the Articles of Confederation.
  • Pattison, William D. Beginnings of the American Rectangular Land Survey System, 1784-1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. Focuses far more on the principles behind the surveys—such as how land should be divided and what land reserved for public uses—than on the ideals behind Jefferson’s acts.
  • Robbins, Roy M. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936. New York: Peter Smith, 1962. A general survey of land laws and their application.
  • Treat, Payson Jackson. The National Land System, 1785-1820. New York: E. B. Treat, 1910. Reprint. Buffalo, N.Y.: W. S. Hein, 2003. A detailed analysis of the land acts in the early republic. Praises the survey system and details its problems in collecting money for the land.

American Revolutionary War

Ratification of the Articles of Confederation

Treaty of Paris

Fort Stanwix Treaty

Northwest Ordinance

Battle of Fallen Timbers

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State formation (United States)
Ordinance of 1785
Westward migration (North America)