What was the Land Ordinance of 1785?
It was a law that established a plan for surveying and selling
the federally owned lands west of the Appalachian mountains.
Following the American Revolution a number of states ceded to
the federal government their claims to land lying west of the
Appalachian Mountains. The cessions eased the worries of landless
states, cooled tensions between states with overlapping land
claims, and relieved the states of war debts. In turn, the federal
government had to determine what to do with the ceded land. The
Land Ordinance of 1785 laid the foundation for future American land
policy. After the Indian title had been purchased, the ceded lands
were to be systematically surveyed, prior to sale or settlement,
into townships. Of the thirty-six sections of 640 acres in each
township, the sixteenth was reserved "for the maintenance of public
The Land Ordinance of 1785 was adopted by Congress on May
20, 1785. Under the Articles of Federation, Congress did not have
the power to raise revenue by taxing of the inhabitants of the
United States. Therefore, the immediate goal of the ordinance was
to raise money through the sale of land in the largely unmapped
territory west of the original colonies acquired from the UK at the
end of the war.
In addition, the act provided for the political organization of
these territories. The earlier called for the land west of the
Appelachions north of the Oh. river and east of the Mississippi to
be divided into ten separate states. However, it did not define the
mechanism by which the land would become states, or how the
territories would be governed or settled before they became states.
The Ordinance of 1785, along with the N.W. Ord. of 1787, were
intended to address these political needs.