FEDERAL SURVEY SYSTEM
When the American Revolution was over, the new government had no money -- but, it had land. To pay soldiers for their service, the government gave a soldier a land warrant as payment. A warrant is a claim, in this case to a certain number of acres in the Western Territory. Warrants differed according to how long a man served in the military and what his rank was. If the soldier died in the war, then his family received the warrant for his land.
Describing specific pieces of land was not easy. The boundaries were unclear because no consistent method had been established for marking tracts of land. Areas of land are called parcels. Most parcels were only described as a certain amount of land (a number of acres) in a general region.
Members of the new Congress knew that the land parcels in the western territories needed to be described more precisely. Congress passed the Public Land Act of 1785. They recommended that land be marked in areas shaped like squares. The Earth's surface is round and not flat, so parcels would not be perfectly square, but they could be close enough.
The land in the Northwest Territory was to be surveyed and divided into tracts of land six miles square (6 miles x 6 miles), called townships. Then each township would be divided into 36 sections, each being 1 mile x 1 mile square. Each township and each section was assigned a number so it could be identified. One square mile is equal to 640 acres of land. The land that was surveyed using this method was to have been sold for $1 an acre or $640 per section. Within each township a section was to be saved, not sold, in order to provide money to support new schools. In many townships, this was Section 16 which is located near the center of the township.
This system of measuring and marking land for public use is known as the Federal Survey System. It was first used in eastern Ohio in an area just west of the Ohio River. This survey was called the Seven Ranges.
This system of surveying land was carried into many other American lands, as the country grew. Grids were not always established in 6 mile x 6 mile sections, but the rectangular system was imitated because it worked so well.
[Extracted from a publication of the Auditor of the State of Ohio titled, "Along the Ohio Trail; A Short History of Ohio Lands." Researched and written by Tanya West Dean, B.A., History, Wittenberg University and W. David Speas, B.S., Education, Heidelberg College. Edited by: Dr. George W. Knepper, Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, The University of Akron. Third paperback edition 2002]