in Wisconsin History
The Northwest Ordinance, 1787
Before the ink had dried on the U.S. Constitution, representatives of the thirteen colonies tried to figure out how new states might be added to their union. The result of their deliberations was the Ordinance of 1787, or the Northwest Ordinance, adopted July 13, 1787, by the Second Continental Congress.
The Northwest Ordinance specified four principal things. First, it authorized a provisional government for the vast territory northwest of the Ohio River that the United States had obtained at the end of the Revolutionary War. Second, it provided a method for making new governments out of that territory (the rules under which the Wisconsin Territory would be formed almost fifty years later). Third, it guaranteed a bill of rights to inhabitants of the new territories and prohibited slavery in them. Finally, it outlined a way to survey and denote the new lands so they could be sold to settlers.
The most powerful effect of the Ordinance of 1787 on Wisconsin came from the last provision, concerning the survey of public lands. This was probably drafted by Nathan Dane (for whom Dane County was named) and Rufus King, although it followed fairly closely a system proposed by Thomas Jefferson three years earlier.
The survey created by Jefferson, Dane, and King called for teams of surveyors to hike across the land, measuring it into six-mile squares called townships. They then subdivided each town into thirty-six-mile-square sections of roughly 640 acres. The surveyors kept notes on the main features of each section. The surveyors' notebooks were used to draw township maps, which were kept in local land offices to help sell the land to new owners.
The survey of Wisconsin began in 1832 at an initial point on the Wisconsin-Illinois border about ten miles east of the Mississippi, and it concluded in 1866 in the north woods. The first land offices opened in 1834 in Mineral Point and Green Bay. As settlement increased in these regions, land offices closed and new ones opened in more remote parts of the state.
[Sources: Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1998). Kellogg, Louise Phelps. The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest (Madison : State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1925). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]