The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787

How Wisconsin was Divided

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargePainting, in the Wisconsin State Capitol, of "The Signing of the American Constitution".

Signing of the American Constitution, 1910

Painting in the Wisconsin State Capitol, of "The Signing of the American Constitution", one of four mural paintings by Albert Herter on the west wall of the Supreme Court. The scene represents American law, and depicts the signing of the Constitution of the United States of America in 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with George Washington presiding over the occasion. View the original source document: WHI 44741

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 the union. The result was the Ordinance of 1787  or the Northwest Ordinance  adopted on July 13, 1787, by the Second Continental Congress.

The Northwest Ordinance

The Northwest Ordinance had four important stipulations. First, it authorized a provisional government for the 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. 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.


EnlargeMap reads, "Map of Wisconsin".

Wisconsin Map, 1854

Map reads, "Map of Wisconsin." The map includes the counties, an inset of the city of Milwaukee, total population of each county and of the state. The scale is ten miles per inch. View the original source document: WHI 48499

The most powerful effect of the Ordinance of 1787 came from the last provision, concerning the survey of public lands. Although it closely followed a system proposed by Thomas Jefferson, this last prerequisite was probably drafted by Nathan Dane  for whom Dane County was named — and Rufus King.

The survey called for teams to hike across the land, measuring it into six by six mile squares called townships. They then divided each township into 36 squares of 640 acres each. The surveyors' notes 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 ten miles east of the Mississippi. 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.

Learn More

[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)]