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Collection Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910

The Northwest and the Ordinances, 1783-1858

In many respects, the definition of political institutions and provisions for the surveying of land in the Old Northwest set the pattern for the rest of the new nation. Once eastern states renounced their claims in the Ohio country, there was a need to specify how those older states were to relate to whatever took shape in the largely unpopulated area. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set out a process by which land was to be organized as dependent territories and then as states fully equal in status to those already in the union. The right to vote was to be extended to almost all free white males. Rights of habeas corpus, trial by jury and religious freedom were guaranteed. Slavery was prohibited, in principle. (Effective prohibition of slavery was settled on state by state.) The related Ordinance of 1785 defined the process by which title to public lands was to be transferred to the states and to individuals. It instituted a survey system mapping out uniform squares of property (sections and townships) in terms of a uniform set of coordinates, and specified the terms of sale of the surveyed property. It also provided that public land would be set aside to the states to promote the development of education.

page 470
Composite of maps from Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Volume 11 (1888): 452-61.

Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota constituted what became the northern tier of states in the Northwest Territory. Each went through a territorial phase with boundaries considerably extended beyond those assigned to the state. Each was generous in scale compared to eastern states (like, say, Delaware or Rhode Island), with boundaries set out well in advance of settlement in arbitrary reference to natural features (lakes, rivers) and straight lines. An original provision that the southern tip of Lake Michigan define the southern boundary of the northern tier would have denied lake front to Indiana and Illinois and was substantially amended. Congress added the Upper Peninsula to Michigan as compensation for such amendments at Michigan's expense (with the thought that that area was pretty much worthless anyway!). Only that part of Minnesota east of the Mississippi belonged to the Northwest Territory, but for all practical purposes Minnesota was treated like its sister states in the northern tier. In all of them, traditional English rights were embedded in their institutions and their constitutions provided for universal (white) manhood suffrage and division among executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

A glance at a property or road map of the area or any part of it conveys a sense of how fully the land survey patterns in the Upper Midwest conform to the provisions of the 1785 Ordinance. Unless the topography positively forbids the practice (and often even when it does), properties and boundaries run in the straight lines dictated by the national system. The provision for the support of education through the sale of public lands played an important role in the commitment of the Upper Midwest states to the public support of education at all levels.

The system worked out in the Ordinances has proved to be wise, resilient and practical and applicable to most of the continental United States. The evolution of the Old Northwest pointed the way. By the time Minnesota came into the union in 1858, the process initiated in the 1780s was securely in place.

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