Order on the Land: The Rectangular System of Surveys

When we look at a map of Iowa we see many squares. This is no accident. The reason for the squares goes back to a law passed in 1785, just after the American Revolution ended. The peace treaty signed between the United States and Great Britain gave the United States millions of acres of land. Most of the land lay west of the Appalachian Mountains and was largely unsettled except for native Indian tribes. When peace with Great Britain came, Americans pushed westward.

Chaos Before the Order

It would have been unwise to allow people to move into the west and choose their farm sites in a disorganized way. Up to this time in our nation's history, there had been no uniform system for land settlement. Sometimes the land was laid out in long narrow rectangles with one narrow end fronting on a road or river. Other times someone just claimed a good piece of land, choosing boundaries along the natural terrain, creeks or rivers. Someone else might then make another claim nearby, using trees as markers. Both plots would have irregular shapes. Still another settler might claim the in-between piece, the boundaries of which would be made by the first two claims. Plots of all sizes and shapes were the result. The only way to map these lands was through a careful description of landmarks along the boundaries.

The Land Ordinance of 1785

The United States government created a plan that gave order to the settlement of the land it wanted to sell. The plan was called the Land Ordinance of 1785. First the government acquired large regions of land from the Indian tribes through various purchases or treaties. Surveyors then located boundaries and natural features according to a special system. This system, called the rectangular survey, provided a way to clearly record boundaries of land ownership. It helped to settle and prevent boundary disputes. It also caused the checkerboard appearance that many states, counties and cities have on the map today.

Rectangular System Established Townships

  1. Land was divided into six-mile square areas called townships.
  2. After the townships were surveyed, each one was divided into numbered sections. Each section contained one square mile (640 acres).
  3. Each section was given its own number, starting with “1” in the northeastern corner,
  4. Each section was divided into four parts called quarter-sections. These were named by their location in the section - NE(northeast), NW (northwest), SE (southeast), and SW (southwest). Each quarter contained 160 acres.
  5. These sections could then be further subdivided for sale to settlers and land speculators.

Connection to Education

The rectangular system was also important because it was used to establish public education. The 16th section in each township was supposed to be reserved for schools. Many schools today are still found in what was the 16th section of their respective townships.

It Made an Orderly System

It sounds like a complicated system. But it actually made for a very orderly and simple system of mapping the large areas of land. Iowa towns and cities are located where they are because of the planning of these early surveyors.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “Order on the Land,” The Goldfinch 4, no. 3 (February 1983): 12.
  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “The Rectangular System of Surveys” The Goldfinch 4, no. 3 (February 1983): 13.


Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.