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Federal Land System

The Land Ordinance of 1785 established rules for the orderly survey, sale, and settlement of Public Domain Lands.  These rules divided land into 6-mile square townships, which were divided into 36 square townships, arranged in north – south rows – called ranges. Each township and range were numbered in consecutive sequence and based on an east-west base line. Section numbering would begin in the southeast corner of the township and move up each range.

The first use of this system corresponded with the Ohio Company Purchase of 1787 in Southeast Ohio.  The first base-line began where the North bank of the Ohio River touched Pennsylvania.

In 1796, the section numbering sequence was changed, beginning in the northeast corner and moving west across each range – the last number being in the southwest corner of each township.  In 1804, it was determined how to achieve accurate 6-mile squares despite a curved earth. A principal meridian became the north-south line for initiating a survey. The first meridian divided Indiana from Ohio.  In 1812, Congress established the General Land Office (in 1946, it became the Bureau of Land Management) which was responsible for managing the sell and distribution of Land Patents and Bounty Warrants.

Warrants and Patents

Under the Federal Land System, two types of land title were issued: the Land Patent and the Bounty Warrant. 

  • Land Patents – were purchased direct from the General Land Office.
  • Bounty Warrants – were issued as an enticement for service during the Revolution, War of 1812, various Indian Wars, and the Mexican-American War.

Records of both the Land Patents and the Bounty Warrants are available online from

Family Maps and HistoryGeo.Com

Arphax Publishing has produced a FamilyMap Book series covering counties in 29 of the 30 federal public land states (excludes Alaska).  The Arphax website has a detailed listing of which counties are currently available in book format. All volumes are held by St. Louis County Library. is also a product of Arphax Publishing - the “First Landowner Project.” Searchable database includes first landowner information of 12.3 million names connected to land ownership maps covering the 29 public land states and Texas.  All data exists here, whether a published print book exists. The database also features a historical map collection. Available remotely.

Resources for Mapping First Land Title in Public Land States

The US Federal Land System, established in 1788, covered 32 states. Learn about public land records and the tools that can help you in your research.