The View from the Airplane Window Seat

This fascinating article asks and answers a question that has puzzled me for years, and maybe it’s puzzled you too: “Have you ever wondered, as you have flown across the United States, why the land far below is organized into square grids?”

The author of the piece, property rights expert Gary Libecap, traces the origin of those square plots of land back to the founders: 

These rectangular patterns emerged by design, not by accident. The U.S. Land Law of 1785, drawn up by Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and others in the Continental Congress, decreed that all federal lands were to be surveyed into rectangles of 640 acres bounded by range and township lines prior to settlement and sale. Range and township lines were tied to latitude and longitude with a principal meridian.

Something so simple as arranging land in square plots–giving land clear and defined borders–can have an enormous impact on economic growth:

To see just how much the rectangular survey mattered for the American economy and whether the country’s founders in the Continental Congress had it right when they enacted the property legislation, economic Dean Lueck and I located an area in south central Ohio of 4.2 million acres (about one sixth of the total state’s acreage) called the Virginia Military District (VMD).

This region was claimed by Virginia, and in 1784 Congress granted the state the right to use those lands to compensate its Revolutionary War veterans. Virginia used the old metes and bounds demarcation system in the VMD. Surrounding it, however, were federal lands demarcated by the rectangular system defined by the 1785 Land Law. Otherwise these two sample areas were identical and, in any event, we could gather information on topography, river density, and land quality to control for any differences between the regions. This natural experiment allowed us to analyze how the rectangular property institution, implemented by the Continental Congress over 200 years ago, affected property rights to land, land values, and economic performance.

Using census data, we examined land values in the VMD and adjacent counties in two ways. First, we gathered land values, land characteristics, and individual owner attributes from the 1850 and 1860 censuses. Then we gathered land values for the same regions from 1850 through 1950 (the census changed the way it collected data after that so we could not go through 2010). We found that, controlling for land and owner characteristics, land values were around 25 percent higher under the rectangular system than under metes and bounds in 1850 and 1860. Further, extending the analysis for 100 years revealed that these land value differences persisted!

Pretty interesting, isn’t it? You can read the full article here. 

  1. dogsbody

    Also, when one is flying a single engine propeller plane, they make a dandy aid to navigation in the otherwise featureless Midwest.

  2. First Spouse

    Yes my father once flew from Dallas TX to Prince Albert SK using the grid lines.  But mostly I am amazed that apparently the Land Ordinance of 1785 is so little taught that well-educated people in today’s United States do not know that is why land west of the original 13 colonies is organized on grids. When I taught 8th grade history umpteen years ago, the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 were “had to be known” facts and were noted as perhaps the two best laws to be passed under the Articles of Confederation.

  3. Keith Preston
    First Spouse: Yes my father once flew from Dallas TX to Prince Albert SK using the grid lines.  But mostly I am amazed that apparently the Land Ordinance of 1785 is so little taught that well-educated people in today’s United States do not know that is why land west of the original 13 colonies is organized on grids. When I taught 8th grade history umpteen years ago, the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 were “had to be known” facts and were noted as perhaps the two best laws to be passed under the Articles of Confederation. · 12 minutes ago

    I assure you all, as a high school history teacher, we still teach both today.  I show my students the difference between the land in, say, New England, and then Ohio farmland.  It’s not just the topography, it’s the clear organization.  

    The land then became our “treasury” , and with Hamilton’s wise treasury policies, is one reason why, unlike many new independent countries, the US didn’t become bankrupt and fall into dictatorship.  Oh yea, and we thank that other important “old and tired” invention: the US Constitution, which followed shortly after.

  4. Jeff

    Texas doesn’t use township and range. The state marks land from the original Spanish land grants.

    Railroads were built along the borders of the land grants to give ranchers and farmers equal access to the rails. Today, the Texas Railroad Commission administers land survey, including mineral rights. It’s one of the most powerful institutions in Texas government.

  5. Misthiocracy

    Montana.jpgThere are places out west where the Canada/US border is visible from space, because of different land-use policies. On one side of the border, the grassland has been enclosed and used for farming. On the other side of the border, the grasslands have been left for cattle grazing.  Neat, eh?

    USCanBorder.jpgNow, almost any article you find on this phenomenon will claim that the US side has been converted to farmland and the Canadian side is grassland.  However, a cursory search with Google Maps shows areas where the phenomenon is reversed.

    Most articles also implicitly exaggerate the extent of the phenomenon. It’s really only applicable to a relatively minor stretch of the Alberta/Montana border.

  6. Misthiocracy

    Another interesting tidbit:

    If you compare farmland in Quebec, Ontario, and western Canada, the size and shape of the farms are distinctly different:

    The properties in Quebec were originally surveyed when it was a colony of France, in the early 18th century.

    The Ontario farmland was surveyed under British rule, in the early 19th century.

    The western Canadian farmland was mostly surveyed when the railroad was constructed, after 1867 when Canada became an autonomous Dominion.

  7. Chris Johnson

    There is a fascinating book out there, at least available in old book stores, “The Historical Geography of the United States”.  I have it boxed up, right now, but it was a Depression era WPA project.  If you can find a copy, you should grab it and study it.  The text that Emily quoted about the VMD is close to verbatim from that book.

    Something folks may not be aware of that is interesting, from the conservative perspective, is that the rail lines were built with cash prizes, but also with every other Section (mile, length and width) of land along the rail lines becoming, mostly, the property of the rail line builder.

    The rail lines settled the west, by promoting lands to settlers and immigrants.  We tend to have a settling image of the rail lines coming in and boosting communities.  The reality was that the rail lines boosted vast tracts of land and moved people into the middle of nowhere, that then settled and created communities.

    There is so much more fascinating stuff in that book and I commend it to you.