In 1785 the Continental Congress conceived the idea of selling its lands northwest of the Ohio River to help pay down the Revolutionary War debt. Its plan was to divide the territory into townships six miles square, then to divide every other township, in a checkerboard of 36 square-mile lots (later called sections). The undivided townships would be sold to land companies, while the square-mile lots would be sold directly to individual settlers as family farmsteads.
By the eve of the Revolution, it had become common practice in New England to survey unclaimed land into six-mile-square townships and then sell them to “proprietors.” But within those boundaries, the proprietors laid out farms in patterns that accorded with the topography and in sizes rarely exceeding a few acres. No one had ever conceived the idea of a family farm fully one mile square—640 acres—laid over the landscape with no regard to natural features.
Yet, this was the charge Congress laid before its new Geographer of the United States, Thomas Hutchins. He was to go to the recently surveyed point where the Pennsylvania border touches the north bank of the Ohio, and from there project a line due westward. At intervals of one mile along that line, a team from one of the 13 states would drive southward back to the Ohio River, laying out a column (to be called a range) of townships and dividing every other one into 36 lots. Hutchins was dogged by Indian raids, and in three surveying seasons he could complete only seven of these ranges of townships. This is the map Hutchins presented to Congress to record his survey of what has since been called The Seven Ranges. BH