School Lands in Indiana -- Section 16

The purpose in setting aside one 640-acre section (#16) of the 36 such sections in a congressional township was to provide material public support for schools during the first half of the 19th century. For more than 30 years (1785 - 1816) this was the only form of such support in the area since called Indiana. This financial support was used principally for the construction and maintenance of the school building itself. Payment for teachers and supplies came from the families of the pupils until after mid-19th century.

The idea originated slightly more than a year after the defeat of Cornwallis on 19 October 1781 in the remaining units of the Continental Army quartered 50 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan near Newburgh, NY. In a movement by 285 officers led by Gen. Rufus Putnam and Col. Timothy Pickering to obtain up to 7 years of back pay from the Continental Congress, proposals were presented to Congress through George Washington which would gain this end with grants of the "Western Lands north and west of the Ohio River." Tracts of land in this grant area would be set aside for schools and religious organizations.

Only the school section provision survived in the Land Ordinance of 20 May 1785. This ordinance outlined the system for surveying with N-S meridians at 6-mile intervals intersecting E-W parallels at 6-mile intervals. The 36 square-mile townships thus marked off were subdivided into 36 mile-square sections of 640 acres each. These congressional townships are marked off regardless of the topography of the land surface. Civil townships have nothing in common with congressional townships but are organized as subdivisions of counties to facilitate governmental functions at local levels.

In the large portions of eastern Ohio purchased from Congress by Rufus Putnam and the Ohio Company of Associates on 27 July 1787 a section of each township was set aside for schools and another one for religious organizations; two entire townships (1280 acres) were also reserved for a university where today is Ohio University at Athens, Ohio.

Management of the school lands in Indiana Territory (1800 - 1816) was relegated by the Territorial Legislature to the Overseer of the Poor in each civil township on 17 September 1807. In this act penalties were set for cutting trees on the lands reserved 'for the use and support of schools, or for the use and support of religion." This and other references to religion in the act, when there was no provision for religious support in Indiana Territory, illustrate the extent to which early territorial legislation was copied from previous legislation in Ohio. One such reference to "ministers of the Gospel" specifies Christianity as the religion intended in these pre-statehood legislative acts.

A year later on 26 October 1808 the language of an act giving the oversight of school lands to the Courts of Common Please within their respective counties (at the time our Perry County was in Ohio Township of Knox County) shows that already by then legislation was independent of outside influence and was concentrating on local conditions and problems. In this act the courts received power to lease school lands for no longer than 5 years, the lessee being required "to clear at least ten acres for every quarter-section (160 acres) they may lease." This temporary legislation was to expire in less than 2 years.

On 14 December 1810 the legislature revised the preceding provisions by extending the term of a lease to 7 years, restricting one quarter-section to each lessee, allowing trustees to be appointed to manage the school lands so that the net proceeds would be applied to school support. Little or no educational benefit resulted from these optimistic legislative efforts.

The Statehood Enabling Act of Congress on 19 April 1816 specified that Section 16 be reserved for the support of public schools while the Indiana Constitution written in June 1816 provided that these lands could not be sold before 1820. Congress postponed such sales to 1827. The General Assembly was mandated by the Constitution to establish a system of education "from township schools to a state university wherein tuition shall be gratis and equally open to all." As the passage of time has shown, it was to be well into the jurisdiction of the Constitution of 1851 before tuition-free school was to take form and then only through the secondary level, never to the university level.

During the 35 years lifespan of the first Indiana Constitution (1816 - 1851) the congressional township of 36 sections was also the school township for which each Section 16 was to provide school support. The 1851 constitution altered this definition so that the school township and the civil township were the same. This complication, coupled with the increase of population and the consequent increase in the number and decrease in size of counties and townships, added to the confusion and unequal distribution of such revenues as were generated from Section 16 leases and sales.

Then, too the crudities of the Section 16 system, however unavoidable, eventually let to greater and greater inequalities of treatment. The system of surveying enacted in 1785 amounted primarily to finding out where lines drawn on a map actually fell when transferred to the land itself. The intrinsic value of Section 16s throughout the Northwest Territory varied from the nothingness of rocks and cliffs to swamps and marches to rich agricultural acreage. Also, the amount of revenue from early sales made when population was small was dwarfed by the amount received 40 to 80 years later when population growth added other non-intrinsic value to many Section 16s. But until other sources for school revenue were expanded after the 1851 Constitution was in force, the revenue from Section 16 was "the best game in town" for public support of schools.

The first Indiana State Legislature in late 1816 named a Superintendent of the School Section in each township. In 1824 three township trustees were authorized but not mandated to replace that superintendent in disposing of the school lands at their discretion. (Wait Vaughan is the only one know in township 7S, Range 3W.) After receiving authorization from Congress in response to an 1827 petition, the Legislature on 24 January 1828 authorized the trustees or superintendent to sell school lands and required that the revenue be loaned, the interest to be used for school tuition.

The expected mismanagement and corruption in this system led to the creation in 1831 of an elected School Commissioner for an entire county with a 3-year term of office. Samuel Connor was the first to serve in Perry County from 1833. John C. Reily succeeded him in 1836 and served 2 terms. Succeeding commissioners were George W. Patterson (1842), Jehu Hardy (1843) and Jesse C. Esary (1844). The office was discontinued with the enactment of the School Act of 1852.

Just where the school land revenues were invested was at the discretion of the School Commissioner until 1843 and nearly $30,000 throughout the state was squandered and lost. How Perry County fared has not been learned. Whatever the disposition of the revenue, all Section 16 land in Perry County seems to have been sold by 1849 for a total of $14,282.08.

Perhaps as a result of a somewhat ambiguous clause in the Enabling Act of 19 April 1816 some lands other than Section 16 were designated for school support in Perry County: Sec. 6, First clause -- "That the section numbered sixteen, in every township, and when such section has been sold, granted or disposed of, other lands equivalent thereto, and most contiguous to the same, shall be granted to the inhabitants of such township for the use of schools."

The tip of the Tobin Township peninsula fell into T8S - R2W in 4 fractional sections: #3 - 32.34 A., #4 - 325.96 A., #5 - 379.99 A. and #6 - 1.00 A., totaling 739.29 A. (The acre of #6 has long since disappeared down the river.) To compensate for the mission #16, 160 A. of Sec. 27, T7S, R2W, were sold for school support in T8, R2 on 6 August 1838 for $460.50.

While Fr. 16-7-3 is approximately proportional in size to Fr. T7 -R3, someone somewhere calculated that further school support was demanded and set aside 120 A. of Fr. NE 18-6-3 as school lands for T7-R3. This was sold on 16 February 1839 to Reuben Bates for $600.00. It lies less than a mile east of Troy and north of the Troy Ridge Road.

On that same 16 February 1839 John C. Reily, SCPC, also sold 16-7-3 in 30 lots ranging in size from 1 1/2 acre to 50 acres. There were two 50-acre lots and one 17 1/2-acre lot; twenty of the lots were smaller than 5 acres each. Although the auction yield totaled 4,554.00, some of the sales were not completed and those lots were re-sold a few years later.

In the entire state of Indiana there have been 650,317 acres of Section 16 land for schools. By 1890 all but 1830 acres had been sold for a total of $2,500,000.

Michael F. Rutherford
9 February 1988

MAP - School Lots, 1839

MAP - Cannelton and School Lots