Land was roamed over, settled on and farmed but never owned until Monarchs assumed ownership and gave land to nobles that helped them. But King Henry VIII of Britain confiscated over 200 monasteries in 1538 and sold the land to make money. Now land had monetary value but only to Gentlemen, the Landed Gentry.
There was no standard for land measure, an acre generally being based on how many it could feed making a fertile acre smaller than a non-fertile one. Edmund Gunter of England invented a chain that standardized the size of an acre.
Settlers to America were granted land in New England, squatted on or bought land in the south and the concept of ownership was so great that thousands flocked to our shores. Needing money after the Rev War, the Government decided in 1885 to measure and sell the Northwest Territory, Land north and west of the Ohio River. The measurement was to be by Gunter's chain and by lines running true east and west and North and south dividing land into township consisting of 36 one square mile sections. Each square mile section held 640 acres and was to sell at $640 or a dollar an acre. Each township was identified east to west by Ranges and North to south by Townships and each square mile by section number. But the work was slow and shoddy and congress called a halt to it in 1887 after only seven ranges had been completed. The minimum sale price of $640 was too high for most people and only $117,000 was raised.
Land companies then started buying land directly from the Govt including the Ohio Land Company in 1888 and former General Rufus Putnam led 47 settlers to a planned community they called Marietta at the Junction of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, becoming the first settlement in the territory.
After eight years, Congress renewed the survey under new Surveyor General Jared Mansfield. He chose as the Prime Meridian, a line separating Ohio from Indiana and continued to lay out a very accurate grid in 36 square mile townships. One problem with a survey of this type is as the north south lines grow further north, they get closer together because of the curvature of the earth and so Jared jogged the lines to a new start to prevent the error from accumulating. Since most roads today follow those lines, a sudden 90 degree jog in the road comes as a surprise in all of that flat land. As new land was acquired through the Mexican war and the Louisiana Purchase, the survey eventually surveyed and sold a billion acres.
During the presentation, maps were shown that were obtained from the great map collection of David Rumsey, Go to http://www.davidrumsey.com . under U.S. Public Survey to can find maps showing the layout of the grid in any state you are interested in. If you click on a map to enlarge it and click it again to select it, you can then scroll down the left column until you find Download in MrSid format. It will be a large download and you'll have to also download the MrSid viewer but it's the best way to view those maps in detail. The bars on the right of MrSid enable you to scroll or enlarge as do the icon on the top of the page.
To find if your ancestors bought land, go to http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/PatentSearch/Default.asp? . If you want to search all states at once, click on Standard and scroll down to All States. You can go to the Land Description or see the original document. Once you have the state and lot identification, you can go to David Rumsey and find the state map and locate the parcel. Also on that web page is a link to Resource Links the will take you this page that has many links to state resources: http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/Visitors/StateResearch.asp .