The Public Land system in the U.S. is an outgrowth of the Northwest Territory. The Territory was created by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 from lands that had been ceded to the fledgling U.S. government by Virginia and some other states. (The text of that ordinance is available on-line.)
The Northwest Ordinance is a wonderful document which had a tremendous influence on the development of the United States west of the original states - but it says not a single word anywhere within it about surveying or sales of land, or the federal rectangular survey system. The relevant documents are the Land Ordinance of May 20, 1785, and the Land Ordinance of May 18, 1796. The first set up the rectangular survey system and the second changed the numbering system for sections which has been used ever since. The early (different) section numbering system is principally limited to land in Ohio. [Statute citations from Thomas Aquinas Burke, Ohio Lands, Columbus, Ohio: Auditor of the State of Ohio, 1987]
Melissa Calhoun has an excellent description of the Section, Township, and Range surveying system that was employed for the settlement of thirty states. You should also check out Tom Cloud's site for information on how the public land states were surveyed.
The requirements for acquiring public land were eased over a period of years, culminating in the Homestead Act of 1862 which made it possible to get title to land for free provided that the land was improved and occupied by the claimholder.
Many of the original cash sales of "Eastern States" public lands to individuals are searchable on-line at the Bureau of Land Management's GLO records site. They also have additional information about public lands, including an informative FAQ.
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