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Public Land Survey System

The Public Land Survey System (PLSS) is a method used in the United States to locate and identify land, particularly for titles and deeds of farm or rural land. The system is in use in all states except the original 13, Vermont, Texas, and Hawaii. The system has been in general use since the Land Ordinance of 1785[?]. Its basic units are the township, and section.
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History of the System The system was created by the Land Ordinance of 1785. It has been expanded and slightly modified but continues in use in most of the States west of Pennsylvania, west to the Pacific Ocean and north into the arctic.

Origins of the System

The original colonies continued the British system of meets and bounds. This system describes property lines based on what meets the eye, and bounds drawn by humans. A typical (but simple) description under this system might read "From the point on the north bank of Muddy Creek one mile above the junction of Muddy and Indian Creeks, north for 400 yards, then northwest to the large standing rock, west to the large oak tree, south to Muddy Creek, then down the center of the creek to the starting point.

Particularly in New England, this system was supplement by drawing up town plats. The meets and bounds system was used to describe a town of a generally rectangular shape, 4-6 miles on a side. Within this boundary, a map or plat was maintained that showed all the individual lots or properties.

There are some difficulties with this system:

  • Irregular shapes for properties make for much more complex descriptions.
  • Over time, these descriptions become problematic as trees die or streams move by erosion.
  • It isn't useful for the large, newly surveyed tracts of land being opened in the west.

In addition this system didn't work until there were already people on the ground to maintain records. In the 1783 Treaty of Paris recognizing the United States, Britain also recognized American rights to the land south of the Great Lakes and west to the Mississippi River. The Continental Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785 and then the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 to control the survey, sale, and settling of the new lands.

Applying the System

The first surveys under the new system started at the Pennsylvania border in Ohio. Ohio was basically surveyed in several major subdivisions, each with its own range and base descriptions. (See History of Ohio[?].) As you proceed west, the system seems simpler since there is frequently one major north-south line (principal meridian) and one east-west (base) line that control descriptions for the entire state. County lines also follow the survey, so there are a lot of rectangular counties.

There are four major exceptions to the universal application of this system. Louisiana recognized early French and Spanish descriptions, particularly in the southern part of the state. Texas has a hybrid of its own early system, based on Spanish land grants, and a variation of the PLSS. California is similar to Texas in that the southern part of the state is based on Spanish Land grants. Hawaii adopted a system based on the native system in place at the time of annexation. Mechanics The section is a square mile, or 640 acres. A township is 36 sections, or a square 6 miles on a side. First two principal survey lines are established (baseline for east-west) and range line (north south). Each township is numbered based on its relative position from these lines (e.g. T2N, R3E). The sections within a township are numbered using a standard pattern, starting in the NE corner, the first row in numbered east to west, the second row (sections 7-12) is numbered west to east. This provcess continues until section 36 is reached in the SW corner.

The anchor point is established at the northeast corner of the township, typically by measuring 6 miles from the last corner marker on the range line. Particularly in the early days, these distances were easier to check based on the height of the sun in the southern sky. A field marker was planted by the surveyor at the anchor point. The 36 sections are then laid out, and section corner markers may be planted. There are some more technical adjustments made about every ten miles to account for the curvature of the earth.

Understanding Property Descriptions

A description of a ten acre parcel of land under this system would be described as NW SW SE sec. 22 T2S R3E. These descriptions are interpreted from right to left, so we are describing a plot of land in the township that is the third east of the Range Line (R3E) and the second south of the base line (T2S). We are also looking at section 22 in that township (refer to the grid above). Next that section is divided into quarters (160 acres each), and we should be in the SE quarter section. That section is divided again in quarters (40 acres) and the description calls for the SW quarter. Last in this description, it is quartered again (into 10 acre plots) at we want the NW quarter.

So, in language, the example plot is the NW quarter of the SW quarter of the SE quarter of section 22 in the second township south of the base line in the third township east of the Range line. Some descriptions will use other references such as S 1/2 to refer to the south half of a quarter section. As an area became settled a township and county name might replace the range and base line numbers, but they can always be traced backwards.

Most western states have only one base line, on one border of the state. (Notice that these states have straight line borders to the north or south.) This means that all the townships are either north of south. They also have one range line, typically on a meridian. (For examples, the Kansas range line is 97 W of Grenwich).

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