Rectangular Survey System

The United States’ vast land area made it difficult to figure out its borders as the country grew westward back in the days. There was a need to have a standard consistent measurement for a large area of land since the U.S quickly extended beyond the original 13 colonies. Thus, it led to the creation of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), also known as the Rectangular Survey System which was originally proposed by then U.S President Thomas Jefferson. 


This system became the most extensive mapping project ever conducted in the United States. Although Jefferson’s concept was based on a decimal system—the 10 miles by 10 miles townships were changed to the current size of 6 miles by 6 miles. The Rectangular Survey System was then formalized by the 1785 Land Ordinance Act and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance to mark large tracts of land that the country acquired in its early years.


How does it work?


The Rectangular Survey System is a method of surveying designed to divide the real property into specified plots. It is considered as one of the most significant subdividing of the United States’ mainland. This system is also needed to divide all of the lands in the public domain which is possessed by the US federal government to benefit the American citizens. Many plans have been made on how to subdivide the public domain lands. But the final plan included subdivision of the lands into townships, then into sections and further into aliquot parts.


Prior to the land ordinance of 1785 and the Rectangular Survey System, the state lands’ state which would be the 13 colonies, surveyed their land with meets and bound system. Just imagine you are to layout an area of land based on the geography, the meets, and bound system will show you the visible marks of the land. It is the land’s boundary lines that also have terminal points and angles. Also, the meets and bounds system is used to describe land by listing the compass directions and distances of the boundaries.


Base Line and Principal Meridian


The implementation of the system begins with the identification of the reference lines: the east-west line called the Base Line and the north-south line is also known for the name principal meridian. In the survey method, there has to be the creation of an initial point. It will serve as the basis for surveys of government in a specified area under its jurisdiction. Moreover, the astronomical observations will then determine the area’s latitude and longitude.


The Base Line in United States’ Rectangular Survey System meets its principal meridian at the point of origin, or initial point, for the survey of the land. Take for example; there is a shared baseline in both Nebraska and Kansas’ as both states’ border is at the 40th parallel north. The roads in a lot of communities in the U.S. run along survey Base Lines as well just like in Arkansas, especially in Little Rock, the baseline road follows the baseline used by the Louisiana Purchase surveyors.


Guide Meridians and Standard Parallels

The earth’s curvature led to the creation of additional lines called Guide Meridians that is perpendicular to the baseline. It is extended north from the Base Line and runs at 24 miles east and west from the principal meridian. Lines that are parallel to the Base Line are called the standard parallels which run at 24-mile intervals north and south of the Base Line. Standard Parallels are also called as correction lines for the meridians to compensate for the curvature of the earth. The line intersections have established a large grid that controls the subdivision of grids to smaller ones.

Ranges and Townships

As you go to the east or west from principal meridian, you will see the range lines established by the surveyors that are created at 6 nominal mile intervals. Meanwhile, along the north or south of the Base Line are the township lines which are also at 6 nominal mile intervals. Each of the 6 by 6 nominal square miles is called a Township. So, the township is therefore defined by determining the number of townships in north or south of the Base Line and the number of ranges in east or west of the principal meridian.

Take for example; a first township north of the Base Line and east of the Principal Meridian is defined as Township 1 North, Range 1 East. If it is the fourth township of the south of the Base Line and third of west of the Principal Meridian, we legally identify is as Township 4 North, Range 5 West.


The 36 square mile township is still a big area. Therefore, it is further divided to 36 sections since a township is six miles by six miles and each one forming a section equivalent to 1 square mile or 640 acres. This is done by passing through each of the township lines parallel to the southern and eastern border of the township. Sections are numbered accordingly from 1 to 36 starting in the northeast corner of the township and going in serpentine form, ending with section 36 in the southeast corner of the township.

Further subdivisions

Since a one-mile square does not identify a location very well, the 640 acres section is then further divided into fractional parts or subdivisions to suit the convenience of the owners of the land. A section is divided into quarters and named as the northeast quarter, northwest quarter, southeast quarter, and a southwest quarter.

Each quarter of a section is equal to 160 acres, and can further be divided into quarters that are equivalent to 40 acres, and divided up to even smaller units of 2.5 acres. Usually, 10-acre portions are the smallest. Every piece of land is defined according to the portion of the section it covers. For example, if someone purchased the northeast corner of section 22 (160 acres) of a township, the property would be known as the northeast quarter of section 22, township 1 north, range 1 east.

The U.S. Public Lands Survey is regarded as a cadastral survey that sets boundaries for land ownership. More or less 1.5 billion acres have already been surveyed in several townships and areas in the previous 2 centuries. The Bureau of Land Management is the official keeper of all the Federal Government’s cadastral records of surveys and reports for more than 200 years. 


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