Public Land Survey System

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Seal of the BLM

The Public Land Survey System (PLSS) is the surveying method used historically over the largest fraction of the United States to survey and spatially identify land parcels before designation of eventual ownership, particularly for rural, wild or undeveloped land. It is sometimes referred to as the rectangular survey system (although non rectangular methods such as meandering can also be used). The survey was "the first mathematically designed system and nationally conducted cadastral survey in any modern country" and has been cited as "an object of study by public officials of foreign countries as a basis for land reform."[1] Much of the actual surveying was done in the nineteenth century under a contract system managed by the General Land Office (GLO) resulting in the eventual creation of the State Plane Coordinate System. Required and suggested survey methods have changed over time, as described in a series of Instructions and Manuals issued by the GLO beginning in 1851, although the basic framework has remained substantially unchanged since several experimental methods were first used in Ohio, the first state surveyed under the system (and site of the Beginning Point of the U.S. Public Land Survey).[2] The latest edition of the guidelines is the "Manual of Surveying Instructions (2009)" available from the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Figure 1. This BLM map depicts the principal meridians and baselines used for surveying states (colored) in the PLSS.

History of the system[edit]

Map of territorial growth 1775
Monument referencing the beginning point of the PLSS

Originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson to create a nation of "yeoman farmers",[3] the PLSS began shortly after the American Revolutionary War, when the federal government became responsible for large areas of land west of the original thirteen states. The government wished both to distribute land to Revolutionary War soldiers in reward for their services, as well as to sell land as a way of raising money for the nation. Before this could happen, the land needed to be surveyed.[3]

The Land Ordinance of 1785 was the beginning of the Public Land Survey System. The Continental Congress was deeply in debt following the Declaration of Independence. With little power to tax, the federal government decided to use the sale of the Western Territories to pay off American Revolutionary War debt. It has been expanded and slightly modified by Letters of Instruction and Manuals of Instruction, issued by the General Land Office and the Bureau of Land Management and continues in use in most of the states west of Pennsylvania, south to Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, west to the Pacific Ocean, and north into the Arctic in Alaska.

Origins of the system[edit]

The original colonies (including their derivatives Maine, Vermont, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia) continued the British system of metes and bounds. This system describes property lines based on local markers and bounds drawn by humans, often based on topography. A typical, yet 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 supplemented by drawing town plats. The metes-and-bounds system was used to describe a town of a generally rectangular shape, 4 to 6 miles (~6 to 10 km) 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 wasn't useful for the large, newly surveyed tracts of land being opened in the west, which were being sold sight unseen to investors.

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. The original 13 colonies donated their western lands to the new Union, for the purpose of giving land for new states. These include the lands that formed the Northwest Territory, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. The state that gave up the most was Virginia, whose original claim included most of the Northwest Territory and Kentucky, too. Some of the western land was claimed by more than one state, especially in the Northwest, where parts were claimed by Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, all three of which had claimed lands all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Applying the system[edit]

The first surveys under the new rectangular system were in eastern Ohio in an area called the Seven Ranges.

The Beginning Point of the U.S. Public Land Survey is located at a point on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border between East Liverpool, Ohio and the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, on private property. A National Historic Landmark marker commemorating the site lies on the side of a state highway, exactly 1,112 feet (339 m) to the north of the point.[4]

Ohio was surveyed in several major subdivisions, collectively described as the Ohio Lands, each with its own meridian and baseline. The early surveying, particularly in Ohio, was performed with more speed than care, with the result that many of the oldest townships and sections vary considerably from their prescribed shape and area. Proceeding westward, accuracy became more of a consideration than rapid sale, and the system was simplified by establishing one major north-south line (principal meridian) and one east-west (base) line that control descriptions for an entire state or more. For example, a single Willamette Meridian serves both Oregon and Washington. County lines frequently follow the survey, so there are many rectangular counties in the Midwest and the West.

Non-PLSS regions[edit]

The system is in use in some capacity in most of the country, but large portions use other systems.

The territory under the jurisdiction of the Thirteen Colonies at the time of independence did not adopt the PLSS, with the exception of the area that became the Northwest Territory and some of the Southern states. This territory is now Georgia, Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The old Cherokee lands in Georgia use the term section as a land designation, but does not define the same area as the section used by the PLSS.

Maine uses a variant of the system in unsettled parts of the state.

Other major exceptions to PLSS are

  • California, before statehood in 1850, was only crudely surveyed with the boundaries of Spanish and Mexican land grants (ranchos) only roughly described; since statehood the PLSS system has been used mostly throughout.
  • Hawaii adopted a system based on the Kingdom of Hawaii native system in place at the time of annexation.
  • Louisiana recognizes early French and Spanish descriptions called arpents, particularly in the southern part of the state, as well as PLSS descriptions.
  • New Mexico uses the PLSS, but has several areas that retain original metes and bounds left over from Spanish and Mexican rule. These take the form of land grants similar to areas of Texas and California.
  • Ohio's Virginia Military District was surveyed using the metes and bounds system. Areas in northern Ohio (primarily what originally was the Connecticut Western Reserve) were surveyed with an earlier standard, often referred to as Congressional Survey townships, which are just five miles (8 km) on each side instead of six. Hence, there are 25 sections per township there, rather than 36.
  • Texas has a hybrid of its own early system, based on Spanish land grants, and a variation of the PLSS.
  • Wisconsin had French settlement prior to the PLSS in the areas of Green Bay and Prairie du Chien. Both have small amounts of the long, narrow French lots along some water frontage.
  • Michigan had French settlement prior to the PLSS along the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, and near Sault Ste. Marie, Marquette, and Ypsilanti. These were all examples of the French "long lots".

Survey design and execution[edit]

Illustration of the system from the National Atlas

Commonly used terms[edit]

  • Aliquot part: A terse, hierarchical reference to a piece of land, in which successive subdivisions of some larger area are appended to the beginning of the reference. For example, SW1/4 NW1/4 S13, T1SR20E refers to the southwest quarter of the northwest quarter of section 13 of Township 1 South Range 20 East (a 40 acre parcel). See further discussion below.
  • Base Line: A parallel of latitude, referenced to and established from a designated initial point, upon which all rectangular surveys in a defined area are based. Also spelled baseline.
  • BLM: Bureau of Land Management, the successor agency to the General Land Office
  • Cadastral: Having to do with the boundaries of land parcels.
  • Corner: The point of intersection of any two actual or potential survey lines, defining one corner of a rectangular land parcel.
  • Lot: A subdivision of a section which is not an aliquot part of the section, but which is designated separately. A lot is typically irregular in shape and its acreage varies from that of regular aliquot parts.
  • Initial point: The starting point for a survey; the intersection point of the Principal Meridian and the Base line in a given region.
  • Land grant: Historically a land grant is an area of land to which title was conferred by a predecessor government, usually Spanish or Mexican, and confirmed by the U.S Government Courts after the territory was acquired by the United States.
  • Monumentation: Placement and/or marking of physical objects on the ground to mark survey points and lines.
  • PLSS: Public Land Survey System
  • Original Survey The first official government survey in a given area. Unless fraud is proven, the original survey is legally valid and binding, regardless of any surveying errors that may have occurred. All subsequent subdivision, sale, etc. must proceed from the original survey. In the United States, most original surveys were done under contract with the General Land Office.
  • Principal meridian (PM): A true meridian running through an initial point, which together with the baseline, form the highest level framework for all rectangular surveys in a given area. The list of all principal meridians is given below.
  • Public domain (land): Land owned and managed by the Federal government. Synonymous with public lands. National Parks and National Forests are a large part of the public domain land today. The original public domain included the lands that were turned over to the Federal Government by the original 13 States, and areas acquired from the native Indian tribes or foreign powers.
  • Range (Rng, R): A measure of the distance east or west from a referenced principal meridian, in units of six miles.
  • Section: An approximately one-square-mile block of land. There are 36 sections in a survey township.
  • Township (Twp, T): (1) Synonym for survey township, i.e., a square parcel of land of 36 square miles, or (2) A measure of the distance north or south from a referenced baseline, in units of six miles.
  • Witness: Any marker set on the ground that marks or represents some other, nearby object or location of surveying importance, such as a corner. A bearing tree is a witness to a survey corner

Survey design[edit]

The surveying of any regional area, such as a state or two, is a multi-step process. First, two controlling survey lines are established: a baseline, which runs east-west and a principal meridian, which runs north-south (Fig. 1). The locations of the two are determined by a previously chosen initial point, where they originate and thus intersect. Next, at a defined distance interval, commonly 24 or 30 miles (48 km) depending on the year and location, standard parallels of latitude are established parallel to the baseline. The meridian, baseline and standard parallels thus established form a lattice upon which all further surveying is then based. Subsequent work divides the land into survey townships of roughly 36 square miles (~93 km2) or 6 miles (~9.7 km) on each side. This is done by the establishment of township and range lines. Township lines run parallel to the baseline (east-west), while range lines are true meridians and thus run north-south; each are established at six mile (10 km) intervals. Lastly, townships are subdivided into 36 sections of approximately one square mile (640 acres, ~2.6 km2) and sections into four quarter-sections of 0.25 square mile (160 acres, ~0.65 km2) each. (See descriptions and figures illustrating the system). The intersection of a township line (or baseline) with a range line (or principal meridian) constitutes a township corner, of a section line with any other type of line a section corner, and a point halfway between any two section corners a quarter corner. The federal government typically surveyed only to this quarter-section level, the subdivision of smaller parcels being carried out subsequently by private surveyors after original sale.

Because the survey design is two-dimensional (rectangular), while the actual earth is three-dimensional (~ spherical), adjustments to land areas must be made periodically to prevent error propagation; not all sections can be one square mile nor can all townships be exactly 36 square miles. More specifically, all north-south running lines (all range lines and half of all section lines), as with the prime meridian, are always established with reference to true, geodetic north. But it is a physical impossibility to meet this condition and still maintain a rectangular land grid, because such lines converge on the north pole—they are meridians.

These adjustments are done at two different scales. At the small scale (within a township) it is done by starting the sectional surveys (township "subdivisions") in the southeast corner and moving progressively toward the northwest corner. The algorithm used is to move northward to establish the six eastern-most sections (and quarter-sections), then move west at one mile intervals, repeating this process, until the western side of the township is reached. The result of this is that the northernmost and westernmost tiers of sections—-11 in all—-are thus allowed to deviate from one square mile, but the other (southeasterly-most) 25 sections are not. This method accommodates the curvature problem within a township, and it also allows for any errors made during the surveying itself—-which were nearly unavoidable due to the physical difficulty of the work and the crude equipment used—-without overly compromising the basic rectangular nature of the system as a whole. At the larger multiple township scale, the standard parallels mentioned above allow a longitudinal re-setting of township corner locations, so that townships widths do not continually decrease as one proceeds north (and is in fact the primary reason for their establishment). Thus, corrections for curvature of the earth exist at two separate spatial scales—a smaller scale within townships, and a larger scale between multiple townships and within standard parallels.

Figure 2. This General Land Office diagram shows the theoretical sectioning of a standard survey township.

A specific and terse location descriptor is always used, in which the townships and sections are indexed based on (1) the township's position relative to the initial point, (2) the section's location within the designated township, and (3) the principal meridian reference. Township, range, and section are abbreviated as T, R, and S, respectively, and cardinal bearings from the initial point by N, S, E, and W; each principal meridian also has its established abbreviation. Thus, for example, the description "T1SR20E S13 MDM" reads as follows: Township 1 South, Range 20 East, Section 13, Mount Diablo Meridian. That is, the 13th section in the first township south of the baseline (in this case, the Mount Diablo Baseline) and the 20th township east of the principal meridian (the Mount Diablo Meridian). Since township and range lines are six miles apart, the "T1SR20E" part of the designation instantly places the location somewhere between zero and six miles south of the baseline, and 114 and 120 miles east of the principal meridian. Knowing how sections are numbered within townships, we identify section 13 as therefore occupying the one square mile located 2 to 3 miles south, and 119 to 120 miles east, of the Mount Diablo initial point (in central California). Note that the sections within a township are numbered in an unconventional, Boustrophedon pattern (Fig. 2), in which alternating rows are numbered in opposite directions, starting from section 1 in the northeast corner and ending with section 36 in the southeast corner, as per Figure 2. Therefore, section 13 is adjacent to the eastern range line of the designated township. Numbering in this pattern ensures that numerically sequential sections within the same township are physically adjacent, and share colinear boundaries.

Figure 3. Kent County, Michigan in 1885 as a PLSS example, showing 24 named townships and sectional subdivisions.

Survey execution: measurement[edit]

Distances were always measured in chains and links, based on Edmund Gunter’s 66 foot measuring chain. The chain--an actual metal chain--was made up of 100 links, each being 7.92 inches (201 mm) long. Eighty chains constitute one U.S. Survey Mile (which differs from the International Mile by a few millimeters). There were two chainmen, one at each end, who physically made the measurements, one of them typically also acting as "compassman" to establish the correct bearing at each chain placement. In forested areas, it was essential for rapid progress and accuracy that the lead chainman follow the correct bearing at all times, since no straightening of the chain was possible without backtracking around trees and re-measuring. It was also necessary to keep the chain level, since all surveying distances are based on the horizontal, not slope, distance. In steep terrain, this meant either shortening the chain, or raising one end of the chain relative to the other, or both. In areas where measuring by chain was not possible, such as extremely steep terrain or that with water obstructions, distances were calculated by triangulation.

Survey execution: monumentation[edit]

Monumentation is the establishment of permanent on-the-ground objects that mark exact locations of surveyed points and lines. They are the legally binding markers used for setting property lines and as such are the culminating work of any survey. They consist of both corner monuments as well as nearby accessory objects that "witness" to them. Witness objects allow subsequent surveyors and landowners to find the original corner monument location should the actual monument itself be destroyed. It was not uncommon for squatters or homesteaders to destroy corner monuments if they felt the patenting of the land would threaten their residence on it. For this reason, destruction of corner monuments, or their accompanying witness objects was, and still is, a federal offense.

At corners, corner monuments are established to mark their exact location on the ground. As with most PLSS specifications, those for corner monumentation also changed over time. In the 19th century, monuments were commonly a rock pile, a wooden post, or a combination of the two. Trees could be used if the corner happened to fall at the exact spot where one grew. In the 20th century, steel pipes with caps, supported by mounds of rock, became required (e.g. Fig. 4). Witnesses can be trees, rocks, or trenches dug in the ground; their exact locations relative to the corner, and the markings made on them, are also recorded in the surveyor's official field notes. Witness trees at corners are more commonly referred to as bearing trees because the exact distance and bearing from the corner, to them, was required to be recorded (as well as the taxon and diameter).

Figure 4. The engraved cap on a corner monument pipe, in western Yosemite National Park, placed in 1905 during the Park boundary resurvey

On each bearing tree, two blazes were typically required, one about chest height and easily visible, and one at ground level (in case the tree were illegally cut, the stump remaining). On the exposed wood of the blaze, surveyors were required to inscribe, with wood chisels, township, range and section information, on typically either two or four bearing trees, if they were within some reasonable distance of the corner (unspecified early on but later set at a maximum of 3 chains (178 feet, 60 meters) away). Bearing trees are of vital importance not just for these land boundary purposes, but also for their use by ecologists in the estimation of historic forest vegetation conditions before settlement, and large scale human disturbance, of the land. No other data set comes close to providing this estimate of original forest composition and structure, and the data have accordingly been used very heavily.

Along survey lines, monumentation was much less elaborate, consisting primarily of only the blazing and some very simple scribing of trees directly on, or very close to, the survey line. The purpose was simply to help retrace a surveyed line should that become necessary. It was also additional proof that the line had in fact been run correctly, especially in those cases where the blazed "line tree"'s pertinent information (species, diameter and distance from previous corner) was recorded in the field notes, as they often were required to be.

Information to be recorded[edit]

What was to be observed and recorded by the surveyors during the execution of the work varied over time. Furthermore, how well individual surveying parties actually met the requirements or recommendations at the time, also varied. The following is a list[5] of the more commonly required landscape and surveying items that were either required or requested be noted, over much of the nineteenth century.

  1. The precise length of every line run, noting all necessary offsets therefrom, with the reason and mode thereof.
  2. The kind and diameter of all "bearing trees", with the course and distance of the same from their respective comers; and the precise relative position of witness corners to the true corners.
  3. The kinds of materials (earth or stone) of which mounds are constructed—the fact of their being conditioned according to instructions - with the course and distance of the "pits", from the centre of the mound, where necessity exists for deviating from the general rule.
  4. Trees on line. The name, diameter, and distance on line to all trees which it intersects.
  5. Intersections by line of land objects. The distance at which the line first intersects and then leaves every settler's claim and improvement; prairie; river, creek, or other "bottom"; or swamp, marsh, grove, and wind fall, with the course of the same at both points of intersection; also the distances at which you begin to ascend, arrive at the top, begin to descend, and reach the foot of all remarkable hills and ridges, with their courses, and estimated height, in feet, above the level land of the surrounding country, or above the bottom lands, ravines, or waters near which they are situated.
  6. Intersections by line of water objects. All rivers, creeks, and smaller streams of water which the line crosses; the distance on line at the points of intersection, and their widths on line. In cases of navigable streams, their width will be ascertained between the meander corners, as set forth under the proper head.
  7. The land's surface - whether level, rolling, broken, or hilly.
  8. The soil - whether first, second, or third rate.
  9. Timber - the several kinds of timber and undergrowth, in the order in which they predominate.
  10. Bottom lands - to be described as wet or dry, and if subject to inundation, state to what depth.
  11. Springs of water - whether fresh, saline, or mineral, and the course of the stream flowing from them.
  12. Lakes and ponds - describing their banks and giving their height, and also the depth of water, and whether it be pure or stagnant.
  13. Improvements. Towns and villages; Indian towns and wigwams; houses or cabins; fields, or other improvements; sugar tree groves, sugar camps, mill seats, forges, and factories.
  14. Coal banks or beds; peat or turf grounds; minerals and ores; with particular description of the same as to quality and extent, and all diggings therefore; also salt springs and licks. All reliable information you can obtain respecting these objects, whether they be on your immediate line or not, is to appear in the general description to be given at the end of the notes.
  15. Roads and trails, with their directions, whence and whither.
  16. Rapids, cataracts, cascades, or falls of water, with the height of their fall in feet.
  17. Precipices, caves, sink-holes, ravines, stone quarries, ledges of rocks, with the kind of stone they afford.
  18. Natural curiosities, interesting fossils, petrifactions, organic remains, also all ancient works of art, such as mounds, fortifications, embankments, ditches, or objects of like nature.
  19. The variation of the needle must be noted at all points or places on the lines where there is found any material change of variation, and the position of such points must be perfectly identified in the notes.

Sizes of PLSS subdivisions[edit]

The following table indicates some distance and area conversions in the PLSS:

dimensions
(miles)

(mile2)
area
(acres)

(m2)

(km2)
notes
Quadrangle 24 by 24 576 368,640 1,492    Usually 16 townships
Township 6 by 6 36 23,040 93    Usually 36 sections
Section 1 by 1 1 640 2.6
Half-section 1 by 12 12 320 1,294,994 1.3
Quarter-section 12 by 12 14 160 647,497
Half of quarter-section 12 by 14 18 80 323,749
Quarter of quarter-section 14 by 14 116 40 161,874

List of meridians[edit]

Name Adopted Initial point State(s)
Black Hills Meridian 1878 43°59′44″N 104°03′16″W / 43.99556°N 104.05444°W / 43.99556; -104.05444 (Black Hills Meridian) South Dakota
Boise Meridian 1867 43°22′21″N 116°23′35″W / 43.37250°N 116.39306°W / 43.37250; -116.39306 (Boise Meridian) Idaho
Chickasaw Meridian 1833 35°01′58″N 89°14′47″W / 35.03278°N 89.24639°W / 35.03278; -89.24639 (Chickasaw Meridian) Mississippi
Choctaw Meridian 1821 31°52′32″N 90°14′41″W / 31.87556°N 90.24472°W / 31.87556; -90.24472 (Choctaw Meridian) Mississippi
Cimarron Meridian 1881 36°30′05″N 103°00′07″W / 36.50139°N 103.00194°W / 36.50139; -103.00194 (Cimarron Meridian) Oklahoma
Copper River Meridian 1905 61°49′04″N 145°18′37″W / 61.81778°N 145.31028°W / 61.81778; -145.31028 (Copper River Meridian) Alaska
Fairbanks Meridian 1910 64°51′50.048″N 147°38′25.94″W / 64.86390222°N 147.6405389°W / 64.86390222; -147.6405389 (Fairbanks Meridian) Alaska
Fifth Principal Meridian 1815 34°38′45″N 91°03′07″W / 34.64583°N 91.05194°W / 34.64583; -91.05194 (Fifth Principal Meridian) Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota & South Dakota
First Principal Meridian 1819 40°59′22″N 84°48′11″W / 40.98944°N 84.80306°W / 40.98944; -84.80306 (First Principal Meridian) Ohio & Indiana
Fourth Principal Meridian 1815 40°00′50″N 90°27′11″W / 40.01389°N 90.45306°W / 40.01389; -90.45306 (Fourth Principal Meridian) Illinois
Fourth Principal Extended Meridian 1831 42°30′27″N 90°25′37″W / 42.50750°N 90.42694°W / 42.50750; -90.42694 (Fourth Principal Extended Meridian) Minnesota & Wisconsin
Gila and Salt River Meridian 1865 33°22′38″N 112°18′19″W / 33.37722°N 112.30528°W / 33.37722; -112.30528 (Gila and Salt River Meridian) Arizona
Humboldt Meridian 1853 40°25′02″N 124°07′10″W / 40.41722°N 124.11944°W / 40.41722; -124.11944 (Humboldt Meridian) California
Huntsville Meridian 1807 34°59′27″N 86°34′16″W / 34.99083°N 86.57111°W / 34.99083; -86.57111 (Huntsville Meridian) Alabama & Mississippi
Indian Meridian 1870 34°29′32″N 97°14′49″W / 34.49222°N 97.24694°W / 34.49222; -97.24694 (Indian Meridian) Oklahoma
Kateel River Meridian 1956 65°26′16.374″N 158°45′31.01″W / 65.43788167°N 158.7586139°W / 65.43788167; -158.7586139 (Kateel River Meridian) Alaska
Louisiana Meridian 1807 31°00′31″N 92°24′55″W / 31.00861°N 92.41528°W / 31.00861; -92.41528 (Louisiana Meridian) Louisiana
Michigan Meridian 1815 42°25′28″N 84°21′53″W / 42.42444°N 84.36472°W / 42.42444; -84.36472 (Michigan Meridian) Michigan & Ohio
Mount Diablo Meridian 1851 37°52′54″N 121°54′47″W / 37.88167°N 121.91306°W / 37.88167; -121.91306 (Mount Diablo Meridian) California & Nevada
Navajo Meridian 1869 35°44′56″N 108°31′59″W / 35.74889°N 108.53306°W / 35.74889; -108.53306 (Navajo Meridian) Arizona
New Mexico Principal Meridian 1855 34°15′35″N 106°53′12″W / 34.25972°N 106.88667°W / 34.25972; -106.88667 (New Mexico Principal Meridian) Colorado & New Mexico
Montana Principal Meridian 1867 45°47′13″N 111°39′33″W / 45.78694°N 111.65917°W / 45.78694; -111.65917 (Montana Principal Meridian) Montana
Salt Lake Meridian 1855 40°46′11″N 111°53′27″W / 40.76972°N 111.89083°W / 40.76972; -111.89083 (Salt Lake Meridian) Utah
San Bernardino Meridian 1852 34°07′13″N 116°55′48″W / 34.12028°N 116.93000°W / 34.12028; -116.93000 (San Bernardino Meridian) California
Second Principal Meridian 1805 38°28′14″N 86°27′21″W / 38.47056°N 86.45583°W / 38.47056; -86.45583 (Second Principal Meridian) Illinois & Indiana
Seward Meridian 1911 60°07′37″N 149°21′26″W / 60.12694°N 149.35722°W / 60.12694; -149.35722 (Seward Meridian) Alaska
Sixth Principal Meridian 1855 40°00′07″N 97°22′08″W / 40.00194°N 97.36889°W / 40.00194; -97.36889 (Sixth Principal Meridian) Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota & Wyoming
Saint Helena Meridian 1819 30°59′56″N 91°09′36″W / 30.99889°N 91.16000°W / 30.99889; -91.16000 (Saint Helena Meridian) Louisiana
Saint Stephens Meridian 1805 30°59′51″N 88°01′20″W / 30.99750°N 88.02222°W / 30.99750; -88.02222 (Saint Stephens Meridian) Alabama & Mississippi
Tallahassee Meridian 1824 30°26′03″N 84°16′38″W / 30.43417°N 84.27722°W / 30.43417; -84.27722 (Tallahassee Meridian) Florida & Alabama
Third Principal Meridian 1805 38°28′27″N 89°08′54″W / 38.47417°N 89.14833°W / 38.47417; -89.14833 (Third Principal Meridian) Illinois
Uintah Meridian 1875 40°25′59″N 109°56′06″W / 40.43306°N 109.93500°W / 40.43306; -109.93500 (Unitah Meridian) Utah
Umiat Meridian 1956 69°23′29.654″N 152°00′04.55″W / 69.39157056°N 152.0012639°W / 69.39157056; -152.0012639 (Umiat Meridian) Alaska
Ute Meridian 1880 39°06′23″N 108°31′59″W / 39.10639°N 108.53306°W / 39.10639; -108.53306 (Ute Meridian) Colorado
Washington Meridian 1803 30°59′56″N 91°09′36″W / 30.99889°N 91.16000°W / 30.99889; -91.16000 (Washington Meridian) Mississippi
Willamette Meridian 1851 45°31′11″N 122°44′34″W / 45.51972°N 122.74278°W / 45.51972; -122.74278 (Willamette Meridian) Oregon & Washington
Wind River Meridian 1875 43°00′41″N 108°48′49″W / 43.01139°N 108.81361°W / 43.01139; -108.81361 (Wind River Meridian) Wyoming

Based on the BLM manual's 1973 publication date, and the reference to Clarke's Spheroid of 1866 in section 2-82, the coordinates listed are believed to be in the NAD27 datum.

Social impact[edit]

Railroad land grants[edit]

Illustration of railroad land grant layout.

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 (signed by President Abraham Lincoln) was the first major land grant specifically for the transcontinental railroad. This act provided surveyed, public lands for a railroad right-of-way to build rail systems, and millions of acres to raise the capital needed to build and maintain the future railways. Ten square miles of land on each side of the proposed rail track were granted for every one mile of completed railway. The U.S. Public Land Survey System was utilized for measurement. Every one-mile railway completed was akin to a section. If the railway ran predominantly east and west, a 10 miles (16 km) range of one square mile sections were allotted on each side of the 400-foot (120 m) right-of-way. If the railway ran predominantly north and south, a 10-mile (16 km) township of one square mile sections were allotted on each side of the 400-foot (120 m) right-of-way. The land was granted in alternating sections (one square mile). Each odd numbered section going to the railroad company. Each even numbered section kept by the government. This created a checkerboard pattern along proposed rail way. This was supposed to guarantee that railroad access would increase the value of not only the railroad granted sections, but also the government owned sections in the checkerboard. The system was devised by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, with political support from Senator Jefferson Davis.[6]

Education[edit]

Under the 1785 act, section 16 of each township was set aside for school purposes, and as such was often called the school section. Section 36 was also subsequently added as a school section in western states.[7] The various states and counties ignored, altered or amended this provision in their own ways, but the general (intended) effect was a guarantee that local schools would have an income and that the community schoolhouses would be centrally located for all children. An example of land allotments made specifically for higher education is Ohio's College Township.

Survey fraud[edit]

There were numerous incidents of fraudulent or bad surveying reported, arguably in nearly every state. The remote nature of the land being surveyed certainly enabled the opportunity for fraud to occur. The most notorious, large scale, and costly fraud was perpetrated by the Benson Syndicate, operating primarily in California in the 1880s.

Metric system adoption[edit]

The U.S. Public Land Survey System is considered one of the major points of contention in the adoption of the metric system in the United States. The U.S. Public Land Survey System has used the Gunter's chain as a basic measurement.

"...the measurements of every plot of ground in the United States have been made in acres, feet, and inches, and are publicly recorded with the titles to the land according to the record system peculiar to this country." —Franklin Institute of Philadelphia (1876). Because of this, redefining property boundaries could create a large amount of legal issues and property owner confusion. Many local zoning laws are defined in feet/square feet. Conversion of units for surveyors are not always simple and complex decisions are frequently required (non-universal conversion factors, soft/hard conversions, number rounding).

Farmland in Kansas divided into quarter sections
Example of road system in a PLSS area; Nebraska
Example of road system in a non-PLSS area; North Carolina

Urban design[edit]

As roads have typically been laid out along section boundaries spaced one mile (1.6 km) apart, growing urban areas have adopted road grids with mile-long "blocks" as their primary street network. Such roads in urban areas are known as arterials or section line roads, usually designed primarily for automobile travel and limited in their use for non-motorized travel. In post-World War II suburbs, commercial development has largely occurred along and at intersections of arterials, while the rest of the former square-mile sections have generally filled with residential development, as well as schools, religious facilities, and parks. One example of this is famous Mile Road System of Detroit, Michigan.

Occasionally, and more frequently in a metropolitan region's inner postwar suburbs than in outer areas, arterials are located at approximately half-mile intervals. This strictly regimented urban (or suburban) structure has coincided with the similarly strict practice of Euclidean zoning (named after the town of Euclid, Ohio, which won a 1926 Supreme Court case Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co., which established the constitutionality of zoning). In Euclidean zoning, use of a property is dictated and regulated by zoning district, the boundaries of which are often based on locations of arterials.

West of the Appalachians, road systems frequently follow the PLSS grid structure (see illustrations of Nebraska vs North Carolina on left). The results can be 90-degree intersections and very long stretches of straight roads.[8][9]

Popular culture[edit]

The land system is an important part of American history and culture. Among other things, the stock phrases "lower 40", "front 40", "back 40", and "40 acres and a mule", which are sometimes heard in American movies, reference the quarter-quarter section.

  • The "lower 40" in a quarter-section is the one at lowest elevation, i.e. in the direction that water drains. The "lower 40" is frequently the location of or the direction of a stream or a pond.
  • The phrase "40 acres and a mule" was the compensation apocryphally promised by the Freedmen's Bureau following the American Civil War.
  • The idea of 40 work days in an acre came from a Gunter's chain calculation. At the time of the Homestead Act, four square perch (33 ft × 33 ft) = one work day.[citation needed]
  • RKO Forty Acres was a film studio backlot for filming movies and TV shows such as King Kong, Gone With The Wind and Star Trek.[10]
  • 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks is the production company of noted American filmmaker Spike Lee.
  • Homesteading, another staple of American western culture, was also dependent on the Public Land Survey System. In the original Homestead Act of 1862, during the Lincoln Administration, each settler was allocated 160 acres (0.65 km2) of land; in other words, a quarter-section.
  • Later amendments of the Homestead Act allocated more land, as much as 640 acres (2.6 km2); in other words, a section. This was a good revision to apply to land that was drier or more desolate than the earlier, more desirable lands already settled. Many times, this land was more suited to ranching than to farming.
  • The hodag is a mythical creature and the mascot of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, created by Gene Shepard in 1893. A specimen of the creature was claimed to have been found in section 37 of a local township; a township contains only 36 sections.

See also[edit]

Meridians in the United States[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Mendinghall, Joseph S. (December 27, 1974). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Beginning Point / Beginning Point of the U.S. Public Land Survey" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved June 20, 2012. 
  2. ^ White, C. Albert (1983). A History of the Rectangular Survey System. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Land Management. p. 115. OCLC 8430622. 
  3. ^ a b Staff (May 29, 2012). "The Public Land Survey System (PLSS)". National Atlas of the United States. U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved June 20, 2012. 
  4. ^ Beginning Point of the U.S. Public Land Survey Pennsylvania (Historical monument). East Liverpool, OH: East Liverpool Historical Society. Retrieved June 20, 2012. 
  5. ^ Johnson, J. B.; Smith, Leonard S. (1913). The Theory And Practice of Surveying (17th ed.). New York: Wiley & Sons. OCLC 221005352. 
  6. ^ Zelizer, Julian E. (2004). The American Congress: The Building of Democracy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp. 287–8. ISBN 9780618179060. 
  7. ^ Staff. "State Land Department Historical Overview". ASLD History. Arizona State Land Department. Retrieved June 16, 2012. "Act of Congress, February 24, 1863, granted sections 16 and 36 of each township for the benefit of the common schools" 
  8. ^ Macdonald, Elizabeth; Sanders, Rebecca; Supawanich, Paul (November 25, 2008) (PDF). The Effects of Transportation Corridors' Roadside Design Features on User Behavior and Safety, and Their Contributions to Health, Environmental Quality, and Community Economic Vitality: a Literature Review (Report). University of California Transportation Center. http://www.uctc.net/papers/878.pdf. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  9. ^ http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~duffy/IE486.../IE486_p14_Accid%20Anal%20Prv.pdf[dead link]
  10. ^ Teague, Kipp (2012). "'40 Acres' The Lost Studio Backlot of Movie & Television Fame (1926–1976)". RetroWeb. Self-published. Retrieved June 20, 2012. 
  • Linklater, Andro (2002). Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy. New York: Walker & Co. ISBN 0-8027-1396-3.  (Describes the history and social context of the PLSS and some of the political maneuvering that went into its creation.)
  • —— (2003). Measuring America: How the United States Was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale in History. New York: Plume. ISBN 0-452-28459-7. 
  • Meine, Curt (2004). Correction Lines: Essays on Land, Leopold, and Conservation. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. ISBN 9781559637329. 
  • Pattison, William (1957). Beginnings of the American Land Survey System, 1784–1800 (Geography Research Paper). Chicago: University of Chicago. 
  • Thrower, Norman J. W. (1966). Original Survey and Land Subdivision: A Comparative Study of the Form and Effect of Contrasting Cadastral Surveys. Chicago: Rand McNally for the Association of American Geographers. OCLC 953203. 
  • Treat, Payson J. (2003) [1910]. The National Land System, 1785–1820. New York: E.B. Treat. ISBN 1-57588-797-5. 

External links[edit]