The year was 1785, just a few short years after the United States of America has established independence from Great Britain. The newly born nation, headed up by some righteous dudes known as the founding fathers, had numerous problems to be dealt with. After all, it's not every day you become your own independent nation. One of the problems facing these men was land. You see, they quickly realized that outside of their nice little 13 colonies, there was land. A lot of it. More than you could shake a stick at, to be technical.

The problem is, how in the world are they going to divide up and describe all that land? Traditionally, this was done using a Metes and Bounds description filed at the local county courthouse. This system used a recognizable landmark and instructions to trace the perimeter of the land. It might go something like "starting at the 200 year old oak tree next to Jacob’s creek 2 miles outside of Podunk Town, walk 200 feet north along the riverbank before turning SW and walking 100 feet, etc etc".

Well, that system was indeed simple and had worked for many hundreds of years. The problem was that it relies on finding a recognizable landmark and taking accurate measurements. Now, I don't know how many of you have ever been to Kansas, but let me tell you, it can be quite tricky to find anything resembling a landmark. Clearly, a better system needed to be created. And that system was... The Rectangular Survey System!

The Rectangular Survey System, also known as the Government Survey System, uses a series of intersecting lines to form parcels of land that can easily be described and identified. Given its creation time, the original 13 colonies (plus most other states along the east coast) do not use it. It is used in every state west of Ohio except Kentucky and Tennessee, with Florida also in on the action. And Ohio is somewhat of a freak as the NW and SE parts of the state use it, but others do not. Go figure...

Ok, so how does it work? Well, first there are a series of lines established across the US. There are Meridians (N-S lines) and Baselines (E-W lines). The first meridian is called Ellicott’s line and defines the eastern border of Ohio. Most of the other meridians have clever names such as the 'First Principal Meridian' (defining the western border of Ohio). Baselines generally do not have names. These lines, to my untrained eye, seem to be randomly defined throughout the country and do not necessarily travel all the way north to south. Most meridians seem to be limited to single states, whereas some baselines tend to cross state lines. You can visit http://www.ca.blm.gov/pa/cadastral/meridian.html to see a map of these lines if that sort of thing rocks your socks.

Ok, so now we have these wacky lines. How do we find land? Well, we draw more lines! Every 6 miles from the base line, you draw a parallel line called a township line. Every 6 miles from the meridian, you craw a line called a range line. Thus, you have divided land into 6 mile x 6 mile sections. These sections are called townships. Most likely if you live in a state which uses this system, you've heard of townships. You might even know the one you live in. You've probably never known what one actually was though, but now you do! The legal description of this township is based on its relation to the principal meridian and baseline. For example, if the township is the 3rd strip north of the baseline and the 4th range strip east of the meridian, it will be described as T3N, R4E (tier 3 north, range 4 east) of whatever principal meridian. Oddly enough, the baseline is never included in the legal description, it seems to be assumed you'll be able to figure it out (which is generally true).

Now we have our township, which is 36 square miles (6 x 6). This is further divided into 'sections', each one being 1 square mile. So, obviously, there are 36 sections per township. They are numbered 1 - 36 starting at the upper right corner and snaking down (in other words, 1 is the top right corner and 7 is left of the second row down). Odd fact of the day, legally section 16 (right about in the middle) was required to be dedicated for a school. Today it may or may not have a school any longer, because one school is not sufficient for a single township in a metropolitan area anymore. However in more rural communities you will often find the school on this section of land.

Initially, you had to buy large portions of a section (640 acres) such as 1/8. Over time of course, this has changed. That of course means you need a good way to describe portions of each section. This is done by dividing it by half or quarters to get down to a suitable size of land. For example, if you own a 5 acre plot of a section it may be described as such:

The W1/2 of NE 1/4 of SE 1/4 of SE 1/4 of Section 14, Township 8 North, Range 6 West of the Fourth Principal Meridian

Thus, that would be a complete legal description of your land. It helps to draw this out to understand what it is, drawing a single section and then further dividing it will get you down to a 5 acre plot. You also need to remember to work backwards when dividing up a section. For the above plot of land, you would not start by looking at the western 1/2 of the section, you would start by looking at the Southeast 1/4 of the section. You can see a graphic of this at http://www.connerprairie.org/HistoryOnline/survey.html.

That pretty much sums up the system. Those of you who have managed to read this far and are astute enough may notice a few problems however. So let's see...

But the earth is curved?

Ah, very true. As described above, all lines run parallel. But we all know the earth is curved and thus these lines don't quite work. Enter correction lines. Every 4th township line is called a correction line. These lines are carefully measure to correct for the curvature of the earth. There are also guide meridians every 24 miles, which serve a similar purpose.

There is no way they could measure all this accurately, especially with the curved earth problem

Also very true. Few townships are actually 36 square miles due to the curvature issue and the inaccuracy of early measurements. In each township, those sections that are exactly 1 square mile are considered standard sections. Everything else is considered a fractional section, which is any section larger or smaller than 1 square mile. There are also Government Lots, which are any sections less than 1/4 the size of a standard section.

But I don't own a rectangular section of land

No, you probably don't. Now that most land has been subdivided, almost nobody does. So how is land described? Well, typically the Rectangular Survey System is used to provide a reference point for one of the other two methods of describing land. First, you could use a Metes & Bounds description but use the survey system to designate a starting point (i.e.: starting at the NW corner of the SW 1/2 of the NE 1/4 of section 17, go 200 feet N...). Secondly, in most cities today a Lot and Block system is used. This uses a map filed with the county called a plat. The plat basically is a drawing of a certain portion of land with dimensioned drawings of all subdivided land within that area. Combined with the survey system, a description of this land may read as:

Lot 18, MyFirstSubdivision, located in the SE 1/4 of section 23, township 7 north, range 4 east of the first principal meridian

Thus, the rectangular survey system allows you to locate the plat map in the county, which can then be used to identify individual plots of land.

Well, I hope this has been a fun and educational journey for you. Next time you purchase land or real estate, check out your deed and see if the legal description of land makes more sense now.

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