Public Domain Survey

Now in book Form

By Linda Haas Davenport (c)

Not Public Domain Respect the Copyright

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 Dividing Line

 When the government made the decision to open an area of land for settlement there were certain steps taken to dispose of the land. The first step in opening land was to survey the entire area to be disposed of and assign a description to identify each parcel of land to be sold. The government devised a survey system called a Rectangular Survey (commonly referred to as Public Domain survey or Section, Township, Range). The intent of the survey was to place the land that was being disposed of on a large grid with every square of the grid being individually identified.

To accomplish the construction of the grid an imaginary beginning point (designated as a Meridian and a Base Line) was established in the center of the land to be disposed of. (Some states have more than one Meridian and Base line if different areas of land were opened at different times. For example Mississippi has five). To complete the grid surveyors began at the intersection of the Meridian and Base Line and moving to the North, South, East and West established division lines 6 miles apart. This resulted in squares containing 36 square miles. Each of these 36 mile squares was then numbered. The numbers start from the intersection of the Meridian and Base lines. Those sections North or South along the Meridian are known as Townships and those along the East and West of the Base line are called Ranges. Townships 1 (north and south) and Ranges 1 (east and west) are always at the intersection of the Meridian and Base line. Each Township and Range's numbers increases by 1 as you move away from the intersection. For example Township 15 North is the 15th square up from the Meridian and Base line intersection while Township 15 South would be the 15th square down from the intersection. Ranges work the same way - R18 W would be the 18th square to the West of the intersection, while R18 E would be the 18th square to the East of the intersection. Combining the Township square number with the Range square number gives a precise location of any square on the grid.

Each of the 36 mile squares along the Meridian is a Congressional Township (commonly called Townships but not to be confused with local political townships that normally have names and are subject to change from time to time). A Township square contains 36 square miles and is further broken down into one mile squares called Sections. The grid below is an example of how the Sections within a Township are numbered. The black numbers are the sections within the township and the red numbers are the sections in the adjoining townships. Many people look at deeds and wonder why in the world their ancestor bought land in (for example) sections 15 and 22. We are used to numbers running from left to right (look at your phone keypad) and sections 15 and 22 give the impression that the ancestor had two pieces of property far removed from each other. But looking at the grid below you can see that actually sections 15 and 22 adjoin.

36

31

32

33

34

35

36

31

1

6

5

4

3

2

1

6

12

7

8

9

10

11

12

7

13

18

17

16

15

14

13

18

24

19

20

21

22

23

24

19

25

30

29

28

27

26

25

30

36

31

32

33

34

35

36

31

1

6

5

4

3

2

1

6

 Each section's land is referenced by the points of the map.

 

Each section (1 mile square) contains 640 acres and when the government sold the land originally they usually broke each section down into quarters - assigning the N, S, E, W reference to the quarters.

NW 1/4

160 acres

NE 1/4

160 Acres

SW 1/4

160 Acres

SE 1/4

160 Acres

 As property is sold each of these quarters may (and usually is) broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, with all pieces keeping the N, S, E, W designations and the fraction amount of the whole section.

Here is an example of what a section can actually end up looking like.

 

Map courtesy of: Gallup Map & Supply Co Kansas City, MO

 

The legal description in a public domain state is made up of the combination of the location within a section, the section number and the range number. (i.e. the SW1/4 of the NE1/4, S 1, TS 9S, R 18W ... spelled out - the South West quarter of the North East quarter located in Section 1, Township 9 South, Range 18 West. Counting from the Meridian and Base line intersection this property would be in the 9th square south and the 18th square west from the Meridian and Base Line and the particular piece of property would be located in the north east corner of the township).

If you have a deed for one of your ancestors in a public domain state you can use the legal description to locate the property since the identifiers (numbers) of sections, townships and ranges have not changed from the original surveys. Although the property may have started in one county and ended up in another (or even in an adjoining state) the legal descriptions haven't change. As counties were formed from existing counties the county lines normally followed the section or township lines.

Most county tax assessor offices have maps that show the sections, townships and ranges within their county. Some counties have actual road maps that show at least the townships and ranges. Contact the Tax Assessor's office in your county of interest about the availability of these types of maps.

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