Public Land Survey System

Missing image
This General Land Office map shows the theoretical sectioning of a standard survey township.

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. Its basic units of area are the township and section. It is sometimes referred to as the rectangular survey system.


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 (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. 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 up 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 isn'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.

Applying the system

Missing image
This BLM map depicts the principal meridians and baselines using for surveying the United States.

The first surveys under the new system started at the Pennsylvania border in Ohio, resulting in the Seven Ranges. Ohio was surveyed in several major subdivisions, collectively described as the Ohio Lands, each with its own range and base descriptions. The early surveying, particularly in Ohio, was performed with more speed than care, with the result that many of oldest townships and sections vary considerably from their nominal 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. For example, a single Willamette Meridian serves both Oregon and Washington. County lines frequently follow the survey, so there are a lot of rectangular counties.

The system is in use in some capacity in most states, but not in Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia or West Virginia.

Major exceptions to the application of this system in the remaining states:

  • California is similar to Texas in that the large parts of the state are based on Spanish land grants, called ranchos; there is, however, an actively used PLSS overlay.
  • Hawaii adopted a system based on the native system in place at the time of annexation.
  • Louisiana recognizes early French and Spanish descriptions, particularly in the southern part of the state, as well as PLSS descriptions.
  • Maine uses a variant of the system in unsettled parts of the state.
  • 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 similiar to areas of Texas and California.
  • Ohio's Virginia Military District was surveyed using the metes and bounds system.
  • Texas has a hybrid of its own early system, based on Spanish land grants, and a variation of the PLSS.


 in  as a PLSS example, showing 16 named townships and sectional subdivisions.
Kent County, Michigan in 1885 as a PLSS example, showing 16 named townships and sectional subdivisions.

First, two principal survey lines are established: baseline for east-west and meridian for north-south. Each township is numbered based on its relative position from these lines (e.g. T2N, R3E). In this context, township becomes a unit of length as well as area; township boundaries are multiples of six miles (10 km) north or south of the baseline. The unit of length for east-west is the range; range boundaries are multiples of six miles (10 km) east or west of the meridian. (Note that the distances are measured in statute miles, which are equal to eighty Gunter's chains, the standard unit of length used in surveying; these differ from standard metric-referenced miles by a few millimeters. The importance of the PLSS is one of the many barriers to hard metrication of property title in the United States.)

The anchor point is established at the northeast corner of the township, typically by measuring six miles (10 km) from the last corner marker on the range line. 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. Due to he curvature of the Earth, major adjustments (correction lines) are made every 24 miles going north and south. Minor adjustments are also made within the townships, usually on two sides. Adjustments are also sometimes necessary because of inaccuracy due to the instruments available when the grid was laid out, typically in the 19th century. This is particularly true of mountainous areas.

Each township (as a unit of area) is then divided into sections. The section is a square mile, or 640 acres (2.6 km²). The sections within a township are numbered boustrophedonically. Starting in the northeast corner, the first row in numbered east to west, the second row (sections 7-12) is numbered west to east. This process continues until section 36 is reached in the southeast corner.

The government surveyed to the section level; smaller subsectional tracts were marked later by local surveyors. Eleven of the sections along the north and west borders of the township were irregular, and were adjusted as necessary to counteract the effects of convergence and/or surveying errors.

Tract-County24 by 24576368,6401,492   Usually 16 townships
Township6 by 63623,04093   Usually 36 sections
Half of quarter-section1/880323,749
Quarter of quarter-section1/1640161,874

Understanding property descriptions

The description of a particular ten acre (40,000 m²) parcel of land under this system would be given as NW SW SE sec. 22 T2S R3E. The elements of such 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 of the township that is the second south of the base line and the third east of the range line. Some descriptions will use other references such as S 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. (Notice that these states have straight line borders to the north or south.) This means that all the townships in the state are either north or south. They also have one range line, typically on a meridian. (For examples, the Kansas range line is 97 west of Greenwich). In the Maine variant of the system, the range line is called the "Eastern Limit of Settlement"; all ranges are to the west of this line, and are normally written Rx WELS.

The system's impact


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 frequently used as a school section.) 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.

Popular culture

The land system is an important part of American history and culture. Among other things, the stock phrases "front 40" and "back 40" and "40 acres and a mule," which are sometimes heard in American movies, reference the quarter-quarter section. The latter phrase was the compensation apocryphally promised by the Freedman's Bureau following the American Civil War. Homesteading, another staple of American western culture, was also dependent on the Public Land Survey System.


  • Andro Linklater, Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy, New York: Walker & Co., 2002. ISBN 0802713963 (softbound ISBN 0452284597) (Describes the history and social context of the PLSS and some of the political maneuvering that went into its creation.)
  • Payson J. Treat. The National Land System, 1785-1820. New York: E.B. Treat, 1910 (Reprinted in 1967 and 2003) ISBN 1575887975
  • C. Albert White. A History of the Rectangular Survey System. Washington: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management : For sale by Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O., 1983

See also

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