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Public Land Survey System

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. The system is in use in all states except the first 13, Vermont, Texas, and Hawaii. The system has been in general use since the Land Ordinance of 1785. Its basic units of area are the township and section.

Table of contents
1 History of the system
2 Mechanics
3 See also

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

original colonies continued the British system of meets and bounds. This system describes property lines based on what meets the eye, and bounds drawn by humans. A typical (but 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 meets-and-bounds system was used to describe a town of a generally rectangular shape, 4-6 miles 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:

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

The first surveys under the new system started at the Pennsylvania border in Ohio. Ohio was basically surveyed in several major subdivisions, each with its own range and base descriptions. As you proceed west, the system becomes simpler since there is frequently one major north-south line (principal meridian) and one east-west (base) line that control descriptions for the entire state. For example, a single Willamette Meridian serves both Oregon and Washington. County lines also follow the survey, so there are a lot of rectangular counties.

There are four major exceptions to the application of this system. Louisiana recognized early French and Spanish descriptions, particularly in the southern part of the state. Texas has a hybrid of its own early system, based on Spanish land grants, and a variation of the PLSS. California is similar to Texas in that the southern part of the state is based on Spanish land grants. Hawaii adopted a system based on the native system in place at the time of annexation. A variant of the system is also used in unsettled parts of Maine.


First, two principal survey lines are established (baseline for east-west) and the meridian (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 north or south of the baseline. The unit of length for east-west is the range; range boundaries are multiples of six miles east or west of the meridian.

The anchor point is established at the northeast corner of the township, typically by measuring six miles from the last corner marker on the range line. Particularly in the early days, these distances were easier to check based on the height of the sun in the southern sky. 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. There are some more technical adjustments made about every ten miles to account for the curvature of the earth. 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 volume) is then divided into sections. The section is a square mile, or 640 acres. The sections within a township are numbered boustrophedonically. Starting in the NE 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 SW corner.

Understanding property descriptions

A description of a ten acre parcel of land under this system would be described as NW SW SE sec. 22 T2S R3E. These 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 in the second township south of the base line in the third township 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, on one border of the state. (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.

See also