The Public Land Survey System was one of the most extensive mapping projects ever undertaken in the U.S.The principle was to measure all of the land in the public domain prior to its sale to the public.It provides a systematic and orderly description of real property.Since it only encompasses land that were a part of the public domain, not all of the country is included.States along the Atlantic seaboard, from Georgia to Maine, along with Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas and Hawaii are all states that can be classified and metes and bounds states.This distinction will be made clearer later.


The Revolutionary War left this new country with several problems.First, there was a strong sense by the citizens that there should be a weak federal government with a strong state government.But this left some states “rich” in land while others were closed to further extension of their boundaries.In addition, the federal coffers were empty and soldiers who fought for independence were beginning to demand compensation.In forming the United States of America, the federal government won an important concession from some of the states.Those that claimed lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were asked to given those lands to the federal government who would then sell off that land to the citizens.

Text Box: Figure 5- 1.  Metes and bounds patchwork of land subdivision.

Metes and bounds refers to the quilt-like nature that real property in the original colonies was described.It was common for the first settlers to describe the best lands available and purchase only those lands useful for farming.This left the poorer land to subsequent settlers who had a hard time clearing and making the land productive.An example of this kind of land division is given in figure 5-1.

There were several proposals on how to subdivide the lands in the public domain.The final plan involved the subdivision of the land into townships and then into sections and further into aliquot parts.The first site where this new method of subdivision was initiated was in Ohio, abutting the Ohio-Pennsylvania line.This was called the Seven Ranges since it consisted of seven tiers of townships running west of the state line.Ohio is often referred to as the testing ground for the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) since it contains at least 20 different and distinct systems.Some, like the Virginia Military District, followed the metes and bounds survey system of the colonies while others, like the Unites States Military District, were modifications of PLSS.

Text Box: Figure 5- 2.  Townships and ranges from base line and meridian.
The rectangular survey system devised for the PLSS is often credited to Thomas Jefferson.It is known that Jefferson proposed a rectangular survey system, although his system was based on the decimal system -- townships 10 miles by 10 miles.This was modified to the present-day size of 6 miles by 6 miles.The Ordinance of 1785 marked the beginning of the PLSS.Thomas Hutchins was the Geographer of the United States and directed the survey of the Seven Ranges.The early surveyors had to face a lot of adversity.For example, because of an Indian attack, only four miles of survey was run by Hutchins during the first year.

Public Land Survey System

Townships, as was described earlier, are six miles square (see figure 5-2).They are numbered north and south from a base line (called townships) and east and west of a meridian (referred to as ranges).Therefore, the first township to the north and east of the initial point (origin of survey) is T1N R1E - township 1 north, range 1 east.The meridian is suppose to be a true north-south line and base lines are run due east and west.The origin (or principal point) is the intersection of the two lines.Before establishing townships, the base lines and meridians were to be surveyed.The surveyor was to measure along the base line, setting the appropriate corners.At the end of 6 miles, the township corner was established.The surveyor would then continue with the survey.The north-south township lines were run true north.It was quickly realized that problems will occur due to convergence of the meridians.Recall from geography, lines of latitude and longitude are used to identify the position of points on the ground.Longitude lines run from the North to South poles.They also converge at these poles (see figure 5-3).Because of that, the distance between these meridional lines will get shorter the closer we get to the poles.In case of the PLSS, this means that the distance along the top of the township will not be 6 miles long, but something shorter.

Because of this problem, later instructions to the surveyors were to include survey of correction lines.The idea now is to divide the land into 24-mile tracts. This represents four townships on a side with guide meridians along the sides running north-south and correction lines or standard parallels running east and west (figure 5-4).These correction lines allowed the surveyor to adjust for the convergence and other errors in the surveys.

Townships are further subdivided into sections, each of which is 80 chains (one mile) on a side (figure 5-5).They are numbered starting in the upper-right hand corner and increase going back and forth through the township.Sections can then be broken into aliquot parts as shown in figure 5-6.It is usually not convenient to break sections down below the level of 40 acres (quarter-quarter section).A section contains 640 acres.The filled circles in figure 5-6 indicate the actual corners set in the field by the surveyor.Note that the center of the section was not established by the government surveyor.The center is defined by the intersection of lined joining opposite quarter-corners.The issue of where the center of section is under a lot of debate since county surveyors often set the center after the government surveyors completed the survey of the section.Those corners may control property, even though they are not at the intersection of the opposite quarter-corners.

Figure 5- 4.Correction lines to the public land survey system.

Figure 5- 5.Subdivision of township into sections.

How the original surveyors surveyed the land

Figure 5- 6.Subdivision of a section.

There is a hierarchical structure to the Public Land Survey System.Townships were run first followed by sections.While running townships, Guide Meridians and Standard Parallels were also established.This is important because when a corner is lost, the surveyor must work down this hierarchical structure in order to replace the lost corner.Therefore, township corners have more importance than sections corners which have more significance than quarter corners.

Lines run by the surveyors were done using a compass and chain.The Gunther chainhad a length of 66’ and was comprised of 100 links, each of which was 0.66’ long.Chains were heavy, bulkyand difficult to handle.They were usually dragged along the ground during the survey.Length errors due to slope, kinks, bad alignment and other problems were present.Some chains were intentionally made too long to compensate for the errors in taping.Half -chains were common during the early surveys because they were easier to handle.Other chain lengths were also used by different surveyors.

Line of sight was done by compass equipped with a sighting mechanism.The surveyors were to note the deviation of the needle and compensate for this magnetic declination.Magnetic north is constantly moving and in many places is not the north direction.The deviation between the magnetic north and true north is called the magnetic declination.When trees were on line, they were blazed with identification and the compass was moved to the other side of the obstruction.

These errors in sighting and measurement led to the improper placement of monuments set into the ground.As newer instrumentation became available, the surveyor began to survey more accurately and faster.To correct all of the corners that were set in error would wreak havoc on our land system.Therefore, the courts held very early that the location of the monuments as set in the ground by the original surveyors were correct, regardless of whether they were in their correct theoretical position or not.For a government survey to be valid, the official plat must have been approved by the government land office.There are a couple of exceptions such as fraud and mistakes that can be corrected later.

It is important to restate that the PLSS surveys are conclusive and binding upon all parties.An erroneous survey cannot be corrected by a private individual.If a mistake was found or fraud was used in the laying out of the survey plat, only the federal government can take corrective action.Nor can the courts correct errors found in the surveys.The list of court cases that substantiate these principles are long.The courts state that it is the monuments and plat of survey that dictate the location of property, not the description.

Hardships in surveying the public domain

While there are some who would say that the original surveys were very sloppily laid out, one needs to consider both the state-of-the art in surveying technology at that time and the conditions in which the surveys were performed.Each survey was given a set of instructions on how to perform the survey.The surveyor then needed to find helpers and purchase all of the supplies that would last through the survey season.The American landscape was full of original-growth timber that was very dense in certain areas.Mosquitoes and other insects were rampant and hindered the survey crews along the way.Early snowfall sometimes marooned the survey crew in the field and they had to fend for themselves for survival.

A big problem was the Indians who knew that these surveys were an intrusion onto their land.They would disrupt the surveys anyway they could, including attacking the survey parties.The city of Battle Creek, Michigan, is named after an attack by the Indians on a survey party in the lower part of the state.Given all of the adversity, it is a wonder that the resultant surveys were as good as they are.

Marking corners, witness corners

The original corners were marked with whatever markers that were available to the surveyor in the field.In areas were there were woods, wooden stakes were placed in the ground at the location of the corner.Witness trees were marked and noted in the field notes.In the prairies and other areas which were lacking trees, pits were excavated and stone mounds were constructed (if stones were available, otherwise the soil was used as the mound).The problem is that the wooden stakes were subject to decay.Woods were cleared for their lumber.Mounds became flattened by the natural forces of nature.It was not until 1908 that congress authorized the purchase of metal monuments to mark the location of corners.

After years of neglect, evidence of the location of corners becomes difficult to find.This causes problems since property in the public domain is described with respect to those government corners.It is the job of the surveyor to evaluate all of the evidence in order to re-establish the position of the corner.Unfortunately, a lot of this evidence is contradictory.More of this will be discussed in the lesson on boundary surveys.

Fractional sections

Not all sections (or townships) are considered regular.A good example of this is if a lake or river was located on the land.Thus, the section did not contain a full nominal 640 acres.It should also be pointed out that once a territory became a part of the public domain, this did not necessarily mean that all of the lands within the territory were subject to government surveys. There may have been individuals who already owned land from another sovereignty, such as the French or Spanish.Once the land became a part of the U.S. the rights that these individuals had in the real property were maintained.Therefore, private claims also created fractional sections.Indian reservations were also not considered a part of the public domain but were lands belonging to a particular Indian tribe.There are some exceptions, most notably the Alaskan Eskimos whose lands were to be surveyed.There are also a number of other situations where complete sections were not possible.

Two examples of fractional section are shown in figure 5-7.The red lines indicate where the government lines (section lines and 1/4 lines) would fall if the section were a full section.Situations like this cause a lot of problems for the surveyor, particularly the case shown on the left.

Figure 5- 7.Examples of fractional sections.

Excess and deficiency

Because of the different problems encountered in the subdivision of a township, errors will creep into the locations of the corners.The general rule is that all excess and deficiency will be placed in the north and west of the township.Figure 5-8 shows how the excess and deficiency is allotted to section 6 which is located in the northwest corner of the township.Notice that on the excess and deficiency is placed in the last quarter-quarter of the section.If this was further broken down into quarters, then the excess/deficiency would be place in that northern most quarter-quarter-quarter of the section.The same applies to the western side of the section.

Figure 5- 8.Distribution of excess and deficiency in section 6.

Retracement surveys

The PLSS is a hierarchical survey system.Township corners and lines have precedence over section corners and lines.In addition, before a monument can be classified as being lost, all evidence of its location must also be lost.This is not as simple as it appears.For example, an old maple tree may have been used as a witness tree and there could be remnants of the old trunk near an indentation on the ground.Is this the original bearing tree or another tree of the same species?The surveyor needs to be part detective of separate all of the facts.Declaring a corner lost is the last resort.

Review Questions

1.Describe the difference between a metes and bounds state with one under the PLSS.

2.Describe the purpose of guide meridians and standard parallels and their use in the PLSS.

3.An acre consists of 43,560 square feet.If a piece of property is one chain wide, how long must the other side be in order to contain exactly one acre?

4.Explain why it is important that the monuments set by the original surveyor are conclusive on all parties.Give an example.

5.Why is a survey in the PLSS difficult today when all of the sections corners and quarter-corners were set back in 1839?Explain.

6.How many acres are contained in section 6 as shown in figure 5-8?