An Introduction to the U.S. Public Land Survey System


Before the formation of the U.S. constitution the U.S. Continental Congress passed a legislation document to establish how a new colony or state would be admitted to the origianl 13 colonies and to set up a new land survey system to replace the systems of meets and bounds. This new system is known today as the U.S. Public Land Survey System(PLSS). This has given the landscape its own cultural characteristics and the real estate business legal identification of land ownership and paved the way for the construction of raods.


The PLSS uses a rectangular grid system of baselines and principal meridians running parallel and are defined on the ground instead of on a map. The basic unit of land measurement is the acre. Eash six-mile square is labeled by a township, which is numbered north or south of the baseline and by a range, which is numbered east or west of the prime meridian. The townships are divided into 36 sections of one-square miles that are sequentially numbered 1 through 36.

Each section contains 640 acres and can be divided into smaller areas of 320 acres, 160 acres, 80 acres, 40 acres, 10 acres, and so on. In reality the actual size of sections are likely to vary in size due to the varying topography of the land across the United States.

The correct identification of quarters in a section is by beginning the township and range numbers followed by the section number, the subquarter, and its subquarters. An example might be T. 4S., R. 3W.; Section 13; E 1/4 of the SE1/4. An example of this system is shown below. Click here to see example.


The PLSS has contributed to the cultural landscape west of the Appalachian Mountains giving it a checkerboard characteristic. The reslut of this surveying system can be seen in the fields, land ownerships, settlement, and road patterns.