Public Land Survey System


To wrap up the discussion on maps and GPS (see the post, GPS Settings), it is worth mentioning the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). Understanding something about how PLSS describes land can help you in find a parcel of land on a map, in Google Earth or on the ground.  The PLSS is how most of the country outside of the eastern seaboard is legally described. PLSS was developed to facilitate the sales and distribution of public land after the Revolutionary War. At that time all land outside of the control of the original thirteen colonies was public land managed by the Federal Government.

Knowing a little bit about the Public Land Survey System has helped me in many ways. When I locate a new archaeological site, I will prepare a report for the BLM on what I found. That report will include the Township and Section, both are part of the PLSS description. You can even access the original survey records on the Internet if you know the Township (see ).  

Having knowledge of PLSS helped me find the location of the possible Indian Mound / Glacial Feature described on page 39 of The Gentle Art of Wandering. When I learned of the mound from a webpage, there was no exact location provided. To find out where the mound was, I called up a person who was mentioned in the article and asked him where it was. Rather than giving me a coordinate, he gave me the PLSS description. With that, I was easily able to find the mound in Google Earth.

On another occasion I was able to use the PLSS description to find the owner of a parcel of land, adjacent to BLM land, which had several archaeology sites on it. To do this, I went to the county assessor’s office and used the PLSS description to identify the parcel. From there I was able to track down the owner.

The basic premise of the Public Land Survey System is to divide land as closely as possible into six mile by six mile townships. The townships are identified by their Tier and Range. The tier and range numbers are in relation to the survey’s starting point. There happens to be several survey starting points in the country.

The starting points of the survey are identified as the Principal Meridian and the Base Line. A township identified as T.3.N / R.2.W would be located in the third tier of townships north of the survey’s Base Line and in the second range of townships west of the survey’s Principal Meridian.

 The ideal township is then divided into 36 one mile square sections. They are numbered 1 thru 36. Both the townships and sections are identified on the 1:100,000 and 7.5 Minute topo maps.

To zero in even closer, a one square mile section of 640 acres is then subdivided into four equal quarters of 160 acres. They are identified as the NE, NW, SW or SE quarter. The quarter sections can be further subdivided into quarter quarter sections of 40 acres each. If necessary the quarter quarters can be further subdivided.

So if someone told that their property is in the SE quarter of the NE quarter of Section 1 of T.3.N / R.2.W, you would be able to find it.

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