Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors -Rectangular Survey

Last time we talked about the metes and bounds survey system that was used in the eastern states (colonies prior to our nation’s creation). This time let’s look at the survey system used the the rest of the United States, in the public lands states, called the “rectangular survey system.”

This survey is based on a grid system using a series of baselines and meridians across the U.S.

USGS BLM Map of Baselines and Meridians

If you ever learned about how to find a point on a grid in math class you, learned that (2, -5) meant that you go right 2 points on the X axis, and down 3 points on the Y axis.

Grid system from math class.

The rectangular survey works the same, except that we use the cardinal directions instead of positives and negatives, and the directions are referred to as townships and ranges such that a square from the grid is called “township 2 south, range 3 west.’ Each of these township/ranges is 36 square miles.

Example showing the location of township 2 south, range 3 west

But wait, there’s more…

Inside each one of those township and ranges, the land is further subdivided into 36 1-square mile sections, numbered 1-36. AND THEN, each one of those 1 square mile sections is further divided into “aliquots.” Those smallest sections are divided into halves or quarters depending on how many acres someone received.

The rectangular system divisions.

So, when you find a land description for a rectangular survey system piece of land, it will read like this: N 1/2, SW 1/4, of section 14 in township 2 s, range 3 w (or north half of the southwest quarter of section 14 in township 2 south, range 3 west). The land description might also mention the principle meridian though not always. From context of where the land is located, you can often figure it out without naming the meridian (refer to the first map in this post).

It is because of this grid system of surveying that this is the view out your airplane window when you fly over the midwest:

Photo by author.

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