Reading Legal Descriptions: (1) Understanding the Public Land Surveying System

By Cody Wolfe, GIS Technician, Pro-West & Associates

CodyWolfe
Cody Wolfe, GIS Technician

Welcome to the first of three posts in which we will cover the fundamentals of reading legal descriptions – a task that is vital to tax parcel information and other land records-related work. To understand legal descriptions, it’s necessary to first understand the Public Land Surveying System (PLSS).

Be sure to watch the video at the end of this post to visualize the concepts discussed.

The PLSS was originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson, for the purpose of land delineation. As the United States expanded westward, the PLSS was used to divide land among settlers and today forms the base of all legal descriptions.

At Pro-West, we work with our government clients to build detailed land records systems. Having a good working PLSS is the foundation for building those records, whether it’s a tax parcel, subdivision, some type of right-of-way, or anything else to do with land records.

To start, I will state that there are different types of systems through out the United States but we will focus on one: Public Domain. This is the PLSS that delineates in a consistent and equitable fashion or a grid system, and is the one used by most (but not all!) of the country.

Townships

PLSS begins with the concept of a grid, roughly based on latitude and longitude (see the video for more). Throughout the US there are base lines (lines parallel of latitude) and meridian lines (longitude). Following the base line east or west of the meridian line generates the range number, while following the meridian line north or south of the base line gives the township number. So, township 2 north, range 3 west means you are two north of the base line and three west of the meridian line.

Each township is then broken down into 36 square mile sections, meaning the township is six sections wide by six sections tall. Section count begins in the northeast corner of the townships and uses the boustrophedon method, snaking back and forth through the township.

Sections

Within each section there are quarter sections and even sixteenths. These break up the sections into smaller pieces of land, 160 acres (quarter) and 40 acres (sixteenth) for subdividing the land into regular units. Examples of quarters would be NE quarter, NW quarter and the sixteenths follow as NE quarter of the NW quarter.

Government Lots

Finally, government lots. These are usually irregular portions of a section formed by a meandered body of water.

Government lots can also be used to correct a township. Townships are developed starting at the southeast corner. When dividing up the township, surveyors used the far north and west lines to correct errors that may have occurred during the division, meaning there are government lots not only around meandered bodies of water, but also on the north and west lines of a township.

I hope this has provided a helpful introduction to the PLSS! Look for more upcoming posts diving deeper into reading legal descriptions.

Video: Understanding the PLSS (Cody Wolfe, Pro-West & Associates)