Example of a Quarter Section in a Plat Map

How the Government Surveys Land

From instructions by J. A. Williamson, Commissioner

The rectangular system of surveying Government lands, termed the Land System of the United States, was adopted by an act of Congress passed May 20, 1785. The ordinance provided for townships six miles square, containing thirty-six sections of one mile square. The region embraced by the surveys under this law forms a part of the present State of Ohio, and is usually styled “Old Seven Ranges.” The town-ships, six miles square, were laid out in ranges, extending northward from the Ohio River, the townships being numbered from south to north, and the ranges from east to west. In these initial surveys only the exterior lines of the townships were surveyed and mile corners were established on the township lines, but the plats were marked by subdivisions into sections of one mile square. The sections were numbered from one to thirty-six, commencing with number one in the southmost corner of the township, and running from south to north in each tier to number thirty-six in the northwest corner of the township. These first public surveys were made under the direction of the Geographer of the United States.

The act of Congress approved May 18, 1796, provided for the appointment of a surveyor-general, and directed the government surveys of the lands north-west of the Ohio River and above the mouth of the Kentucky River, “in which the titles of the Indian tribes have been extinguished.” Under this law one-half of the townships surveyed were subdivided into sections “by running through the same, each way, parallel lines at the end of every two miles, and by making a corner on each of said lines at the end of every mile,” and it further provided that “the sections shall be numbered, respectively, beginning with the number one in the northeast section, and proceeding west and east alternately, through the township, with progressive numbers till the thirty-sixth be completed.” This method of numbering the sections is still in use.

1901 Charlevoix Michigan Plat Map
1901 Charlevoix Michigan Plat Map

The act of Congress, approved February 11, 1805, directs the subdivision of the public lands into quarter sections, and provides that all the corners marked in the public surveys shall be established as the proper corners of sections or subdivisions of sections which they were intended to designate, and that corners of half and quarter sections not marked shall be placed as nearly as possible “equidistant from those two corners which stand on the same line.”

The act of Congress, approved April 25, 1812, provided “That there shall be established in the Department of the Treasury an office to be denominated the General Land Office, the chief officer of which shall be called the Commissioner of the General Land Office, whose duty it shall be, under the direction of the head of the department, to superintend, execute, and perform all such acts and things touching or respecting the public lands of the United States and other lands patented or granted by the United States, as have heretofore been directed by law to be done or performed in the office of the Secretary of State, of the Secretary and Register of the Treasury, and of the Secretary of War, or which shall hereafter by law be assigned to the said office.”

The act of Congress approved July 4, 1836, provided for the reorganization of the General Land Office, and that the executive duties of said office “shall be subject to the supervision and control of the commissioner of the General Land Office under the direction of the President of the United States.” The repealing clause is, “That such provisions of the act of the twenty-fifth of April, in the year one thousand eight hundred and twelve, entitled “An act for the establishment of a General Land Office in the Department of the Treasury, and of all acts amendatory thereof as are inconsistent with the provisions of this act, be, and the same are hereby, repealed.”

From the wording of this acf it would appear that the control of the General Land Office was removed from the Treasury Department, and that the Commissioner reported directly to the President, but as a matter of fact, the Secretary of the Treasury still had supervisory control, for the act of Congress, approved March 3, 1849, by which the Department of the Interior was established, provided “That the Secretary of the Interior shall perform all the duties in relation to the General Land Office, of supervision and appeal, now discharged by the Secretary of the Treasury.” By this act the General Land Office was transferred to the Department of the Interior, where it still remains.

Rectangular Systems

The public lands of the United States are ordinarily surveyed into rectangular tracts bounded by lines conforming to the cardinal points. The principal lines are designated as meridian, base, township, range, and section lines, and the bodies of land thus formed are known as townships, sections, and lots. The first recorded use of the terms “township*’ and “section,” as applied to the public lands of the United States, is in an ordinance reported to Congress April 26, 1785.


Initial points from which the lines of the public surveys are to be extended must be established whenever necessary under such special instructions as may be prescribed in each case by the Commissioner of the General Land Office. The locus of such initial points must be selected with great care and due consideration for their prominence and easy identification, and must be established astronomically. The initial point having been established, the lines of the public survey are to be extended therefrom as follows :—

Principal meridian and base lines are extended north and south and east and west from the initial point by the use of solar instruments or transits, as may be directed by the Surveyor General In order to check errors in measurement, two sets of chainmen, operating independently of each other, must be employed, and the proper corners established. Principal meridians are designated by number or name, as the Fourth and Fifth principal meridians in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and eastern Dakota, or the “Black Hills” meridian in western Dakota, and the Salt Lake meridian in Utah.

Standards and Auxiliaries

Standard parallels, which are also called correction hues, and auxiliary or guide meridians, are run from time to time, and are designated by number, and as north, south, east, or west, as the case may be, from their respective base lines and principal meridians; parallels and auxiliaries are now run at intervals of twenty-four miles, dividing the country into tracts of twenty-four miles square, or sixteen townships.

Townships and Ranges

Township lines are run east and west parallel with and six miles from the base line and from each other, and the spaces between these lines are known as townships north or south, and designated by numbers according to their numerical distance from the base line. Range lines are run north and south on a true meridian, six miles from and parallel, as near as may be, with the principal meridian, and the spaces between them are known as ranges, and are described as east or west of the principal meridian, and consecutively numbered from that line. The bodies of land six miles square, formed by the intersection of the township and range lines, are called Congressional Townships and contain, as near as may be, 23,040 acres. Congressional townships are described and located as being north or south of the base line and east or west of the Principal Meridian from which that particular survey is made. Thus township one north, range three west of the Fifth principal meridian, would be the first township north of the base line and in the third range west from the principal meridian. The law requires that the lines of the public surveys shall be governed by the true meridian, and that the townships shall be six miles square, two things involving, in connection, a mathematical impossibility, for, strictly to conform to the meridian, necessarily throws the township out of square, by reason of the convergency of the meridians, and hence, by adhering to the true meridian, results the necessity of departing from the strict requirements of law, as respects the precise area of townships and the subdivisional parts thereof, the townships assuming something of a trapezoidal form, which inequality develops itself more and more as such, the higher the latitude of the surveys. Congressional townships are subdivided into thirty-six tracts, called sections each containing as near as may be 640 acres. The thirty-six sections into which a township is subdivided are numbered, commencing with number one at the northeast angle of the township, and proceeding west to number six, and thence proceeding east to number twelve, and so on, alternately, until they number thirty-six in the southeast angle. In all cases of surveys of fractional townships, the sections should bear the same number as they would if the township was full. In all cases where the exterior lines of the townships, thus subdivided into sections or half sections, shall exceed, or shall not extend six miles, the excess or deficiency shall be specially noted, and added to or deducted from the western or northern ranges of sections or half sections in such township, according as the error may l)e in running the lines from east to west, or from south to north; the sections and half sections bounded on the northern and western lines of such townships shall be sold as containing only the quantity expressed in the returns and plats respectively, and all others as containing the complete legal quantity.

Sections are divided into quarters by straight lines run from the established quarter section corners — United States surveys— to the opposite corresponding corners, and the point of intersection of the lines so run will be the corner common to the several quarter sections, or, in other words, the legal center of the section; these quarter sections are designated as northeast quarter, northwest, southwest, or southeast, according to their location with regard to their common corner.

Example of a Quarter Section in a Plat Map
Example of a Quarter Section in a Plat Map

In the subdivision of quarter sections, the quarter quarter corners are to be placed at points equidistant between the section and quarter section corners and between the quarter corners and the common center of the section, except on the last half mile of the lines closing on the north or west boundaries of a township, where they should be placed at twenty chains, proportionate measurement, to the north or west of the quarter section corner.

Fractional sections and those containing meandered rivers and lakes are also divided into 40 acre lots, as near as may be, these functional lots are numbered from one upwards in each section. By an examination of the accompanying diagram and of the maps on other pages of this work, the careful student will be enabled to describe or locate any piece of land. Numbers 1, 2-6 are the numbers of the meandered lots.. A is the north sixty acres of the north half of the northwest quarter, B, south twenty acres north half northwest quarter; C, northwest quarter of the southeast of the northwest quarter ; D, east one-half southeast northwest; e is the section corner, f north quarter corner, g west quarter corner, h quarter quarter corner.

Proceeding down stream, the bank on the left hand is termed the “left bank” and that on the right hand the “right bank.” These terms are to be universally used to distinguish the two banks of a river or stream.

Marking Lines

All lines on which are to be established the legal corner boundaries are to be marked after this method, viz : Those trees which may intercept your line must have two chops or notches cut on each side of them without any other marks whatever. These are called “sight trees” or “line trees,” A sufficient number of other trees standing within fifty links of the line, on either side of it, are to be blazed on two sides diagonally, or quartering towards the line, in order to render the line conspicuous and readily to be traced, the blazes to be opposite each other, coinciding in direction with the line where the trees stand very near it and to approach nearer each other the farther the line passes from the blazed trees. Due care must ever be taken to have the lines so well marked as to be readily followed, and to cut the blazes deep enough to have recognizable scars as long as the tree shall stand. Where trees two inches or more in diameter are found, the required blazes must not be omitted. Bushes on or near the line should be bent at right angles therewith, and receive a blow of the axe at about the usual height of blazes from the ground sufficient to leave them in a bent position, but not to prevent their growth.


The following are the different points for perpetuating corners, viz: For township boundaries, at intervals of every six miles. For section boundaries, at intervals of every mile, or eighty chains. For quarter section boundaries, at intervals of every half mile, or forty chains ; exceptions, however, occur, as has already been explained. Meander corners are established at all those points where the lines of the public surveys intersect the banks of such rivers, bayous, lakes, or islands as are by law directed to be meandered. corners may be marked by a cross (x) marked at exact corner point on a rock in place, or by marks on a tree growing at the corner. Corners are also marked by stones, posts, burnt stakes, charcoal, mounds of stone and earth, and pits. Witness corners or bearing trees are also established to assist in identifying the true corner. Township corners common to four townships, and section corners common to four sections, are to be set diagonally in the earth, with angles in the direction of the lines. All other corners are to be set square, with sides facing the direction of the lines. Stones and posts at township corners are marked with six notches on the edges, stones and posts at section corners are marked on the south and east edges with as many notches as the corner is distant in miles from the south and east township lines.

Re-Establishment of Lost Corners

The original corners, where they can be found, must stand as the true corners they were intended to represent, even though not exactly where strict professional care might have placed them in the first instance.

Missing corners should be re-established in the identical localities they originally occupied. When the point cannot be determined by the existing landmarks in the field, resort must be had to the field notes of the original survey. The law provides that the lengths of the lines, as stated in the field notes shall be considered as the true lengths thereof, and the distances between corners set down in the field notes constitute proper data from which to determine the true locality of a missing corner; hence the rule that all such should be restored at distances proportionate to the original measurements between existing original corners. That is, if the measurement between two existing corners differs from that stated in the field notes, the excess or deficiency should be distributed proportionately among the intervening section lines between the said existing corners standing in their original places. Missing corners on standard township and range lines should be restored by proportionate measurement between the nearest existing original corners on those lines. Missing section corners in the interior of townships should be re-established at proportionate distances between the nearest existing original corners north and south of the missing corners.

As has been observed, no existing original corner can be disturbed, and it will be plain that any excess or deficiency in measurements between existing corners cannot in any degree affect the distances beyond said existing corners, but must be added or subtracted proportionately to or from the intervals embraced between the corners which are still standing.


Maps, Plat Maps,


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