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Section, Township & Range

Research in Public Land Records

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Surveyor using a theodolite instrument outdoors
Alistair Berg/Photodisc/Getty Images
Public land in the United States is land that was originally transferred directly from the federal government to individuals, to be distinguished from land that was originally granted or sold to individuals by the British Crown. Public lands (public domain), consisting of all land outside the original 13 colonies and the five states later formed from them (and later West Virginia and Hawaii), first came under government control following the Revolutionary War with the enactment of the Northwest Ordinance of 1785 and 1787. As the United States grew, additional land was added to the public domain through the taking of Indian land, by treaty, and by purchase from other governments.

Public Land States

The thirty states formed from the public domain, known as public land states, are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The original thirteen colonies, plus Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and later West Virginia and Hawaii, form what is known as the state land states.

Rectangular Survey System of Public Lands

One of the biggest differences between land in the public land states and state land states is that public land was surveyed prior to being made available for purchase or homesteading, using the rectangular-survey system, otherwise known as the township-range system. When a survey was done on new public land, two lines were run at right angles to each other through the territory - a base line running east and west and a meridian line running north and south. The land was then divided into sections from the point of this intersection as follows:
  • Township & Range - Townships, a major subdivision of public lands under the rectangular survey system, measure approximately six miles on a side (thirty-six square miles). Townships are then numbered from the base line north and south and then from the meridian line east and west. The east/west identification is known as the Range. A Township is identified by this relationship to a base line and a principal meridian.

    Example: Township 3 North, Range 9 West, 5th Principal Meridian identifies a specific township that is 3 tiers north from the base line and 9 tiers west (Range) of the 5th Principal Meridian.

  • Section Number - Townships were then further broken down into thirty-six sections of 640 acres each (one square mile) called sections, which were numbered with reference to the base line and meridian line.

  • Aliquot Parts - Sections were then further subdivided into smaller pieces, such as halves and quarters, while still (generally) keeping the land in a square. Aliquot Parts were used to represent the exact subdivision of each such section of land. Halves of a Section (or subdivision thereof) are represented as N, S, E, and W (such as the north half of section 5). Quarters of a Section (or subdivision thereof) are represented as NW, SW, NE, and SE (such as the northwest quarter of section 5). Sometimes, several Aliquot Parts are required to accurately describe a parcel of land.

    Example: ESW denotes the east half of the southwest quarter of a section, containing 80 acres.

In general:

  • a township contains 23,040 acres
  • a section contains 640 acres,
  • a half section contains 320 acres,
  • a quarter section contains 160 acres,
  • a half of a quarter contains 80 acres,
  • a quarter of a quarter contains 40 acres, etc.

A legal land description for the public land states might, for instance, be written as: the west half of the northwest quarter, section 8, township 38, range 24, containing 80 acres, usually abbreviated as W½ of NW¼ 8=T38=R24, containing 80 acres.

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