Rectangular Survey System: Definition & Uses

Instructor: Ian Lord

Ian is a real estate investor, MBA, former health professions educator, and Air Force veteran.

The rectangular survey system is properly and legally known as the Public Land Survey System. This lesson defines how the survey system works and where in the United States it is used.

Public Land Survey System Definition

Have you ever wondered how people figured out the borders as the United States grew westward? The vast amount of land that became America had to be quickly and efficiently organized for development. The Public Land Survey System (PLSS) is a surveying method designed to divide real property into defined plots. It is also commonly known as the Rectangular Survey System. The system came into use out of necessity as the United States rapidly expanded beyond the original 13 colonies. It was originally proposed by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and formalized by the Land Ordinance Act of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Current official procedures for the PLSS are found in the Manual of Instructions for the Survey of the Public Lands Of The United States, 1973.

Locations in Use

The PLSS is used in 30 southern and western states. The exceptions are the original 13 colonies, the northeastern US, Texas, and Hawaii. Alaska does use PLSS.

States Using PLSS
States Using PLSS

Survey Methodology

The PLSS begins by defining two lines of direction. A baseline runs east to west. There are 37 named principal meridians which run north to south. Starting from an initial point, these two lines form the origin of a 6 square mile area called a township.

The township is further divided into sections comprising one square mile. A quadrangle is composed of 16 townships in a 4x4 grid. The section can be further divided into half-sections and quarter-sections. On an even smaller scale, the system can identify half of a quarter-section or a quarter of a quarter-section. These smaller and larger areas help define a specific piece of land at an appropriate scale. It would be crazy to describe the whole of Yosemite purely in terms of quarter of quarter-sections. A quarter of a quarter-section could be useful though in finding a residence in Los Angeles.

Sections are identified by number. The placement of each section number is consistent in the PLSS. The section in the uppermost right corner is 1, followed by 2-6 from right to left. Section 7 is found immediately below 6, and the numbering proceeds rightward to section 12. Section 13 goes below 12, and this pattern continues down to section 36.

Townships are identified by whether they are north or south of the baseline, and east or west of the principal meridian. A legal description of a township might look like this: Nebraska, Sixth Principal Meridian T7N, R2W, sec5. In plain English that translates as section 5 in the township located 7 townships north and 2 townships west of the Sixth Principal Meridian.

Public Land Survey System detail
Public Land Survey System Detail

That's the theory of the PLSS, but what happens in real life?

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