Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Public Land Survey System

Public Service Announcement: The burials at Arlington National Cemetery are now online and searchable.

Every since the blog post on Metes and Bounds I have been promising a follow-up post on the other method of surveying land, the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) which is also known as the Rectangular System. Here is a map that shows which states use the PLSS. PLSS is a lot easier than plotting out parcels using Metes and Bounds.

This is a land description using the PLSS for land owned by Benjamin Franklin Simmons (3 parcels):
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, SW¼NE¼
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, W½SE¼
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, NE¼SW¼

This system uses a grid. You start with a principle meridian which runs north and south (lines of longitude). Each one of these has a name. The name of the principle meridian for the above parcels is St. Stephens. Between these principle meridians are range lines (also north and south). The ones left of the principle meridian are WEST and the ones that are to the right of the principle meridian are EAST. Perpendicular to the principle meridians are the base lines (lines of latitude). Between the base lines are township lines. The ones above the base line are NORTH and below the baseline are SOUTH. Here is a map showing the principle meridians and the baselines.

Now we have our basic grid pattern. Here is a closeup of what it looks like when you add the range and township lines in between the principle meridians and base lines. Look at the first graphic on this page. Now we can start to decipher the description of the parcels. Assuming the principle meridian in this graphic is St. Stephens, to find Township 3 North, Range 14 West is easy peasy. Starting at where the principle meridian and the base line intersect, you go up (north) 3 squares and then left (west) 14 squares.

Each square shown on the above graphic is a "Township." Each township is 6 miles square and has 36 one mile square sections like THIS. Again, easy peasy. Look at the parcel description again. We now know where Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29 is. Section 29 is one mile square (640 acres).

Below is a blowup of Section 29 with the three parcels mapped out. I am not very good with graphics and stuff so don't expect a professional picture.

St. Stephens Principle Meridian
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, SW¼NE¼
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, W½SE¼
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, NE¼SW¼

You need to subdivide the section as needed to get to the exact parcel. I drew in a couple of reference lines. You have to read the description BACKWARDS. This is where most people mess up. For the first parcel I need to find the NE¼ first, then the SW¼ of that. The way you say it is, "The SW¼ of the NE¼." (If you say it that way it makes more sense). For the second parcel I need to find the SE¼ first and then the W½ of that. With the 3rd parcel I need to find the SW¼ first and then the NE¼ of that. Once you plot it out you can see that the three parcels are adjoining.

Now you can get land descriptions from all your ancestors and plot them and see who was living next to whom. It is a lot of fun. By the way, each little section within a section is called an aliquot in case you see that word.

Here is another example. These two men are in the same Township/Range/Section. James Elexander Simmons is the son-in-law of Albert Gallitan Graham.

James Elexander Simmons
Township 4 North, Range 14 West, Section 31, NW¼SW¼
Township 4 North, Range 14 West, Section 31, W½NW¼

Albert Gallitan Graham
Township 4 North, Range 14 West, Section 31, E½SW¼
Township 4 North, Range 14 West, Section 31, SE¼NW¼

I think plotting out PLSS parcels is so much more fun than metes and bounds but that's just me. I know of genealogists that really love the challenge of drawing out the complicated metes and bounds descriptions.

Now here comes the really cool thing you can do with PLSS. You can go to the Bureau of Land Management Search Page and plug in a specific Township/Range/Section and see everyone that was granted a patent in that section! One caveat though. This will not tell you everyone that owned landed in the section over time. It only will show you the original patentees. Remember, land patents are FEDERAL records. After the original patents were issued the subsequent transactions would be at the county level through land deeds. However, this is a GREAT way to plot out the original neighbors. I did a search for T4NR14W where James and Albert lived. By the way, T4NR14W is shorthand for the township and range and you will see it written like this all the time. Here is a list of the original patentees for this section:

John Cameron (one of my relatives but he wasn't related to Albert or James that I know of)
Albert G. Graham (my 2nd great grandfather)
Giles I. Graham (Albert's nephew)
Sarah O. Hartfield (not sure but definitely a relative with that Hartfield surname)
James E. Simmons (my great-grandfather and son-in-law to Albert)
Benjamin and James Vosper (not sure)
Jesse Whidden (Albert's stepson)

For this to work you really need to also map out the surrounding sections but I am sure you can see how useful this can be.

Here is something that you can do with PLSS land descriptions that you can't do with metes and bounds. You can take a present day map that has the township, range and sections marked and see exactly where your ancestor's land was. The DeLorme Atlas books have this marked for those states that use PLSS. Understanding exactly where you ancestor lived really brings their history to life. Many genealogists purposely travel to their ancestor's land just to be able to say that that stood where their ancestor once stood.

Another place you will see township and range designations are on census records and school records. They will also be in county level deeds and even in cemetery survey books. If you can plot out all of the cemeteries in a certain section then you will have better luck in finding where your ancestor was buried.

If you have a PLSS description that you are having a hard time plotting send it to me and I will do a graphic (a crude sort of graphic) for you.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. I love plotting land descriptions, too! The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) has all 82 county highway maps on line as PDFs. You can save to your computer, enlarge, print, etc. to fit your needs.
    If this link doesn't work go to
    and click on maps.
    BTW, the Arphax publications FAMILY MAPS OF XX COUNTY, XX STATE are very useful, but the are mis-named. Patrons in the library are disappointed when they realize that the land records are only the original purchase from the US and don't show Grandpa's land purchase in 1950!

  2. I also use the MDOT maps since most of my research is in the state of MS :) I don't know if the DOTs for the other states also have these maps.

    I know what you mean about Grandpa's land. Sometimes it is hard to explain that these are the original patentees only. Any subsequent purchases will be in the county level deeds.

    One thing that I forgot to mention is that the Bureau of Land Management patents also includes military land warrants.

  3. Michele,

    I've found that free copies of digital files of county DOT maps are available online for many states--at least in the South. Often, the trick is in finding where on each state's DOT website these files might be stored (for some websites, I'm tempted to say "hidden"). Persistence is the key--you might need to click through to a number of different pages before you find the download links. Occasionally I've even found that states will post older versions in addition to the most current DOT maps.

    Also, there's an amazing (and free) website that will plot your ancestor's land patents on Google Earth from the Township/Range/Section description. Follow this link to Earth Point Tools for Google Earth: You enter your information on Principal Meridian, State (optional), Township, Range, and Section in the form on this page and then click the "Fly To On Google Earth" button.  This creates a small .kml file that downloads to your computer. Double click on this downloaded file and it will open Google Earth on your computer and display the Range and Section outlines superimposed on the satellite view of the location in Google Earth. You can add markers and other information and save this location on your Google Earth map. I'm a huge fan of Earth Point!

    Kathy Nitsch

    1. Wow! Thank you. The Google Earth Thing is just what I needed!

  4. I have seen the Google Earth thing but I haven't tried it. Now I will :) :) :)

  5. Michele,
    I am amazed over and over again at the practical and in depth explanations you provide for so many things that will help us in our searches!! I discovered your blog only a few weeks ago, and I have found it to be an amazing wealth of information!! In a day when many people teach with videos, I am so thankful to find your very clearly written information. Thank you!!!
    I receive your posts by email, but came here to your blog to say thank you; and when I saw Kathy's comment, I shared it with my husband. He is a builder, loves maps, and understands PLSS; but when I told him about the Earth Point Tools, he wanted a copy of your post! He is also a Master Woodland Manager, and has taught mapping courses, using a mapping program; this is excellent information for him to have and pass on!
    Again - thank you!!

  6. Thank you so much for your very kind comments and thanks for reading the blog. You need to ask your husband if he will also plot out metes and bounds descriptions :) :) :)

  7. Some historical background regarding how township boundaries were established:

    - "A Plain stone monument in a black-water swamp near this tiny Monroe County community (Blackton) marks the origin of every township boundary, subdivision and property line in all or part of 15 American states.

    It was from that spot, now a tiny, isolated park, that a doughty band of bush bureaucrats led by Prospect K. Robbins and Joseph C. Brown set out in 1815 to survey the vast wilderness that had been obtained from France 12 years before in the transaction history knows as the Louisiana Purchase."


    other sources can be found by searching "Louisiana purchase state park", "Prospect K. Robbins", and "Joseph C. Brown"

  8. Thank you Michele for the plain English. I've been confused but now I "see the light!"

  9. I love PSS. It is just so darn easy to plot stuff out.

  10. Nice design. Great pleasure to visit this blog. Thank you for sharing………………

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