If you have ever read the legal description of a piece of vacant land, you may have found it confusing. There are several different ways to describe land. Most land inside city limits has been divided into named subdivisions, and then further divided into individual lots. However, in more rural areas, the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) provides land descriptions.
The PLSS was implemented after the Revolutionary War. The newly formed United States government became responsible for most of the land outside of the original 13 colonies and it needed a way to identify individual parcels so that it could dispose of them to private owners.
The PLSS was defined for the first time by the “Land Ordinance of 1785” and was further delineated in the “Northwest Ordinance of 1787.” The system has been a work in progress ever since. The most current rules are laid down in “The Manual of Instructions for the Survey of Public lands,” published in 1973. The majority of the land in 30 states has been divided according to PLSS surveys.
A PLSS Survey starts from an initial point. That point is the intersection of a meridian (the North-South line) and a baseline (the East-West line). For example, all surveys in Oregon and Washington are measured from the initial point that is the intersection of the Willamette Meridian and the 1851 Baseline.
Once an initial point is established, the area surrounding it is divided into grids. Each grid square is identified by a specific township and range number. The township number is identified as being north or south of a particular baseline, and the range number is identified as being east or west of a particular meridian. For example, a square in the Washington grid might be identified as Township 3, North Range 1, east of the Willamette Base and Meridian. Each township/range square is roughly six miles by six miles in size. The township/range squares are then further divided into 36, one-mile-square sections, which are identified by a number. Sections can be further divided, where the land is identified as the Southwest Quarter of Section 36, Township 3, North Range 1, east of the Willamette Meridian.
When the PLSS system was first started, the corners of each quarter section were identified by everything from a wooden post, to a pile of rocks or even a tree. These markers were easily destroyed or moved, so today more permanent markers are put down, usually tablets on iron rods or in concrete. Even these permanent markers can be buried or lost in the underbrush, and part of the job of a surveyor today involves locating and identifying these border markers.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for keeping the official PLSS records. Since PLSS’s beginning, over 1.5 billion acres have been surveyed using this system, with the records kept and maintained by the BLM. The BLM also conducts new surveys and resurveys to restore lost or destroyed survey markers.
If you are interested in learning more about the Public Land Survey System, you can visit http://nationalmap.gov.