Thursday, July 29, 2010

Surveying the Public Domain

The northeast quarter of the northwest quarter of section 26, township 4 north, range 5 east from the 6th principal meridian: what is that?

That is the legal description of the forty acres where the Education Building at Homestead National Monument of America is located and is typical of at least part of the legal description of almost all property in the 30 “Public Domain” states. [Public lands or the “public domain” came to cover all the territory of the nation except the original thirteen states including what later became West Virginia plus Maine, Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and Hawaii.]


How did it all come about? It pre-dates the U. S Constitution. In 1784 Thomas Jefferson was chairman of an Articles of Confederation Congressional Committee established to determine how to sell the untold millions of acres of public land. Jefferson was aided by Pennsylvania born Doctor of Mathematics Hugh Williamson. Williamson who had earned his doctorate in Holland was very impressed by the rectangular Dutch fields. Jefferson, Williamson, and their committee recommended the public lands be surveyed into ten square mile “townships.” Congress through the Land Ordinance of 1785 changed the size of a township, but otherwise basically followed the committee’s recommendations.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 set up the rectangular survey system used in most areas of the 30 “Public Domain” states. This system is called the Public Land Survey System [PLSS] and is used to determine titles to land. The basic units of the PLSS are township, range and section.

A township is 36 square miles. A range identifies a row or tier of townships. Each square mile contains 640 acres and is called a section and each section is numbered [see diagram]. Each section can be further subdivided for sale. Frequent subdivisions are the quarter-section (160 acres) and the quarter-quarter section (40 acres).

Each township and section is measured from its own “initial point” which consists of intersecting principal meridian and baseline. A principal meridian is the principal north-south line used for survey control in a large region. A baseline is the principal east-west line that divides townships between north and south.. For example, for all of the yellow area in the middle of the map below the intial point was on the Kansas-Nebraska border 108 miles west of the Missouri River near the current town of Mahaska, Kansas. If you look closely at the map you can see the intersecting principal meridians and baselines for most of the survey areas on the map.



Sounds really complicated. Well consider this; men using a 66 foot chain, a transit ["Transit" refers to a specialized type of theodolite that was developed in the early 19th century. It featured a telescope that could "flop over" ("transit the scope") to allow easy back-sighting and doubling of angles for error reduction. Some transit instruments were capable of reading angles directly to thirty arcseconds], and a compass surveyed all of the yellow area in the middle of the map starting from an “intial point” on the Kansas-Nebraska area near the current town of Mahaska, Kansas. They divided the entire area into square miles [640 acres called sections] marking the corners of section with stakes or a pile of rocks. The other colored areas were surveyed accordingly. Pretty amazing.

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