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How to Map Ranges, Sections and Townships

                                                        --RANGES, SECTIONS AND TOWNSHIPS???

You've been drawing property maps for a while or you are just learning with the most common format of metes and bounds -- North or South; 45 degrees, 0 min, 0 sec, West or East, 100 feet -- easy to learn and easy to draw.  Then you come across a deed with the following information -- ne nw sw 15 3n 1w beg 200'W of NE COR, W200', S450', E200', N450'.    And, PANIC!  What IS all that?  And, how am I supposed to draw a map with it?!

 All that data means that your property is located within an area known as the Public Land Survey System (PLSS).   And we are going to give you a head start in understanding what all that data means and how to get a property map out of it.

First, a little history.  The Public Land Survey System, or PLSS, is a system set up by the government after the Revolutionary War.  The government needed a way to make money for this new country. And, they wanted a way to reward Revolutionary War soldiers for their services.    To get the land into the hands of its people, the Ordinance of 1785 was created by a committee whose primary job was to divide the land of the United States into marketable portions.    This was a huge job and needed to be done quickly and had to be marked out in a way so that the new landowners would know where their land was so they could take possession quickly.  And, it had to be a system that someone with little or no education could use even if they did not understand it all. 

The original 13 colonies remained with original British metes and bounds but all other land was laid out with this new PLSS.  There are still 30 states that use this system or some variation of it.

How was the PLSS laid out?  First an initial point was defined.  From that point a line (principal meridian) was drawn north (as close to true north as they could) and south from that point and another line (base line) was drawn east and west from the point.  The lines drawn above this base line were labeled "N" and lines to the south were labeled "S".  Likewise, lines to the east or west of the principal meridian were labeled "E" and "W".  The N/S lines were called township lines and the E/W lines were called range lines.  Township lines and range lines were then marked and laid out at 6-mile intervals resulting in 6-mile square parcels of land called townships.    

Townships were identified by their location in this land grid.  As an example, the blue shaded box (or township) is located three townships north of the base line or Township 3N.  It is located one box (or township) west of the principal meridian or Range 1W. 

We will come back to those two terms a little later so write them down so you won't forget them -- Township 3N and Range 1W.

So, now we know that a PLSS is a grid-style layout of 6-mile square parcels of land called Townships.  This makes each Township 36 square miles.  The PLSS additionally divides each Township into 1-mile squares called Sections.

Sections are labeled within a township for identifying location.  The township below shows how these are numbered.  We will look at section numbers again later. 

 Let's look closer at a section.  Each section in a township is divided into either halves or quarters.

And then each quarter is divided into halves or into quarters (half quarter or a quarter quarter).

We now have the following information:

It should be noted that because of the speed in which this land system was laid out, there were errors made and not all the measurements were exact.  A township may not be exactly a 6 mile square and a section may not be exactly a 1 mile square.  So someone's land may not be the exact measurements they may think.  The land may actually measure out to be less or even more.  The original layout is considered to be the legal layout, however, and no changes from current surveys may be made.

Let's continue to look at our section.  We will divide the section up into quarter sections this time.  As you can see,  each corner of each quarter can have four different directions.  For instance, in the green quarter (4), the northeast (ne) corner is the northerly corner of the quarter on the east side.  That same quarter is the southeast (se) corner of the purple quarter, the southwest (sw) corner of the quarter to the right of the purple quarter and the northwest (nw) corner of the quarter directly to the right of green quarter.  This may seem unimportant since you think you will only be dealing with one quarter.  You must be aware of this, however, because in the deed information, there will be times when the deed will have the beginning point as the "ne" corner of one quarter while the property will actually be located in another quarter.   By the way, this information applies to corners of sections and corners of townships as well. 

Let's look at how each section division is written.  Below is a section broken into quarters,  half quarters and quarter quarters.  You may even see these divisions  broken down even further into quarters of the quarter quarters.

A lot of information?  Yes.  But all important.  Now, let's put it all together.  Remember the deed information that sent you into a panic.  It's shown below. 

ne nw sw 15 3n 1w beg 200'W of NE COR, W200', S450', E200', N450'

Let's take the first part of it -- ne nw sw 15 3n 1w.  This information tells you where within the township, your property is located. Let's break it down by looking at the last three pieces first -- 15 3n 1w.  The 15 stands for the section number within the township; this will always be listed as just a number.   But where is the township where that section is located?  Remember the 3n and 1w that you wrote down?  It is three township lines above the base line (green line) and one range to the west of the principal meridian (orange line).   

Now for the first three values -- ne nw sw.  First, PLSS deeds are written in the same order so we can look at the data and know exactly where in the section this property is located and where the starting point is for this deed information.  The first value tells us at which corner the deed information begins.  The second value is the smallest quarter of the quarter divisions.  The final value lets us know in which quarter of the section we are working.   Even though it is written as "the ne corner of the nw quarter of the sw quarter, it can actually be read from right to left for a little more clarity.  The sw is the sw quarter of section 15 and then we want to go to the nw quarter of that sw quarter.  Finally, our start point is listed as the ne corner of that nw quarter. 

So, let's look at the Section below.  The quarter we are going to be working with is the sw quarter.  And, we will break it down even further to work with the nw quarter of that sw quarter.   And the "Red Circle" is the starting point for your deed information.

 The following worksheet will help in knowing what data goes where.  A copy of this worksheet is at the end of these instructions for you to copy and use. Let's use our deed information again.

ne nw sw 15 3n 1w beg 200'W of NE COR, W200', S450', E200', N450'

The map to the right is the deed drawn in Map My Land™.   To begin the drawing, the section was drawn and divided into quarters and quarter quarters by using different parcels for each quarter and quarter quarter. 

Drawing the sections or quarters is not mandatory to map your property.  You can set a beginning point for the deed calls and start mapping.  But when mapping parcels within sections, we suggest you map the section and the quarter so you have a visual image of where your property is in the whole of the township layout. 

This is a lot of information, but knowing the basics will help considerably as you map properties within townships and sections.  As you map these types of properties, you will always come across something a little different.  These deeds are no different than metes and bounds-based deeds in that respect.   There will be information that may not be needed in order to draw your property.  There may be abbreviations that make no sense.   But, the basics are always there.

Terms Used in Public Land Survey Systems

Abbreviations and Acronyms