Government Rectangular Survey System
For most of the United States West of the the "Colonies" ... A system of rectangles has been established to
locate and specify the boundaries for land parcels. The following description should help understand what it's
The Rectangular Survey System provides for a unit of land approximately 24 miles square, bounded by base
lines running east and west, and meridians running north and south. This 24 mile square is divided into areas
six miles square called townships. Townships are further divided into 36 sections, each one mile square.
Base Line and Principal Meridian. The first step in implementing this survey system in a given area is the
establishment of an initial point. This point will be the basis for all government surveys in the area it controls,
and its latitude and longitude are fixed by astronomical observations. From this initial point, a Principal Meridian
is run north and south on a line that would intersect the poles, and a Base Line is run east and west on a
parallel of latitude. The Principal Meridian controls survey lines east and west, and the Base Line is the north
and south control.
Guide Meridians and Standard Parallels. Because of the curvature of the earth, additional lines called Guide
Meridians are run every 24 miles east and west of the principal Meridian. Other lines, called Standard Parallels,
are run every 24 miles north and south of the Base Line. The parallels north of the Base Line are designated
First Standard Parallel North, Second Standard Parallel North, and so forth, and those south as the First
Standard Parallel South, Second Standard Parallel, and so on. Standard Parallels are also called correction
Ranges and Townships. North and south lines are next run on true meridian from Standard Parallels and 6
miles apart, marking the survey area into strips 6 miles wide called ranges which are numbered east and west
from the Principal Meridian. Similar lines are run at every 6 mile point north and south of the Base Line, and
parallel with the Base Line, dividing the ranges into 6 mile squares called townships. The first township north of
the Base Line and east of the Principal Meridian is identified as Township 1 North, Range 1 East, the second
township north of the Base Line as Township 2 North, Range 1 East, and so on.
Because meridians converge toward the poles, townships cannot be perfectly regular. Because of this and
surveying errors, irregularity occurs and the sections along the north boundary and the west boundary of each
township contain these discrepancies. Quarter sections along the north and west boundary take up the excess
or shortage in the township. Their quarter quarter sections do not contain the standard 40 acres and are known
as "fractional lots" or "government lots". They are assigned unique lot numbers at the time of the survey. For
example, Lot 2, Section 5 Township 42 North, Range 12 East; or Lot 7, section 31, Township 41 North, Range 9
East, and so on..
Sections. Townships are subdivided into 36 parts, each one mile square, called sections. This is accomplished
by running each way through the township lines which are parallel to the south and east township boundaries.
The 36 sections into which the township is divided are numbered from 1 to 36, beginning with the northeast
corner and proceeding west and east alternately through the township. See Example 2 for an illustration of a
township divided into one mile square sections. Such a section would contain 640 acres.
Further subdivisions are made by the division of the sections into quarters containing 160 acres, and named
the northeast quarter, northwest quarter, southeast quarter, and southwest quarter. The quarter sections may
be divided into quarter quarter sections of 40 acres and these quarter quarter sections further divided into
quarter quarter quarter sections of 10 acres. While sections may be divided into even smaller units of 2.5 acres,
10 acre portions are usually the smallest. See Example 3 below.
In some states, a township frequently will be occupied partially by Indian Lands. The United States Government
Surveys did not cover these lands, and an intersection with the boundaries of them resulted in fractional
townships. Fractional quarters are also created by the meander line of a body of water.
Government Rectangular Survey System
• Land survey system primarily used throughout the US but not within the original 13 colonies which are
based upon the Meters & Bounds Theory
• Based upon the longitude and latitude lines and then ultimately upon the meridian (vertical) and
parallel (horizontal) lines
- The meridian and parallel lines are six miles apart and divide the area into a literal
"checkerboard" consisting of areas (townships) that are 36 square miles
• Township - an area that is six miles squared and is divided into 36 one mile square increments (sections).
• Section - an area that is one mile squared and consists of 640 acres.
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