Government Survey System, Sections, and Townships

When you tell somebody where a property is, you typically give them an address. But what if there is no address? What if there are no streets?

The Government Survey System is a federal land survey system that has been applied to most of the land added to the United States since the system was adopted in 1785. (No Google Maps back then!)

It is also sometimes referred to as the Public Land Survey System or Rectangular Survey System.

Here is how it works:

The system starts by identifying reference lines: an east-west line called the base line and a north-south line called the principal meridian.

Lines are then drawn about every 6 miles parallel to the meridian and the base line. The east-west lines are referred to as township lines, and the north-south lines are range lines.

By nature of the lines being drawn 6 miles on each side, you now have 36 square miles, which make up townships.

So a township is identified by specifying how many townships it is north or south of the base line and how many ranges it is east or west of the principal meridian. For example, a legal description might describe a township as “township 4 north, range 5 west”

But 36 square miles is sill a big area. Thus, next come the sections. A township is divided into 36 sections. 
A township is 36 square miles, there are 36 sections, and each section is 1 square mile.

Each square-mile section is numbered consecutively, starting with section 1 in the northeast corner of the township and then going back and forth, ending with section 36 in the southeast corner of the township.

This way, the legal description can identify the relevant square-mile section simply by the section’s number within the identified township.

So let’s look at an example, which we'll call section 9. You can use fractional descriptions, such as “the northwest quarter of section 9" or "the south half of the northwest corner of section 9". Your description gets more and more specific until you have identified the exact spot of land.

Putting these elements of the description together, a simple legal description using the Government Survey System might go like this: “The south half of the northwest quarter of section 9, township 12 north, range 71 west of the 6th principal meridian.”