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Today we’re looking at the Government Survey System. Why do we have a Government Survey System? Well, usually when you tell someone how to find a property, you give them a street address. Like the address on a letter- 1234 PrepAgent Street, Awesomeville USA, that sort of thing. 

But what if there is no address? 
And what if there are no streets? 

The Government Survey System is a federal land survey system implemented in the United States less than a decade after the founding of the country. It gave people a way to find specific plots of land before we had Google Maps, Waze, or any kind of city planning.  

To really get a feel for what the early settlers of America were facing, imagine having a massive valley full of trees, rocks, and maybe a creek or two. Somewhere in that valley is a plot of land with your name on it. How will you find it? 

The Government Survey System was created to help with that. Here is how it works. 

It starts with two reference lines. An east to west line called a baseline, and a north to south line called the principal meridian. Those two lines intersect at what is called the fixed Point of Beginning. From the fixed Point of Beginning, lines are drawn about every six miles on both sides of the baseline, and every six miles on both sides of the meridian line. 

The lines running east to west are called “tiers”, and the lines running north to south are known as “range lines”. The lines are 6 miles apart in every direction, so they create squares called “townships”. A square that measures 6 miles on each side has an area of 36 square miles (6 times 6), so each township covers 36 square miles. 

This is a very important point, so let me repeat it! Townships cover 36 square miles. That’s still a pretty big area, so townships are broken down even further. Each township of 36 square miles is divided into 36 sections, meaning each section of the township measures 1 square mile. All sections may not be a perfect 1 square mile as there are things like lakes and other natural borders. And of course, most properties are not a perfect square mile, so there are ways of identifying areas inside of each section. But it’s easier to understand if you have a visual, so let’s look at an example. 

First, we need to look at how properties are located in each township. Remember that each township has lines called tiers running east to west, and range lines running north and south. A township is identified by specifying how many tiers it is north or south of the baseline, and how many range lines it is east or west of the principal meridian. 

In our example, the legal description describes the township as tier 4 north, range 5 west. This identifies the township as being 4 tiers north of the baseline and 5 range lines west of the principal meridian. Now we have identified the township T4N R5W, which stands for tier four north range fice west. And we are looking for a specific property within this 36 square mile area. This is where sections come into play. 

Each 1 square mile section is numbered consecutively, but this is where things get interesting! Normally, we think of numbering things in the same way that we read a book. Start in the upper-left corner of the page and read each line, left to right, until you’re done. Then you bump down to the next line. 

Instead, section numbers start from the northeast corner of a township. You start in the upper-right corner of the township map with section 1 and count right-to-left until you get to section 6. Then you drop to the square directly below section 6. This is section 7, and now you count left-to-right until you get to section 12, where you drop down to section 13, and then back and forth kind of swerving like a snake until you finally get to section 36 at the southeast corner of the township. 

This is the part that confuses most people. Why would they use such an odd numbering system? Think of it like this- you are a land surveyor in 1810, and you don’t have GPS to help you out. The only way for you to survey this township is to walk the land, marking it off manually. If the numbering system worked like a book, when you get to section 6 you would need to do a superman jump to get back. Since most of us are not superman, it makes sense to use a numbering system that allows you to walk the township in the most efficient way possible. Thus, we have the snakelike numbering system that swerves back and forth.i’ 

Okay, back to our example. Let’s look at section 9 in this township. We find section 9 by starting in the northeast corner and counting off the sections until you get to section 6. Then you drop down to section 7 and count the other way until you reach section 9. Now we'll use fractional inscriptions. 

Let’s say your property is in the northwest quarter of section nine. To be more precise, it is the southwest half of the northwest corner of section nine. If your property is smaller than that, you'll keep on going until you identify your exact spot of land. 

Putting these elements of description together, the legal description of your property using the government survey system would look something like this: 

SW ½ NW ¼, S9, T4N, R5W 

It looks like a bunch of gibberish, but it reads something like this: 

The southwest half of the northwest quarter of section nine, township four north, range five west. 

Notice that when we read the description we start with the more specific information and work up to the more general. This is actually the same as how a mailing address works - you start with someone’s name, then their home address, then the city, state, and country. If you get lost trying to recall which information comes first in a legal description on your exam, remember that the order is the same as your home address- specific information comes first, then the information becomes more and more general.  

I hope this helps you understand how the government survey system works.