If you’ve ever wondered over the deed to
your property, or the strange designations you’ve seen in your
real-estate tax bill, you’ve come face to face with a legal
Ever since man started slicing up the earth
and deciding which pieces of it belonged to whom, there has been a
need for defining exactly where any given piece of land might lay.
In early Britain, this was handled in a memorable fashion: the
practice was to take a young child from the neighborhood, lead him
one by one to the corners of the tract of land in question, then
give him a severe thrashing at each location.
The theory was that the child would long
remember each spot (if beaten with sufficient gusto) and could
testify to its location long into the future.
Today’s coddled children have it easy: we
just record a survey at the County Recorder’s Office, but when we
walk around the perimeter of a property, we still call it, “beating
the bounds”. That’s how the phrase originated.
In most of the United States, rural land is
described according to what is referred to as the Public Land Survey
System (PLSS), or less frequently, Government or Rectangle Survey,
or much less frequently, the Aliquot system. It's used in
thirty of the most rural states, including Alaska, but excluding
Texas and the original thirteen colonies
Here's how that works:
First of all, a series of base-marks has
been established for all of the continental U.S. Lines running
north to south are referred to as "meridians" and east-west lines
are called "base-lines".
Here's a map showing all the meridians and
You'll notice that the Meridians converge as
they go north. That, of course, is because of the curvature of
the earth. Most of the effort involved in this sort of land
description relates to different ways to describe squared boundaries
on a spherical globe. It's like trying to put a postage stamp
on an orange; you've got to figure out ways to iron out the
Starting from a baseline and a meridian
line, Township Lines and Range Lines lay out a grid of 6-mile square
blocks. For example, the first line 6 miles north of the Base
Line is named Township 1 North of the Base Line, and the first line
6 miles east of the Meridian is Range 1 East of the Principle
Meridian. The block that those two lines form is called
Township 1 South, Range 1 East, or T1S,R1E.
Each Township and Range is further divided
into 1-mile squares called Sections. The most important thing
to remember about this stage of the process is that the 36 sections
are numbered and arranged BOTH left to right AND right to left, as
in Figure 27.
Then once you get inside a Section, that's
when things really get interesting… or complicated, depending on
your point of view. Each section can be divided into quarters
and halves, so that a quarter-section is 160 acres and a quarter of
a quarter is 40 acres. In Figure 28, the ten-acre square in
the northwest corner is described as "The Northwest Quarter of the
Northwest Quarter of the Northwest Quarter of Section 12 Township
29N, Range 8 West" which is abbreviated NW1/4,NW1/4,NW1/4, S12 T29N
R8W, or simply NW NW NW 12-29-8.
Got that? Okay, let's try it out.
Suppose I want to look up a legal description that I've found on an
old Warranty Deed...