The PLSS - Historical and Cultural Perspectives

Soon after the United States came into being, the federal government became mindful of the need for nation-building. Because of that, and the realization that much of the land held by the government was a valuable asset and could be sold for needed cash, it was eager to place much of its sovereign land into private, productive ownership for agriculture and development. Thomas Jefferson had been giving some thought to how best to divide the land for disposal. In 1784, he devised a plan of townships containing 100 sections. The next year Congress, possibly having been influenced by Jefferson's scheme, passed the Ordinance of 1785, the first of several laws establishing the basis of the rectangular procedure for surveying the public lands. Roughly seventy percent of the continental United States has been divided and surveyed according to the scheme outlined in the Ordinance and the several subsequent laws passed to refine the concept. Another nine or ten percent had already been claimed or settled and had been surveyed by other local systems by the time the Ordinance was passed. The product of the Ordinance, the rectangular survey system, is familiar to many as a method of dividing and surveying the public lands of the United States by an orderly series of approximately square sections, townships, and ranges.


Congress had in mind a system that was conceptually simple and thus easy for lay people to understand and accept. Straight ahead is the rule, yielding only to navigable waterways. Metes and bounds, on the other hand, is based on criteria other than geometric. These criteria include following terrain features such as water courses, ridge lines, perhaps an existing road or the edge of a swamp. A series of directions and distances (metes and bounds) define the perimeter of a tract of land. The tract might be shaped to include exactly what the buyer wished to acquire, or to fit around existing ownerships. In the rectangular system, though, because of the geometric constraints, settlers could have been required to buy more land than they wanted or needed or possibly more than they could afford. Becoming overextended on credit or "land poor" is not a twentieth century invention.

The surveys were performed by Deputy Surveyors who were appointed by the Surveyor General for the state or territory. The rectangular procedure called first for the Deputy Surveyor to establish an initial point which served as the origin of the numbering scheme for the major six-mile by six-mile grid. At least one state (California) has two such initial points. Some states have none, instead sharing one with an adjacent state. From the initial point, they laid off parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude at nominal intervals of six miles along the four cardinal directions. The parallels, running East and West, are the Township lines. They are numbered from one North and one South, beginning at the initial point. Likewise, the meridians, running North and South, are the Range lines. They are numbered from one East and one West from the initial point. The six-mile square areas thus laid out were also called townships. Then the townships were surveyed into one-mile square tracts called sections. This produces nearly identical and nearly square parcels of land called "sections," of 640 acres more or less each. They are not absolutely identical nor absolutely square for two reasons, one fundamental and one incidental and anecdotal.

The fundamental reason is the geometric requirement that meridians of longitude converge at the poles of the Earth, causing the north line of each section to be shorter than the south line. And because of this convergence, sections in each tier become progressively smaller as the tiers advance northward, until a correction parallel is reached and the one mile interval along the latitudes is reestablished.

Sections in the same tier could be identically sized and shaped on the ground as they are in theory, were it not for the second reason, that of simple human error. The surveyors were allowed a reasonable tolerance for error in closure. To the extent that this tolerance was not exceeded, the surveys follow the basic pattern described in the law.

Nevertheless, as with any human undertaking, errors exceeding the tolerance sometimes occurred. Some section lines were in error by tens, or hundreds, and in a few cases, thousands of feet. To allay the inevitable litigation and hostilities, Congress refined the surveying ordinance around 1805 to state that wherever the Deputy Surveyor set the section corner or quarter section corner would thereafter be the true position of the corner, even if it could be shown later that it had been set in error. This tenet is fully in effect to the present.

Neither the rectangular method nor the method of metes and bounds can be claimed to be perfect for all situations. Indeed, some of the problems with the rectangular system are caused by its fundamental nature, that is its rectangularity and the unyielding spacing of the lines. Nevertheless, objective comparison shows many of the shortcomings of the metes and bounds method for the rapid high-volume surveys required for the disposal of the public lands.

For example, the right-angled shape of tracts of the PLSS gives more usable land for a given acreage, as a rule. Since adjacent sides of a metes and bounds description may intersect at any angle, and since there is mathematically no limit to how small that angle can be, except for zero itself, buyers may be paying for acreage which is practically unusable. Indeed, an inspection of the county maps of any of the thirteen original colonies will show a large number of just such holdings with original survey lines which intersect at small acute angles, producing triangle-shaped corners which cannot be fully utilized for planting, building, grazing, or any productive purpose. Aerial photographs showing areas of colonial surveys also illustrate this irregularity.

Assembly Line

The rectangular system can be likened to an assembly line technique for surveying. Land can be surveyed by the mile and made ready for settlement faster and on a larger scale than by metes and bounds. Settlers were as eager to move westward and begin occupying the land as the United States was to have them do so. The government was not only eager to realize the revenue from land sales, but it also anticipated the expanded agricultural and economic base. The pressure was on everyone in the surveying hierarchy to finish the job. The same unyielding rigidity has been a factor in the swift completion of the surveys because of the fact that the Deputy Surveyors had so little need to ponder anything. The scope of the surveying services to be provided by them was clearly stated in their surveying contracts. The instructions issued by the Surveyors General were specific and written.

Metes and bounds as it was practiced at the time of the Ordinance of 1785 was based entirely on local references, against which time and nature have conspired to eliminate most evidence. It is true that many older deeds contain calls to large, visible topographic features, such as ridge lines, roads, streams and trees. Ridge lines do not move, but streams wander back and forth over time, roads might be realigned or abandoned, and trees die eventually. And many topographic features, upon which the entire deed and land description were based, were not clearly and unambiguously described, thus yielding historical records which cannot be traced back to the land. By comparison, "land lines" are on a regional or perhaps statewide reference (the initial points) and, as we will see, have been much more thoroughly perpetuated by the built environment.

Land is much simpler to describe and convey in a rectangular system, meaning that there is far less need of an expert to interpret conveyances and descriptions which have been rendered by section, township and range. As expressed by William Pattison, " . . . rectilinear land boundaries put it in the power of any settler, employing the most rudimentary means of measurement, to verify the contents of his purchase. We find a principle of Jeffersonian democracy implicit here . . ."

Roman surveyors were required under Roman law to escort new owners to their tracts of land and show them the corners. The systematic method of numbering the sections, townships, and ranges and clearly marking corners and line trees precluded the need for this kind of service.

As soon as people began entering the newly opened public lands, they began to feel the need for roads. These people were mostly farmers and needed transportation routes to get their crops, dairy products, timber, and livestock to market or rail heads or river ports. In her book Order Upon the Land, Hildegard Johnson concludes that the shortage of good roads was felt early by the emerging dairy industry. The invention of the cream separator ushered in the mechanization and centralized production of butter, which meant that farmers had to be able to deliver cream on a daily basis to the creameries in town. Without refrigeration, and traveling over very bumpy roads, often the cream would have been churned into a low-grade butter on the wagon ride to town. She also credits the U.S. Post Office with providing encouragement and financial support to states and localities to build and improve roads to help with its Rural Free Delivery.

Thus were the beginnings of federal assistance to state highway departments which persist to the present. Of course, the roads were available for anyone to use. And as farmers discovered, the roads which made it easier for them to get to market and to reach all parts of their bigger and bigger farms, also provided easy access and escape routes for cattle rustlers.

Legal Interpretation

The federal laws governing the surveys initially made no mention of roads as such, except that in 1796, follow-up federal legislation declared all navigable streams to be public highways. Some states, however, passed laws early on defining section lines as state roads. Legal interpretation of this varied by area, but overall some states considered the road right-of-way to be implicit in the land, and thus not requiring compensation. Some owners were moved by enlightened self-interest or civic-mindedness to cede the necessary land. By 1866, federal law caught up with many state laws and granted right-of-way for the construction of highways over unreserved public land. Nevertheless, regardless of how the right of way was acquired, building roads along the section lines has always been clearly preferred. Reasons for this include the fact that the lines, especially early on, had only recently been surveyed and thus were usually well-known. Also, where land owners had no expectation of compensation for the right of way being taken, it may be presumed to appear more equitable to all concerned to take land from more than one owner, and conversely to provide access to more than one owner.

Nevertheless, depending on the nature of the terrain, strictly following a section line could be a very costly undertaking. As we saw earlier, the survey lines were laid out without regard for either steep or submerged terrain. The cost of building a road in areas of extreme terrain relief or over submerged areas might rise considerably. To reduce expenses, sometimes the route would have to be adjusted to allow a more advantageous stream crossing or to circumscribe a swamp or to provide a more manageable gradient on a slope. The actual cash expense of building around such obstacles might be greater but the overall cost of using the road would decrease. Draft animals and motor vehicles alike both have limits as to how steep a grade they can climb. Just as important to consider is the extra difficulty of slowing and stopping while traveling downhill.

Norman Thrower has made a comparison of road-building along fundamental survey lines in two sample areas of Ohio, a state with a substantial amount of both kinds of surveys. His study shows that, in those areas of the state surveyed by the rectangular method, approximately 77 percent of roads are built along the survey lines. He also shows that in the metes and bounds areas, 7 to 9 percent of roads are built on the original survey lines.

Contour Plowing

Long before soil conservation became part of the farming vocabulary, farmers took visual cues from the long, straight roads which bordered their fields to guide them in plowing long, straight furrows. Farmers' standings in their communities depended on their being able to plow straight. In order to be judged, the furrows had to be aligned for the best visibility from the road, hence along or perpendicular to the land lines. In hilly country this practice encouraged erosion of the topsoil by rainwater run off.

The Soil Conservation Service of the federal government was born of this crisis of loss of top soil and thereby loss of farm productivity. The Service developed a system of contour plowing and planting of alternate strips of crops to reduce erosion. As an aside, they found that none other than Thomas Jefferson had been there before them and had already put into practice at Monticello the basic contour system. In spite of the evidence showing the beneficial effects of this different way of farming, farmers were reluctant to dissociate themselves from the grid of section lines and switch to contouring. Clearly the weight of scientific evidence did not outweigh the effect of "order upon the land" and the habits of a lifetime.

The survey grid may have been shaped by this need for order and regularity, but once the land lines had been established they acquired a life of their own and became the foundation for many human undertakings, livelihoods, inheritances, prestige, social status. Even the settlers' identities were interwoven in the rectangularity of the land lines as the warp and woof of a tapestry, the tapestry of rural American life. In commercially published county histories, people were identified by how they fit into the cadastre. "He surrounded some land in section 34." "He is now on the line of sections twenty-four and twenty-five." "He resides on the northeast corner of section 30, where he settled in 1853." ". . . he came with wife, niece and nephew, settling in section 21 . . ." "He made a claim of a quarter section of land . . . in sections 22, 23, 26, 27." "He preempted 160 acres in sections twenty-seven and twenty-eight."

Many of the areas being settled were barren and trackless. With no visual references, an unscrupulous person could surreptitiously move a corner marker to his advantage. The building of fences or planting of hedgerows along lines made this particular deception nearly impossible, helping to solidify the identity of people with their lands. To consummate the hold on the land, settlers were quick to build such fences and hedges. Of course, in a rural setting the main purpose of a fence is to keep livestock in. Fences don't do much to keep intruders out, since people can easily go over or through them. Symbolically though, they serve to memorialize the lines of ownership, making them visible to all, and giving notice to all that the occupant intends to defend his claim, his livelihood, his bequest to his children, his identity, ultimately himself.

Nation Building

The ordered regularity of the survey grid has left its mark upon the American psyche much as the section lines have marked the land. From the lumbering, ungainly American sedan designed to go very fast in a straight line to the rolls of barbed wire sold in quarter mile lengths, both have been fitted to the landscape. Viewed from the longer perspective of world history, however, it could be said that the American grid was shaped by the need of the people for order, as much as being the cause of it. Indeed, evidence of systems of rectangular surveying predate our own by at least a couple of thousand years. Roman law called for the bestowing of plots of land on retiring Roman soldiers. Roman surveyors, who were almost exclusively military surveyors, laid out a grid and "centuriated" (subdivided into one hundred lesser tracts). A modern air photograph of downtown Nap-les in Italy bears a striking resemblance to the survey pattern seen from the air over the American plains. Arch-eological evidence of rect-angular surveys even predates Rome.

Known for his erudition, Jefferson may have been influenced by his knowledge of history, and presumably Roman surveying, when he developed his original plan of 1784, or he may have responded to his own scientific intuition. Nevertheless, the system which came into being has taken a raw, young country less than a decade old to the present nation of millions of land owners, most of whom owe some part of that heritage to the men whose foresight crafted the laws for the disposal of the public lands. Whether founded in antiquity or not, it is clearly the result of some basic human tendencies evidenced by Romans more than two thousand years ago, and by Egyptians before them. And before that there may be yet undiscovered archeological evidence revealing the order we see upon the land.


Many thanks to Lane Bouman, BLM, retired, and Raymond J. Hintz, University of Maine, for their review and comments.

About the Author

Joseph A. Boyle is a surveyor with the Florida Department of Transportation in the Department's Central Office in Tallahassee.

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