Government Survey Systems, Townships, Sections, Acreages: Everything You Need to Know

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Aug 15, 2022
5 min.

The concept of government survey systems is based on a structure of lines that divide the United States into rectangles and squares. 

Survey systems are the government's way of dividing the land for easy location and purchasing. 

To better understand this concept, think of the United States as a giant square with several intersecting lines forming smaller squares, like a checkerboard.

In this article, you will learn everything you need to understand how survey systems work and how to locate properties using this system.

What is a Governmental Survey System?

A government survey system, also known as the rectangular survey system, is a federal land survey system created by the Land Ordinance in 1785. 

Due to the continuous growth in the United States territory, the need arose for a system through which property owners could identify their real property. 

The rectangular survey system was one of the ways developed to achieve this. 

It is a system based on the principle of meridian lines – running from north to south – and baselines – running from east to west – across most of the United States. 

It is used to identify the specific location of land, divide, measure, and create boundary lines to aid the sale of these lands and settle disputes among property owners. 

This system has also been used to prevent survey fraud and simplify land allocation for different purposes, such as schools and urban development. 

How Does the Government Survey System Work?

The government survey system describes real property using the following structure:

  • Two reference lines are drawn from the Fixed Point of Beginning -this is a surveyor's mark at a well-known landmark that serves as the starting location from which the baselines and principal meridians are drawn to survey the land 
  • The two reference lines drawn are called the Principal Meridian -a line running from north to south- and the Baseline -a line running from east to west 
  • From the Fixed Point of Beginning, parallel lines running east to west are drawn from the Baseline, while parallel lines running north to south are drawn from the Principal Meridian. These lines are called tiers (townships) and range lines, measuring approximately 6 miles each. 
  • An intersection between two range lines and two township lines forms a township
  • To locate a feature on the landscape using a land description, you need to work from the largest to the smallest part.

Having highlighted the lines, their names, and their positions, let’s break things down by taking a quick example, using the coordinates “NW1/4 of NE1/4 of Section 8, T.2N., R.1E”. 

These coordinates translate to the “Northwest quarter of the Northeast quarter of Section 8 in Township 2 North and Range 1 East.” 

What is a Township?

A township is established by the intersection of tiers and range lines that measure 6 miles by 6 miles on each side. It comprises 36 sections, with a total area of 36 square miles. 

These sections are numbered beginning from the North East, with the first section designated as 1, all through to 36.

For a clearer understanding, draw a large square and divide it into 36 smaller units. Start numbering each box, beginning from the top right corner to the top left corner, then downward in a snake formation until you have gotten to the last box at the lowest right corner.

Many people take townships to be the same as cities, but this is incorrect. While a township is merely a subdivision of a county or a town, a city is a much larger territory that is even bigger than a town.  

What is a Section?

A section is one of the basic units in a government survey system. It is a measure of land in a township with a one-mile square of 640 acres. 

The land is referred to as half and quarter sections in each section. The one-sixteenth division of a section is called a quarter of a quarter, as in the NW1/4 of the NW1/4. 

What is an Acreage

An acre is a unit of area used to describe a precise amount of land. It typically measures approximately 43,560 square feet, which translates to 4,046.86 square meters, 0.404686 hectares, or 1/640 of a square mile. An average single-family house sits on only about ⅕ of a total acre. 

Therefore, to clearly understand how big an acre is, picture the American football field but without the end zones. If you use an NBA basketball court, which measures approximately 0.11, one acre will equal approximately 9 basketball courts.

It is important not to confuse an acre with a commercial acre, as these terms describe different things. A commercial acre is a term typically used when describing industrial or commercial properties in big cities. 

It measures about 4,000 square yards instead of 4,840 square yards for a typical acre. This means a commercial acre is roughly 83% of a standard acre.

What is a Hectare?

A hectare is a unit of area that measures about 10,000 square meters or approximately 2.471 acres. Hence, it is roughly two times larger than an acre. 

To visualize how big a hectare is, picture an international rugby union field measuring approximately 1.008 hectares or a baseball field measuring roughly 0.83 to 1.12 hectares.

If you are not a die-hard sports fan, try picturing London's Trafalgar Square, which is approximately 1 hectare.

Final Thoughts on Survey Systems

The government survey system is one of the systems of land description used in most states in the U.S. 

It is a system based on the principles of lines drawn to divide the land into smaller sections for easy identification, purchase, and allocation. It also helps to prevent and settle boundary disputes among property owners.

TL;DR: The U.S. government created townships, sections, and acreages to measure and locate land across the country. It's the standard used by most states to aid in the ownership of any real property.

By
|
Aug 15, 2022
Terminology
5 min.