Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Going to the Courthouse - Legal Land Descriptions Explained

Many people are intimidated by the Public Land Survey System, the section, township, and range designations, used in much of the US; but it is a very effective way to locate land.  Surveyors laid out baselines that run east and west and meridians that run north and south, and all land in a specific area is measured from these lines.  For example, in downstate Oklahoma, the land is measured east and west of the Indian Meridian and north and south of the 1870 baseline.  But in the Oklahoma panhandle, the Cimarron Meridian and 1881 baseline are used.

Then townships that are six miles square are laid out (see the "Township Grid" in the image below), so a township contains 36 square miles.  The township number indicates how many townships the tract is north or south of the baseline.  The range number indicates how many townships the tract is east or west of the meridian.

Next each township is broken down into one-square-mile tracts called sections, and there are 36 of them in a township (see the middle white diagram of a township below).  Sections are always numbered in the same way, starting in the northeast corner of the township and running west 1-2-3-etc.  Then the next row south is numbered from the west back to the east 7-8-9-etc.  This continues until you get to 36 in the southeast corner.  A section contains 640 acres.

Sections can be broken in quarters of 160 acres and quarter-quarters of 40 acres (see the bottom left diagram below).   So you could have the northwest quarter of Section 12 (NW4 Section 12) or the northwest quarter of the southeast quarter (NW4 SE4 of Section 18), for example.  Tracts could also be divided into halves, e.g. the west of the southwest quarter (W2 SW4).  And here is a specific example - one small piece of my grandfather's ranch in Oklahoma was the southwest quarter of the southeast quarter of Section 11, Township 2 North, Range 17 East of the Cimarron Meridian.  This would be abbreviated SW4 SE4 11-2N-17ECM.  The directional part of the township and range numbers (north/south and east/west) and the meridian name are often left out when it is obvious what they would be (SW4 SE4 11-2-17).

Here is a diagram that shows how the system works:

Land in Canada from Manitoba and provinces west is described by the Dominion Land Survey, which is very similar to the US Public Land Survey.  A couple of main differences are that sections are numbered from the southeast corner of the township, unlike in the US where they are numbered from the northeast corner.  Also, there one prime meridian in eastern Manitoba - land in Manitoba east of this meridian is ranges designated as "east."  All land west of this was in ranges designated "west."  Finally, townships were numbered starting from the south at the US border.  Farther north, surveyors ran baselines and the township numbering restarted at these baselines.  So the Canadian system is more a unified whole.

Next we'll discuss how to research land ownership at the courthouse.

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