Locational References (Continued)

Metes and Bounds

Latitudes and longitudes are of little practical value to most people. This system is very good at describing points, but cannot describe areas. If you own a farm, a house lot, or any piece of land, you must have a dependable, legal description of where and how big that parcel is. One very old, and very easy way to describe a piece of property is by a system called "metes and bounds." Recently, while doing some research for the National Park Service to help in the development of the new Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dr. Kelly came across this metes and bounds description:

"... commencing at Persimmon trees at the head of the ditch that divides his young orchard from the remainder of the field running from thence NW'd to a small pine sapling on the S side of the Public Road, thence on same side of the road SW about 7 rods to a small Oak, thence a little N of W to the top of a little rise W of said W.T. Henderson's house, thence along the top of said rise a NE course to opposite the old barn place, thence down said rise and across the Public Road to the old barn place, thence in same direction to the fence where the Teague Clearing commenced, thence SW'd along the fence that divides Vick's cotton patches from the other to the beginning at said Persimmon Trees..."
Considering this was written in 1912, how much luck do you think he had recently trying to locate this exact piece of property? Even some physical features do not make good boundaries. For example, often rivers have been used to define a boundary, but as we will later see, rivers change position over time.

The United States Public Land Survey

Much of the United States prior to the Revolutionary War was surveyed using Metes and Bounds. Recognizing the difficulties and confusion resulting from this system, the Congress established the "United States Public Land Survey" (USPLS) in 1785.

Every location system, such as USPLS or latitude/longitude is an earth-grid. This grid must be based on known points of reference. For the USPLS the known points of reference are arbitrarily selected "initial points." These points have no real significance, they are just convenient. For Alabama, the initial point is located near Huntsville, the old territorial capital. This point represents the intersection of the two base lines of the township and range grid. The east-west trending line is the BASE LINE and grounds the measurements north or south. The north-south trending line, grounding measures east and west of it, is the PRINCIPAL MERIDIAN. (It is a designated meridian from latitude and longitude.) From the BASE LINE, surveyors plotted out a series of horizontal lines six miles apart (usually), as shown below. The strip of land six miles wide between the lines is called a township or a "tier." The first township or tier north of the point is referred to as "township 1 north," usually abbreviated as "T. 1 N." the next tier up is "township 2 north," or T. 2 N., and so on. Townships or tiers to the south of the initial point are named T. 1 S., T. 2 S., T. 3 S., and so on. Remember: a tier is not a line but a strip of land 6 miles wide and the numbering may continue for long distances over entire states.

Next, the surveyors plotted out a series of vertical lines six miles apart(usually), as shown below. The strip of land six miles wide between the lines is called a "range." The first range east of the initial point is referred to as "range 1 east," or R. 1 E. The next range over is R. 2 E., and so on. The ranges to the west of the initial point are similarly labeled. Remember: a range is not a line but a strip of land 6 miles wide and the numbering may continue for long distances over entire states. township and range diagram

By combining tiers and ranges, we can identify individual squares of land, six miles by six miles. These 36 square mile areas are called townships. So township is used for two different features, thus, tier is occasionally used for clarity. For example, in the following diagram, T. 1 N. intersects R. 2 E. to create a township called T. 1 N., R. 2 E. Remember: townships are identified by the intersection of tiers and ranges. In describing townships, first give the tier, then the range.

Each township is a square six miles on a side, containing a total of 36 square miles. This is a very large tract of ground, so we need to define smaller units. We do this by dividing townships into individual square miles called "sections." The sections in a township are numbered from 1 to 36. The method in which this is done is unusual, and is illustrated below.

section diagram

To identify a one square mile area, the section is given followed by the tier and the range. For example, sec. 16, T. 3 N, R. 8 W. This is read as section 16, township 3 north, range 8 west.

A square mile or section consists of 640 acres. This is still a large tract of land, so we have to break this down to describe even smaller areas. This is done by "quartering" the section. Each section is divided into quarters of 160 acres each. These are referred to as the northeast quarter (NE), the southeast quarter (SE), the southwest quarter (SW), and the northwest quarter (NW). These then are each further subdivided in the same way so that each square has 40 acres.

section diagram

Another division in like manner provides areas that are 10 acres, the size of a traditional farm tract. To identify an area, start with the smallest location, then the next larger, and larger, then the section, then the tier and range. For example, NW 1/4, SE 1/4, NE 1/4, sec. 24, T. 18 S., R. 35 W.

Consider how very important the scale is on a map showing USPLS. The scale on the three illustrations above are different, and the blocks represent different subdivisions of the USPLS. How much better these illustrations would have been had I put a graphic scale with each one! In order to identify the squares on the map, you must first look at the scale to determine the size of the squares. Without the scale or labels, it might be difficult to know which level the grid indicates. On the other hand, on the real earth, this grid system is often quite evident. Even images of the earth's surface from space can reveal this grid pattern because it is a very real part of the landscape. In areas mapped by township and range, the county road system has been constructed along these section lines. Within these one mile square areas, crop patterns may reveal property limits. While flying over the Great Plains, it is possible to calculate an approxiate speed of the airplane by timing the passage of the sections.

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