The Public Land Survey System (PLSS) and Future Land Systems The Public Land Survey System (PLSS)

Below is the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) as explained at the National Atlas website. While the PLSS is not a system that I use in my Professional Land Surveying practice, as I work in a "Colonial State", I would hope that it is a more orderly methodology than the hodgepodge of parcels and deeds that I'm used to working with.

Although, I suspect that like the best of plans made by the smartest of people, any plan, such as the PLSS, is only as good as its weakest links. Limited by methods and equipment error, human error, and times decay, to name a few, the PLSS system originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson still has served this country well - imperfect yet functional.

Thomas Jefferson, President and Visionary

Think about the vision Jefferson had and the investment he proposed in the PLSS land system. I could have easily said survey system, which is the vital component to tie the parcels to the land, but don't forget that the PLSS is first, a land system. It is not which came first the chicken or the egg argument-It's rather, the coexisting harmonious marriage of parcel (land) and survey. Either you want to be able to place a parcel somewhere on the Earth from a record document, or you are creating a parcel and record document from discrete points already on the Earth. Without a doubt, having all parcels registered in and "fitting" together in one system is beneficial.

The equipment error s and human errors, not mistakes, used to create or layout a parcel and the need to interpret words in deeds and surveys, for intent, will be ever present. But, in the two centuries since Thomas Jefferson envisioned the Public Land Survey System why have we, as a country and as a society, not created a better land/parcel registration and survey system. With all of the tools available to us for delivering precise surveying and with the computer's ability to store and process large amounts of data quickly, why can't we develop a modern and better version of the PLSS to work everywhere?

What's the Answer?

The answer is that we can, it's just that we choose not to. There are many reasons for this. For one, there are many who have a vested interest in the status quo. Discrepancies and disputes involving properties generate a lot of revenue. Two, as it works today, a select few has control over the land processes and has no interest in seeing the existing system (or lack thereof) improved or expanded in such a way that any additional cost would reduce or eliminate their existing revenue streams. Third, is that, to pay for any proposed new system would be deemed as "too expensive" to implement and carry out. I say that it's more expensive to society and to our professional image not to improve our current systems!

Now is the time to think about the needs of today and to look ahead for the next two centuries. We can keep on with the tired arguments of the day discussed routinely in trade magazines and online forums, or we can take the unique knowledge and training that Professional Land Surveyors posses to forge ahead with a modern land system. And no, it's not just Professional Land Surveyors that need to step up, it's also the GIS practitioner, the legal profession and municipal governments, to name a few. We know all of these parties, work with them every day, and our profession can be the bridge to the future.

I have a few ideas of my own, but I am really interested in what you think. I know that this blog is read by other land surveyors and GIS professionals - What are your thoughts?

Next week I'll start to write about what I think the process should look like and where I think we should be heading. Rather than being an article stuck on the web, frozen in time, I hope that we can turn it into a living document and grow this seed of an idea.

The Public Land Survey System (PLSS)

What is the PLSS?

The Public Land Survey System (PLSS) is a way of subdividing and describing land in the United States. All lands in the public domain are subject to subdivision by this rectangular system of surveys, which is regulated by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Map of states included in the Public Land Survey System
National Atlas of the United States® The PLSS is used to divide public domain lands, which are lands owned by the Federal government for the benefit of the citizens of the United States. The original public domain included the land ceded to the Federal Government by the thirteen original States, supplemented with acquisitions from native Indians and foreign powers. It encompasses major portions of the land area of 30 southern and western States. Since the original PLSS surveys were completed, much of the land that was originally part of the public domain has been transferred to private ownership and in some areas the PLSS has been extended, following similar rules of division, into non-public domain areas. PLSS rules of division are explained below. For areas that were once part of the public domain, legal land descriptions are usually written in terms of PLSS descriptions.

The PLSS typically divides land into 6-mile-square townships, which is the level of information included in the National Atlas. Townships are subdivided into 36 one-mile- square sections. Sections can be further subdivided into quarter sections, quarter-quarter sections, or irregular government lots. Normally, a permanent monument, or marker, is placed at each section corner. Monuments are also placed at quarter-section corners and at other important points, such as the corners of government lots. Today permanent monuments are usually inscribed tablets set on iron rods or in concrete. The original PLSS surveys were often marked by wooden stakes or posts, marked trees, pits, or piles of rock, or other less-permanent markers.

The PLSS actually consists of a series of separate surveys. Most PLSS surveys begin at an initial point, and townships are surveyed north, south, east, and west from that point. The north-south line that runs through the initial point is a true meridian and is called the Principal Meridian. There are 37 Principal Meridians, each is named, and these names are used to distinguish the various surveys. The east-west line that runs through the initial point is called a base line. This line is perpendicular to the Principal Meridian.

Map of and link to Principal Meridians and Base Lines, Bureau of Land Management
Source: Principal Meridians and Base Lines, Bureau of Land Management

Each township is identified with a township and range designation. Township designations indicate the location north or south of the baseline, and range designations indicate the location east or west of the Principal Meridian. For example, a township might be identified as Township 7 North, Range 2 West, which would mean that it was in the 7th tier of townships north of a baseline, and in the 2nd column of townships west of a baseline.  A legal land description of a section includes the State, Principal Meridian name, Township and Range designations with directions, and the section number: Nebraska, Sixth Principal Meridian T7N, R2W, sec5.

Diagram showing the breakout of a township grid subdivided into township and range which is divided into sections.

While the original PLSS surveys were supposed to conform to official procedures, some errors were made due either to honest mistakes or to fraudulent surveys. Existing surveys are considered authoritative, and any new surveys must work from existing corners and surveys, in spite of errors in the original surveys and variations from the ideal. This sometimes results in sections that are far from square, or that contain well over or under 640 acres.

The early surveys in Ohio and Indiana were done when the system currently in use had not yet been fully developed. While these surveys have townships that are 6 miles square, the numbering system used and the types of starting points for the surveys are different from those used elsewhere in the United States. These surveys are also named, although the names are not based on Principal Meridians. Further information on these irregular surveys can be found in the references listed at the end of this article. In particular, see the Background Information on the Public Land Survey System.

Detail of Principal Meridians and Base Lines map showing Ohio.
Source: Principal Meridians and Base Lines, Bureau of Land Management

In Louisiana, parcels of land known as arpent sections or French arpent land grants also pre-date the PLSS, but are treated as PLSS sections. An arpent is a French measurement of approximately 192 feet, and a square arpent (also referred to as an arpent) is about 0.84 acres. French arpent land divisions are long narrow parcels of land usually found along the navigable streams of southern Louisiana, and also found along major waterways in other areas. This system of land subdivision was begun by French settlers in the 1700s, according to typical French practice at the time and was continued by both the Spanish and by the American government after the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase. A typical French arpent land division is 2 to 4 arpents wide along the river by 40 to 60 arpents deep, while the Spanish arpent land divisions tend to be 6 to 8 arpents wide by 40 arpents deep. This method of land division provided each land-owner with river frontage as well as land suitable for cultivation and habitation. These areas are given numbers just like standard sections, although the section numbers frequently exceed the normal upper limit of 36.

Image showing arpent land divisions in Louisiana.
French arpent land division influence in Louisiana.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey


Originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson, the PLSS began shortly after the Revolutionary War, when the Federal government became responsible for large areas west of the thirteen original colonies. The government wished both to distribute land to Revolutionary War soldiers in reward for their service, as well as to sell land as a way of raising money for the nation. Before this could happen, the land needed to be surveyed.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 which provided for the systematic survey and monumentation of public domain lands, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which established a rectangular survey system designed to facilitate the transfer of Federal lands to private citizens, were the beginning of the PLSS. Under Congressional mandate, cadastral surveys (surveys of the boundaries of land parcels) of public lands were undertaken to create parcels suitable for disposal by the Government. The extension of the rectangular system of surveys over the public domain has been in progress since 1785, and, where it applies, the PLSS forms the basis for most land transfers and ownership today. The Manual of Instructions for the Survey of the Public Lands Of The United States, 1973 documents current official procedures for PLSS surveys.

Certain lands were excluded from the public domain and were not subject to survey and disposal. These lands include the beds of navigable bodies of water, national installations such as military reservations and national parks, and areas such as land grants that had already passed to private ownership prior to subdivision by the Government. France, Spain, and Mexico all conferred land grants in territory they claimed; many of these grants were confirmed by the U.S Government when the territory in which they were situated was acquired by the United States, and the land was then excluded from the public domain.

Over the past two centuries, almost 1.5 billion acres have been surveyed into townships and sections. The BLM is the Federal Government's official record keeper for over 200 years' worth of cadastral survey records and plats. In addition, BLM is still completing numerous new surveys each year, mostly in Alaska, as well as conducting resurveys to restore obliterated or lost original survey corners.

Professional Land Surveyor Source: The National Atlas

Eric D. Colburn, PLS, "The Geo-Business Innovator", helps geo-professionals improve through innovative solutions, mastery of marketing and business growth strategies, and coaching/training. Eric is a successful, serial entrepreneur, podcaster, industry writer, product development consultant, and RI licensed professional land surveyor.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
One comment on “The Public Land Survey System (PLSS) and Future Land Systems
  1. Gregory Letts says:

    I am looking forward to this discussion. I recently read a discussion in the Geomatics Group on LinkedIn that centered around the topic Is there still a market for 3rd party survey data collection systems?. The discussion centered on the monopoly that software/hardware companies have on the work that we do as surveyors. The other point that was covered, was a broader issue, how the data business is going to look in 10 years and how the software/hardware is driving us to changes that we are not currently ready for as an industry.

    The discussion can be found at the following address: