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Federal Land States

Map of Principal Meridians and Baseline from the Bureau of Land Management

    Last week I wrote about State Land States, those states where the original transfer of land was done by the states.  After the Revolution, the federal government owed all the open land (the Public Domain) previously claimed by England.  Because the Continental Congress ran out of money during the War, they promised to compensate servicemen by providing land in lieu of cash.  After the War, because they had land, but little money, the government sold land to raise cash (Federal Lands States also called Public Domain States).  Since land was to be auctioned off, it needed to be surveyed and a new system was devised called the Rectangular Survey.

    When new lands were opened for sale, a meridian was designated along with an intersecting baseline for the survey.  The meridians run north/south and the baselines run east/west.  Every six miles running east/west parallel to the base line are township lines and every six miles running north/south parallel to the meridian are range lines.  Each of the six square mile townships is then sub-divided into one square mile sections.  Sections can then be divided into fractional or Aliquot parts.  For a complete description of platting rectangular survey descriptions go to the Bureau of Land Management.  

    A land description in a Public Domain State might read like this...

    the North West quarter of the North West fractional quarter, and the South West quarter of the

    North West fractional quarter of Section fifteen, in Township six South, of Range five East in 

    the District of lands subject to sale at Lima, Ohio, containing seventy-five acres and ninety two 

    hundredths of an acre,

and be written like this...


   So what does it mean?  As you can see above, the description is written from left to right from the smallest part to the largest (i.e., the meridian).  The plat of this property, however, is done from the meridian, or from right to left.  From the intersection of the meridian and base line, you would count five to the right (east) and six down (south) to find the location of the township.


The next step would be to find the section and Aliquot parts.  Each township is divided into thirty-six sections, each one mile square.  They are numbered from the northeast corner (number one) west, then south, then east.  Since most of our ancestors couldn’t afford to purchase a complete section (one square mile or 640 acres) a further division of the section was made in the same manner, dividing each section into quarters, then fractional parts.  To complete the plat of the two pieces of land described above, we’re looking for the northwest quarter of the southwest quarter and the southwest quarter of the northwest corner.  The two pieces of land are adjacent in the section and are located as shown. 

    Hopefully the diagrams help walk you through the process.  Whether it be metes and bounds or rectangular survey, it takes a few deeds to become comfortable with the process.  It’s worth the time to learn as land records can help solve many brick walls.  Below are some additional resources that you can likely find at your genealogical library or you can order them by going to the Books section of my website.

  • Eichholz, Alice (Ed.), Ancestry’s Red Book, 3rd Edition American State, Country & Town Sources, Ancestry, Salt Lake City, 2004.
  • Garner, Bryan A. (Ed.), Black’s Law Dictionary, West Group, St. Paul, MN. (Many editions are available both in hard cover and paperback.)
  • Hone, E. Wade, Land & Property Research in the United States,” Ancestry, Salt Lake City, 1997.
  • Rose, Christine, Courthouse Research for Family Historians, Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures, CR Publications, San Jose, 2004.
  • Sperry, Kip, Reading Early American Handwriting, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1998.
  • Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Luebking, Sandra Hargreaves, (Ed.), The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Third Edition, Ancestry, Salt Lake City, 2006. (Chapter 10)

Happy Hunting!

© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2018