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The first part of this series we looked at what a Surveyor is, and does.  This article will look at what a Land Survey is, and will briefly look at the history what is called the Public Land Survey System or PLSS which is the basis of most non-colonial surveying.  This article will by no means be exhaustive--but will be longer than my normal posts.  The story you are about to read is true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent...

The Public Land Survey System or Rectangular Survey System was originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson.  This system is a method of subdividing (making smaller parcels from larger ones) and describing land in the United States. In general, the PLSS typically divided land into 6-mile-square townships.  Townships are further subdivided into 36 one-mile-square sections.


Sections are then further subdivided into quarter-sections, quarter-quarter-sections, or irregular lots called Government Lots. Permanent monuments, or markers, were 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. [1. http://nationalatlas.gov/articles/boundaries/a_plss.html]

The perpetuation of these monuments is one of the most important jobs that Land Surveyors have to individual property owners, and the public in general.  Here in Wisconsin just about every property owned is in some way tied to these original section surveys.  Wisconsin was surveyed between from 1832 to 1866.  The Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands has some excellent in-depth information on both the system, and the process.

Now we've laid the ground work to understanding simple legal descriptions.  We're going to do a survey of the West 1/2 of the Northeast 1/4 and the Northeast 1/4 of the Northeast 1/4...Looking at the map of the section above, everyone should now be able to figure out where this parcel is.  Here is a refresher...

Next time we will start our "Survey" of this parcel of land.

If you have any questions, feel free to comment here and I'll reply.

RLS Dave

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  • David, thank you for your reply.

    It must be challenging but also interesting to search for a point that was surveyed over 100 years ago and to look if there is still some kind of monument left.

    I guess the land was mostly uninhabited back then, so there weren't any previous property boundaries which would have to been respected? So it was probably a very clever idea to simply divide the land into squares for surveying.

    Here when the original survey took place (in this area between 1866 and 1875), there already were property boundaries which weren't really documented but (more or less) accepted by the local people, so the surveyors had to follow these boundaries and document them. Often these boundaries where everything else but straight lines, and today there are still some boundaries having a corner every few meters dating back to this times. But this is a different story, and I think I would need one or two blog articles of my own to explain the German cadaster and its history.

    I'm looking forward to reading your next article!

  • Tim, thank you for the comment.  Your statement is very true, the PLSS is a legal form of land division, not a mathematical system, though mathematics played a great role in its development!  The PLSS dates back to our Land Ordinance of 1785 and was envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.  Where I live in Wisconsin our lands were originally surveyed between 1832 and 1866, and where those surveyors set monuments pulling a 66' long Gunter's chain through the woods being guided by a compass still hold today.  Often that position had been updated several times since then, but there are places here today that haven't been visited since then.  

    I'm currently writing a new article that discusses some of the methods used by those original surveyors and the beauty of the math behind the system, such as with a 66' long chain (most wondered why such and odd number, why not an even 100?), 10 square chains = 1 Acre!

    More to follow!


  • Thank you for this post. It's interesting to read about PLSS, a system very different from what we use here. When I first read about it I thought it must be very easy as everything is square so if you know one or two corners of a any square, you can calculate the corners from all other squares. But after reading more, it doesn't seem to easy anymore, as the position of the corners determined by the original survey is valid, even if that makes the sections and quater-sections to be not exactly square any more.

  • GEO Ambassador
    love this post...another homerun!
  • Thank you Deward, another post will be following!  Have a great surveying day!

  • Land Surveyor

    Another good article. Keep it up.

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