Land Division in America
By Richard H. Carson
Legal descriptions of property are an important part of American history that started before we even had the Constitution. At the end of the Revolutionary War, the colonists became responsible for a lot of real estate. The new government was responsible for a vast amount of land west of the 13 colonies, stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean. These new "territories" covered an area 50 percent larger than all of Europe. In response, early Americans created a national planning policy that was profoundly efficient. This would come to be called the Manifest Destiny, a term coined by the journalist John L. O'Sullivan.
After the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, the Confederation Congress began figuring out how to describe the location of these lands. This became a priority for several important reasons. Debates arose between the colonies, with native- American tribes, and even with other countries about who had jurisdiction over which land. They were also afraid that settlers in the new territories might break with the colonies to form a new country. So they needed a system by which they could legally transfer land from government ownership to private ownership while still maintaining government jurisdiction.
None other than Thomas Jefferson led the effort that resulted in the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Public Land Survey System (PLSS), which is regulated by the Bureau of Land Management, created an imaginary grid that consisted of large squares called townships. Each township measured six miles on each side and covered 36 square miles. The Ordinance called for six north-to-south lines (meridians), spaced six miles apart, starting from Pennsylvania's western border and going east. These north-to-south columns of stacked Townships were called the 7 Ranges.
The PLSS broke the 36-square-mile townships into 36 sections of one mile square. Each section contained 640 acres, and by using the "aliquot" description, the section could be further divided into half sections (320 acres),quarter sections (160 acres), or quarter-quarter sections (40 acres). The result is the modern day rural lot sizes we know all to well.
In each Township, one section was set aside for a public school, four were allocated for Revolutionary War veterans as a land bounty, and the remainder could be bought at auction by the public. The minimum bid was $640, or $1 per acre.
These quarter sections became very important after the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed. A homesteader only had to be the head of a household, be at least 21 years of age, and pay the $18 fee to claim a 160-acre parcel of land in the West. So the legal description of his or her claim was the township, range, section identifier. At a macro scale, the western states took on rectangular shapes because of north-to-south meridians and the township building blocks.
Newspaper accounts of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean (1804) and later the survey done of the Oregon Trail by Kit Carson and John Fremont (1842) created intense interest by Americans in the new territories. So it was no surprise that the Homestead Act created what came to be called the "Great Migration" west. An estimated 100,000-plus pioneers made the overland journey by wagon to the territories to claim land. In 1869, the last spike of the transcontinental railroad was driven, and even more people would come from the East.
In time, this great migration into the new territories became known as the "Manifest Destiny." The journalist John L. O'Sullivan said, "And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us."
This mapping system complicated matters in some areas because the French and Spanish used a completely different mapping system that created long narrow tracts of land usually following waterways. It was not unusual to have a tract two miles long and less than 1,000 feet wide. Since there was no real grid system, they fanned out from curvilinear waterways. So these property owners had a hard time conforming to the new system in terms of legal descriptions.
These days, such a task would be easy and precise. But in the 18th century, they didn't have laser sites, GPS units, and satellites. Instead, surveying tracts was done using a length of chain 66 feet long, and 80 chains made one mile.
Richard Carson is a writer, lecturer, and urban planner who works and lives in Vancouver, Washington.