Vol. 1, # 10
Townships and Ranges
With the expansion of the country westward after the Louisiana Purchase, exploration began of the frontier to learn more about the recent land acquisition. As the federal government became more organized, it was decided to open these lands to the general population. The plan was two-fold. First, offer plots to soldiers for their military service and secondly, to sell off as much of the remaining land as possible to raise money for the young republic. To provide for the fairest distribution of the still mostly unmapped and very diverse two and a quarter million square miles, the government divided up the land into squares.
When surveying began in the new land area, the responsibility fell under the jurisdiction of The General Land Office (which we know today as the Bureau of Land Management). They established 34 sets of what became known as survey meridians and base lines which were the starting points for each region of Meridian.
Just to touch very briefly on the system, a township is both a square six miles long on each side as well as the method to locate the north-south (horizontal) row from the base line where the township lies. Ranges are rows of townships east or west of the meridian (vertical).
Each 36 square mile township is divided up into 36 single-square-mile "sections." These sections are numbered sequentially from the northeast corner to the southeast corner. The 640 acre sections can be divided even further. When you have even smaller portions of a section it becomes a bit more complicated. For instance, the statement "The southeast quarter of the northwest quarter of section 22, etc." this quarter of a quarter section is a 40 acre parcel. Furthermore, one could identify a ten-acre parcel by adding another quarter to the description (a quarter of a quarter of a quarter of a section).
The United States Public Lands Survey is what is termed a cadastral survey. Cadastral surveys are those which establish boundaries for land ownership. Since the primary purpose of the USPLS was to sell land, it was important for defining land boundaries.
It’s also interesting to note that all townships aren’t exactly square in shape. This can be attributed to the curve of the earth, so, every few rows of townships there is a slight shift in the meridians to compensate. There are also portions of the survey where land was already owned and surveyed by different methods. California's Spanish land grants are an excellent example. The grants were based on naturally occurring features such as streams so they are irregularly shaped islands among the squares of the survey.
Today in much of the South and West, it’s not uncommon at all to find roads one mile apart and running in straight lines for dozens of miles. We can thank the USPLS for the "checkerboard" pattern which stands out on maps of the U.S. today.
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Fact: Terms used in the Township and Range System
Basic unit of the system, a square tract of line one mile by one mile containing 640 acres.
36 sections arranged in a 6 by 6 array, measuring 6 miles by 6 miles. Sections are numbered beginning with the northeast-most section, proceeding west to 6, then south along the west edge of the township and to the east.
Assigned to a township by measuring east or west of a Principal Meridian
North to south lines which mark township boundaries
East to west lines which mark township boundaries
Reference or beginning point for measuring east or west ranges.
Map of meridians & base lines from the BLM web server.
Reference or beginning point for measuring north or south townships.
Map of meridians & base lines from the BLM web server .
Tip: An excellent governmental resource for detailed information on townships and ranges can be found at…
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This month’s news involves a ‘double dose’ of happenings that are being offered by the staff of the Heritage Room.
The first major announcement is that we now have our genealogy blog up and running! Just point your browser to …
The blog will not only now house ALL issues of the ‘Ancestor Searching’ email newsletters but will also be a source of NEW genealogical material not covered in the newsletter. You’ll want to make sure to bookmark the blog and check back frequently for updates!!
Our second big announcement is that on January 19th, the Heritage Room will be hosting the third in a series of our Sitting Up with the Dead programs. The theme for this upcoming evening is HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LITTLE RICKY!! *
* (“I Love Lucy Show”, January 19, 1953)
The cost is still only $20 and birthday cake and other refreshments will be available. For further information, to sign up or questions, please feel free to call us at 532-5969.
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Changing email addresses? Don’t forget to let us know.
See You In The Heritage Room!
Richard White, Editor
Huntsville-Madison County Public Library
915 Monroe Street
Huntsville, AL 35801