When we look at the size and diversity of the planet it seems like mapping it can be a mammoth task. However, the USA has adopted a method called the Public Land Survey System that helps to survey the country in a logical manner. In today's guide we shall look in more detail at the Public Land Survey System - what it is and how it is used.
What is the Public Land Survey System?
The Public Land Survey System is a mathematically designed system that is used to survey and identify the land that makes up the USA.
The Public Land Survey System is a way of subdividing and describing the land. All land in the USA that is part of the public domain is subject to being divided into the rectangular system used by the Public Land Survey System.
It was first devised by the Land Ordinance in 1785 and has seen slight modifications and amendments over the years. The first surveys were completed in the state of Ohio in the Seven Ranges area.
The first ever point on the Public Land Survey System is marked as a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is situated on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania near the town of Glasgow.
How the Public Land Survey System Works
The Public Land Survey System divides portions of land into 6-mile-square townships, which equates to the same level of detail included in the U.S. National Atlas. Each township is then divided into 36 one-mile-square sections. In some cases these will be further divided into quarter sections and more.
On the corner of most sections, a permanent monument or market has been placed. In the past these would have been less-permanent markers such as wooden posts or piles of rocks, whereas now they are usually marked by inscribed tablets based either on iron or concrete.
In some respects the Public Land Survey System actually consists of several smaller surveys that make the one larger one. Usually Public Land Survey System surveys start at an initial point and then townships are surveyed to the north, south, east and west from that initial point. The north-south line that runs through the initial point is called the Principal Meridian. There are 37 different principle meridians each with a different name. The perpendicular line that runs east-west of the initial point is called the base line.
Public Land Survey Systems in the USA
The Public Land Survey System is used across the majority of the USA, however there are exceptions - and not all states have always used the system.
Most notably, Hawaii and Texas do not use the Public Land Survey System. In some cases, small parts of states do not use the system - such as the Cherokee lands in Georgia where they used a slightly different survey method. Many parts of New Mexico also do not use the Public Land Survey System. In unsettled parts of Maine - they use a variant of the Public Land Survey System.
California didn't use the Public Land Survey System until it achieved statehood in 1850. Prior to that it had surveyed only the boundaries of Spanish land grants.
Benefits of Public Land Survey System
The principal purpose of the Public Land Survey System was to make map making and reading much simpler for both Americans and those from overseas.
The Public Land Survey System has also come in very handy when it comes to urban development. Many towns and cities across the USA have designed their road grids along section boundaries with one-mile long blocks to coordinate with the Public Land Survey System layout.
All Americans have access to the Public Land Survey System database via the government website. You can use this data to create your own maps as well as for research purposes.
For those that use GIS programs, you can benefit from the coordinates and data that are provided on the Public Land Survey System website.
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