There are two separate and distinct systems of land surveys in the United States: (1) The system of metes and bounds in which each parcel of land is individually described and bounded, and (2) the system of rectangular surveys under which the land is divided basically into equal-sized townships, sections, and fractions thereof.
The irregular system of metes and bounds is used entirely in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, and parts of Ohio. Each parcel of land varies in size, is described independently, and is not tied into any system of base lines.
The system of rectangular surveys was inaugurated in 1784 and the laws governing its establishment have, with various modifications, been applied to all of the United States with the exception of the states listed above. Under this system the lands are divided into “townships,” 6 miles square, which are related to base lines established by the federal government. The base lines running north and south are known as “Principal Meridians” while the east and west base lines are called simply “Base Lines” The township numbers east or west of the Principal Meridians are designated as ranges whereas the numbers north and south of the Base Line are tiers.
Thus, the description of a township as “Township 16 North, Range 7 West” would mean that the township is situated 16 tiers north of the Base Line for the Principal Meridian and 7 ranges west of that meridian. Guide Meridians, at intervals of 24 miles east and (or) west of the Principal Meridian, are extended north and (or) south from the Base Line; Standard Parallels, at 24-mile intervals north and (or) south of the Base Line, are extended east and (or) west from the Principal Meridian.
The Township is 6 miles square. It is divided into 36 square-mile “sections” of 640 acres, each which may be divided and subdivided as desired. The diagrams below show the system of numbering the sections and the usual method of subdividing them.
Example: A piece of land is described as “the NW ¼ of the SE ¼ of section 14, T 6 N, R II W, 6th Prin. Mer.”. The translation is “the northwest quarter of the southeast quarter of section 14 in township 6 north and range 11 west of the 6th Principal Meridian.” By referring to the map the approximate location of this 40-acre tract can easily be determined.
Irregular tracts of land are, of course, also described by metes and bounds within the rectangular survey system. They are, however, tied in to the monuments established under the rectangular system.
For detailed information on the public land survey system in the United States see the Manual of Instruction for the Survey of the Public Lands of the United States issued by the Bureau of Land Management of the Department of Interior.