U. S. Rectangular Land Survey

United States Rectangular Land Survey Principal Meridians and Baselines, 1968.


Title:  Principal Meridians and Baselines Governing the United States Public Land Surveys, 1968.

Internet Location:  Link here for larger image in new window.

Description:  This map uses a distinctive color to show the area governed by a particular principal meridian and baseline, and it includes the date that the area first began to be surveyed.  Areas not in the U. S. Rectangular Land Survey are colored white.  Further information about the public lands of the United States may be found in Paul W. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (Washington, D. C., 1968) and from the Bureau of Land Management.

Source:  United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management,   http://www.blm.gov/cadastral/meridians/pmmap.jpg

Comment:  The United States Rectangular Land Survey inscribed on the land a grid of east-west lines and north-south lines that Americans in most of the country still use to describe real property.  The Survey positions any land that it governs within a numbered section of a township.  The township is identified by the number of townships it lies east or west of a “principal meridian” and the number of townships it lies north or south of a “baseline.”

The thirteen original states on the Atlantic coast, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas used different systems of cadastral or original land surveying.  In Ohio, the federal government used a variety of grids, rectangular in shape, as its surveyors experimented under the Land Ordinance of 1785 and subsequent legislation.

These experiments finally led to the fully conceptualized and fully realized U. S. Rectangular Land Survey when Jared Mansfield directed the survey of the Second Principal Meridian and Baseline in southern Indiana in 1805.


Jared Mansfield was serving as Surveyor General of the United States in 1805.  He had published Essays, Mathematical and Physical: Containing New Theories and Illustrations of Some Very Important and Difficult Subjects of the Sciences in 1801 and later wrote the core of what became the General Land Office’s Manual of Surveying Instructions.  (For a copy of these instructions, see the official history, C. Albert White, A History of the Rectangular Survey System (Washington, D. C., [1982], pages 231-238.)

Mansfield chose an arbitrary point for the intersection of the Second Principal Meridian and Baseline.  Surveys in Ohio had numbered townships starting from a major geographical feature like the Ohio River.  But this actually made visualization of the Ohio River in the mind or on a map much more difficult.



When, however, townships were numbered from an arbitrary point, the user of the system (like a prospective purchaser or a traveler) could easily grasp the distance of any given township from an important transportation route like the Ohio River.  Townships due east or due west of each other had the same number because they were the same distance north or south of the baseline.  (“T1N R1E” or “Township 1 North Range 1 East” referred to the first township north of the baseline and east of the principal meridian.)


Instead of keeping information about land hidden, Mansfield’s numbering generated clear and decisive information—the larger purpose of several measurement proposals that Thomas Jefferson made in the 1780’s when the Continental Congress enacted the Land Ordinance of 1785.

The numbering system of the U. S. Rectangular Land Survey distinguished it from surveys in Ohio and from many other rectangular systems that preceded it.  The agrimensores of the Roman Empire did not wish to establish an arbitrary point that would produce decisive information about land for a more efficient land market.  They were interested in an auspicious distribution of land to army veterans establishing a colony, and they used augury to determine a sacred center from which they surveyed their rectangles.

So, the U. S. Rectangular Land Survey lacked a center.  This gave it more similarity to the Mercator map projections in Robert Dudley’s Dell’arcano del mare than to the narrative maps of British North America.

The Survey contributed to the decline of topographical vocabulary in everyday discourse and replaced traditional descriptions of land with references to a grid—famously, “the north 40,” referring originally to a fraction of a 160-acre quarter section.

The Survey also emphasized the modern European understanding of real property as held in terrestrial space, not social space.  Paul Bohannan, in his work on the Tiv of Nigeria, described a people who regularly uprooted themselves from their land and moved their entire society to a new terrestrial place.  But in the new place, they reinstituted the same spatial relations that they practiced in the old place—who lived where in relation to whom and how much land a family occupied.

Americans, on the other hand, when they move—as they often do—move from one part of an already established grid to another part with no obligation to settle next to anybody in particular, and the grid is supposed to represent the earth itself.  What are the consequences of this way of living and how did it come about?