The following description applies to public domain lands that were surveyed by the United States after the Act of 18 May 1796, which set standard methods for all such surveys. These methods were followed in almost all the public land states, with the notable exception of Ohio where various other methods had already been used in various parts of the state.
For Michigan, the only lands not included in this system are those that were allocated by prior claims recognized by the US at the time it took jurisdiction. Most of those were instituted under French or British authority, and were laid out according to the prevailing methods of those nations, using either the old "metes and bounds" survey and land description or the French custom of making "long lots" (narrow plots of land along the banks of rivers or lakes, each of which had access to the water.) These older claims are primarily found along the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers and the shores of Lake St. Clair, and near other French settlements such as Sault Ste. Marie and Marquette.
Townships were identified on the survey by the range system, a cartesian coordinate grid. For each survey area (whether part of a state, a whole state, or multiple states) a set of axes had to be chosen. The east/west axis, or base line, followed a parallel of latitude, and townships were numbered north and south of this line: township 1 north, township 2 north, township 3 north, etc. The north/south axis, or principal meridian, was a meridian of longitude, and townships were numbered in ranges (columns) east or west of that line: range 1 west, range 2 west, range 3 west, etc.
The following diagram shows schematically the arrangement of townships around the origin, or intersection, of a base line and principal meridian.
Since actual meridians of longitude are not truly parallel (they converge at the earth's poles) some adjustments had to be made at intervals so not all townships are perfectly square. In some areas, errors in the early survey work have resulted in even more significant deviations. In places where surveys based on different axes met each other, the deviation can be quite large. You can see a good example of this if you look at township boundaries where Michigan's upper penninsula meets Wisconsin.
Each township was further subdivided into 36 sections, each of which is a square of land one mile on a side and equivalent to 640 acres. Sections were numbered within the township starting at the northeast corner and working first from east to west, then west to east in alternating rows, as shown in the next diagram. This diagram represents T1SR2E, the township selected in the previous map. The area shown is one mile on a side, and the shaded section (section nine) is used in the examples that follow later.
In most cases, actual land units were created by dividing sections into quarters, and quartering those units again (and sometimes a third time.) The equivalent land area in acres is given by the following table:
|Survey Unit||Land Description||Acreage||Example|
|Full section||Section||640 acres|
|1/2 section||1/2 section||320 acres||Plot A|
|1/4 section||1/4 section||160 acres||Plot B|
|1/8 section||1/2 of 1/4 section||80 acres||Plot C|
|1/16 section||1/4 of 1/4 section||40 acres||Plot D|
|1/32 section||1/2 of 1/4 of 1/4 section||20 acres||Plot E|
|1/64 section||1/4 of 1/4 of 1/4 section||10 acres||Plot F|
One example of the way in which such units might have been arranged is shown in the diagram below. This represents section nine of T1SR2E, and is one mile on a side.
Plot A: South half of section nine, township one south range two east of the Michigan meridian.
Plot B: Northwest quarter of section nine, township one south range two east of the Michigan meridian.
Plot C: North half of the northeast quarter of section nine, township one south range two east of the Michigan meridian.
Plot D: Southwest quarter of the northeast quarter of section nine, township one south range two east of the Michigan meridian.
Plot E: South half of the southeast quarter of the northeast quarter of section nine, township one south range two east of the Michigan meridian.
Plot F: Northeast quarter of the southeast quarter of the northeast quarter of section nine, township one south range two east of the Michigan meridian.
You may also wish to consult the following for more detailed explanations of land surveys and land descriptions in the United States
Hone, E. Wade. Land & Property Research in the United States. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated, 1997. ISBN 0-916489-68-X.)
Johnson, H. B. Order Upon the Land: The U.S. Rectangular Land Survey and the Upper Mississippi Country. (London: Oxford University Press, 1976.)
Muehrcke, Phillip C. Map Use: Reading, Analysis, and Interpretation. (Madison, Wisc.: JP Publications, 1978. ISBN 0-9602978-1-2.)
Stewart, L. O. Public Land Surveys: History, Instructions, Methods. (Ames, Iowa: Collegiate Press, 1935.)
The text and diagrams on this page are ©1997 by Gary Lee Phillips. Used by permission. Permission is hereby granted for maintainers of other web pages and servers to create links to this page. Educators and non-profit groups are also permitted to print copies of this material for use in seminars and instructional sessions. However, any other rights and privileges, including but not limited to copying, republication, or redistribution for a fee, are reserved by the author and require his explicit permission in writing. Thank you for observing these limitations.