My best friend came from a grade school where her eighth grade class was sent to three different "Township" high schools -- and the lines for the townships didn't have much to do with town lines. In her case, if she had lived a block or two in one of two different directions in the same community, we would never have met! It didn't seem to make much sense to me and I wondered why.
Fast forward to 2012, I'm taking a course from The National Institute for Genealogical Studies on United States Land Records. Aha! My question from my days in high school is answered. Thank you. No one else could explain it to me when I was in high school.
The gist of the matter is the United States did not have one system for initial distribution of land to private individuals. There were "State Land States" and "Federal Land States." "State Land States" were controlled locally and usually a system of "metes and bounds" was used to describe the property initially (this system used the physical features of the land in the description -- which unfortunately can change over time such as a tree, a creek, etc.). The "Federal Land States" had federal land offices in the state or territory and used a system of "townships, sections and ranges." Guess who grew up in a "Federal Land State"?
Imagine a coordinate graph. Instead of the x-axis, call that the base line; instead of the y-axis, call that the principal meridian. Some states have more than one principal meridian, but just imagine one for right now. Along the base line every 6 miles, mark off a vertical (north-south) line, call that a range line. Along the principal meridian every 6 miles, mark off a horizontal (east-west) line, call that a township line.
Imagine one of those 6 mile by 6 mile squares (36 square miles), call that a township. To locate a particular township in relation to the principal meridian - base line axes, you describe it in relation to that "origin" except now use N-S-E-W instead of positive and negative numbers. The township called "T1N R2E" is read "township 1 north, range 2 east" and is the square is located 1 north (up) and 2 east (right) from where the principal meridian and base line intersect (think: the "origin").
The location of the township, seems logical, similar to but not exactly the same as a co-ordinate graph. So, does this numbering system continue as we look within in a township? Nope!
Now take one of those township squares (each a 6 mile by 6 mile square) and draw in the lines to make a grid with 36 squares (each one mile on each side). Each of these 36 one-square-mile squares is a section. Start numbering in the upper right hand corner, continue across to the left, drop down a square, continue numbering to the right, drop down a square, continue likewise till you get to the lower right hand corner, call that number 36. Another way to think of it would be a snake, it's head is in square 1, each section of its body is numbered and the tip of it's tail is in 36 and it snakes back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth, fitting into the 36-square grid. So, section 12 would be right under section 1 which is in the upper right hand corner of the township.
Do you think we're finished dividing up the grid? Nope. Now we can divide up each section, and again using yet another system.
Each section is one square mile or 640 acres. You can imagine dividing that square by a vertical line (giving an east half and west half) or a horizontal line (giving a north half and a south half). Draw both lines and you get quarters (NW, NE, SW, SE). Any of those quarters can be divided in half or into quarters giving 1/8 section (called "1/2 of a 1/4" or a "1/4 of a 1/2") or 1/16 (called "1/4 of a 1/4") or a 1/32 or a 1/64 (described as fractions of fractions of fractions...). Now, if you want the SW1/4 of the SE1/4 of a particular section of a particular township, first find the township, then the section. Then, divide that section into quarters, go to the southeast quarter (lower right) and divide that quarter into quarters and choose the southwest quarter (lower left). That is 1/16 of a square mile, so it is 1/16 of 640 acres, namely 40 acres and is called a "quarter of a quarter."
So, putting it all together: "SW1/4 of the SE1/4 sec 12 T1N R2E" is read
"the southwest quarter of the southeast quarter of section 12 of township 1 north and range 2 east" and all of this is in relationship to one of the 36 principal meridians and one of the twenty-four baselines used in this system.
Now imagine that grid being dropping onto a map of a state that was not exactly designed by "Mother Nature" in a rectangular manner with its rivers and hills, for example. That is why my high school had a population that was not logical to this high school student many years ago (and probably not to the adults in my life either).
If you'd like to read a better description complete with illustrations, check out the article "Range Maps for Dummies" or consult E Wade Hone, Land & Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City, Utah, Ancestry, 1997).
©Erica Dakin Voolich 2012
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