How US Public Land Is Surveyed and Distributed

Section, Township, and Range

Land Records

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Public land in the United States is land that was originally transferred directly from the federal government to individuals, to be distinguished from land that was originally granted or sold to individuals by the British Crown. Public lands (public domain), consisting of all land outside the original 13 colonies and the five states later formed from them (and later West Virginia and Hawaii), first came under government control following the Revolutionary War with the enactment of the Northwest Ordinance of 1785 and 1787. As the United States grew, additional land was added to the public domain through the taking of Indian land, by treaty, and by purchase from other governments.

Public Land States

The thirty states formed from the public domain, known as public land states, are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The original thirteen colonies, plus Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and later West Virginia and Hawaii, form what is known as the state land states.

Rectangular Survey System of Public Lands

One of the most significant differences between land in the public land states and state land states is that public land was surveyed prior to being made available for purchase or homesteading, using the rectangular-survey system, otherwise known as the township-range system. When a survey was done on new public land, two lines were run at right angles to each other through the territory - a base line running east and west and a meridian line running north and south. The land was then divided into sections from the point of this intersection as follows:

  • Township and Range - Townships, a major subdivision of public lands under the rectangular survey system, measure approximately six miles on a side (thirty-six square miles). Townships are then numbered from the base line north and south and then from the meridian line east and west. The east/west identification is known as the Range. A Township is identified by this relationship to a base line and a principal meridian.
    Example: Township 3 North, Range 9 West, 5th Principal Meridian identifies a specific township that is 3 tiers north from the baseline and 9 tiers west (Range) of the 5th Principal Meridian.
  • Section Number - Townships were then further broken down into thirty-six sections of 640 acres each (one square mile) called sections, which were numbered with reference to the baseline and meridian line.
  • Aliquot Parts - Sections were then further subdivided into smaller pieces, such as halves and quarters, while still (generally) keeping the land in a square. Aliquot Parts were used to representing the exact subdivision of each such section of land. Halves of a Section (or subdivision thereof) are represented as N, S, E, and W (such as the north half of section 5). Quarters of a Section (or subdivision thereof) are represented as NW, SW, NE, and SE (such as the northwest quarter of section 5). Sometimes, several Aliquot Parts are required to describe a parcel of land accurately.
    Example: ESW denotes the east half of the southwest quarter of a section, containing 80 acres.

What a Township Is

In general:

  • A township contains 23,040 acres
  • A section contains 640 acres,
  • A half section contains 320 acres,
  • A quarter section contains 160 acres,
  • A half of a quarter contains 80 acres,
  • A quarter of a quarter contains 40 acres, etc.

A legal land description for the public land states might, for instance, be written as: the west half of the northwest quarter, section 8, township 38, range 24, containing 80 acres, usually abbreviated as W½ of NW¼ 8=T38=R24, containing 80 acres.

Public lands were distributed to individuals, governments, and companies in some ways, including:

Cash Entry

An entry that covered public lands for which the individual paid cash or its equivalent.

Credit Sales

These land patents were issued to anyone who either paid by cash at the time of the sale and received a discount or paid by credit in installments over four years. If full payment was not received within the four-year period, title to the land would revert to the Federal Government. Because of the economic hardship, Congress quickly abandoned the credit system and through the Act of April 24, 1820, required full payment for land to be made at the time of purchase.

Private Land and Preemption Claims

A claim based on the assertion that the claimant (or his predecessors in interest) derived his right while the land was under the dominion of a foreign government. "Pre-emption" was a tactful way of saying "squatter." In other words, the settler was physically on the property before the GLO officially sold or even surveyed the tract, and he was thus given a pre-emptive right to acquire the land from the United States.

Donation Lands

To attract settlers to the remote territories of Florida, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, the federal government offered donation land grants to individuals who would agree to settle there and meet a residency requirement. Donation land claims were unique in that acreage granted to married couples was divided evenly. Half of the acreage was placed in the husband's name while the other half was placed in the wife's name. Records include plats, indexes, and survey notes. Donation lands were a precursor to homesteading.


Under the Homestead Act of 1862, settlers were given 160 acres of land in the public domain if they built a home on the land, resided there for five years, and cultivated the land. This land did not cost anything per acre, but the settler did pay a filing fee. A complete homestead entry file includes such documents as the homestead application, homestead proof, and final certificate authorizing the claimant to obtain a land patent.

Military Warrants

From 1788 to 1855 the United States granted military bounty land warrants as a reward for military service. These land warrants were issued in various denominations and based upon the rank and length of service.


To aid in the construction of certain railroads, a congressional act of September 20, 1850, granted to the State alternate sections of public land on either side of the rail lines and branches.

State Selection

Each new State admitted to the Union was granted 500,000 acres of public land for internal improvements "for the common good." Established under the Act of September 4, 1841.

Mineral Certificates

The General Mining Law of 1872 defined mineral lands as a parcel of land containing valuable minerals in its soil and rocks.

There were three kinds of mining claims:

  • Lode Claims for gold, silver, or other precious metals occurring in veins
  • Placer Claims for minerals not found in veins
  • Mill Site Claims for up to five acres of public land claimed for processing minerals.

Created and maintained by the US Federal Government, records of first transfer of public domain lands are available in multiple locations, including the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and some State Land Offices. Land records related to subsequent transfers of such land between parties other than the Federal Government are found at the local level, usually a county.

The types of land records created by the Federal Government include survey plats and field notes, tract books with records of each land transfer, land-entry case files with supporting documents for each land claim, and copies of the original land patents.

Survey Notes and Field Plats

Dating back to the 18th century, government surveys were begun in Ohio and progressed westward as more territory was opened for settlement. Once the public domain was surveyed, the government could begin to transfer title of land parcels to private citizens, companies, and local governments. Survey plats are drawings of boundaries, prepared by draftsmen, based on data in the sketches and field notes. Survey field notes are records that describe the survey performed and are completed by the surveyor. The field notes may contain descriptions of land formations, climate, soil, plant and animal life.

Land Entry Case Files

Before the homesteaders, soldiers, and other entrymen received their patents, and some government paperwork had to be done. Those purchasing land from the United States had to be given receipts for payments, while those obtaining land through military bounty land warrants, preemption entries, or the Homestead Act of 1862, had to file applications, give proof about military service, residence on and improvements to the land, or evidence of citizenship. The paperwork generated by those bureaucratic activities, compiled into land entry case files, is held by the National Archives and Records Administration. 

Tract Books

The best place to being your search when you're looking for a complete land description, tract books for the Eastern States are in the custody of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). For the Western States, they are held by NARA. Tract books are ledgers used by the U.S. federal government from 1800 until the 1950s to record land entries and other actions related to the disposition of public domain land. They can serve as a useful resource for family historians who want to locate the property of ancestors and their neighbors who lived in the 30 public land states. Especially valuable, tract books serve not only as an index to patented land but also to land transactions that were never completed but may still contain useful information for researchers.

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "How US Public Land Is Surveyed and Distributed." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). How US Public Land Is Surveyed and Distributed. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "How US Public Land Is Surveyed and Distributed." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).