If you’re a frequenter in the real estate circles, you might’ve heard about the term ‘rectangular survey system’. You might be wondering: why in the age of digitalisation, computers and an advanced level of Geographic Information System (GIS) are we still depending on basic shapes for our land distribution? And why is this outdated method and old-sounding terminology still around? Well, to answer that question, we need to first understand what actually is the rectangular survey system, its history of use and the reason why, in the 21st century, it is still relevant and used by the real estate and public administration community. 

First up is the fact that when land division, what is officially known as the cadaster or the cadastral system, was first developed, we had yet to discover silicon, which meant that we were still a few centuries away from inventing computers and the whole lot. So, humans had to make do, and they made do with practical and on-ground methodology like the rectangular survey system, officially known in the US as the government rectangular survey, used since 1785 and formalized as the state system for measuring land in the same year.

The rectangular survey system does exactly what its name suggests at first; but just measuring land in rectangular tracts would be too simple to be called that; it would become just the rectangular survey method, not a system. The inclusion of the word ‘system’ implies that there is a healthy dose of science in the whole process and as such, it is called the rectangular survey system. 

What is the Rectangular Survey System?

The Rectangular Survey System (RSS) is part of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), a system developed by none other than US President Thomas Jefferson. The Rectangular Survey System was developed to ensure that optimal and a systemic distribution of vast tracts of land would be possible, especially after the US began expanding westwards, spurred on by Louisiana Purchase and other acquisition of more land from the native Indians. 

This system was established as the official means of distribution of land and became one of the most extensive mapping-out projects the nascent state had ever undertaken. According to official measurements, originally based on Jefferson’s decimal system of 10 by 10 miles of lands divided into small townships, this system instead divided it into smaller parts to ease with the administration, division and subsequent settling, deciding on a 6 by 6-mile size per township.

Why was the Rectangular Survey System developed?

The major part of the reason for the development of such a system was the fact that USA, in its entirety was a pretty big piece of land and still is today. Beyond the original 13 colonies, such a system was needed to efficiently and optimally divide land for both public and private use; public use to ensure that buildings for federal offices and departments would not exceed their pre-set dimensions and as such would exceed their part in the state structure. Similarly, private land ownership was capped at a certain limit using this Rectangular Survey method. 

The fact is, that USA is the third-largest country in the world (by landmass), and as such, required distribution that was scientific, followed a set system and would ensure that both at federal and state levels, no one would be cheated out of a even a few acres. This called for a development of a system that would do all this, and would follow a numeric measurement system to distribute land; thus, the Rectangular Survey System was born, thanks to USA’s increasing landmass (at that time).

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How does the RSS work in the States?

Even a child today knows that USA is divided into states, which are more or less self-governing and the federating Washington DC area is only concerned with the federal structures in the states, not the states themselves. Therefore, at a national level, landmass is already pretty divided; between states and the federal district (Columbia). Now, it is upto the states to ensure that optimal land distribution happens within each of their boundaries; the federal unit no longer enjoys power over land matters in the state.

With that said, in the late 1700s after US independence, the need for land distribution called for such a system to exist; prior to that, especially when the original 13 colonies existed, land was already scarce and was a source of conflict between the native Americans and the European colonisers; it was ratified with the land ordinance of 1785, which allowed for new land to be distributed among the newly-formed states of the US. 

Rectangular Survey System encapsulates in it the concepts of ‘Base Line’ and the ‘Principal Meridian’; two imaginary ‘reference’ lines which constitute the center of the scale through which land is to be divided. These two lines then coordinate and correspond with the latitudes and longitudes, pinpointing said area on both national and state level. 

  • Base Line: Base Line is the horizontal line; going from east to west and complementing the latitude of the globe.
  • Principal Meridian: The Principal Meridian is the vertical line, going from North to South and complementing the longitude of the globe.

These two components are the major subsystems of the Rectangular Survey Systems and are used extensively throughout the demarcation and distribution of land into plots and other commercial and residential spaces in a city.

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Division into townships

The major subsystem of this Rectangular Survey System (RSS) are the townships that have been here since Jefferson’s time and are still created now, contributing to the reason why such an old, primordial system still exists in the times of computers, advanced topography and GIS-based system structures. These townships, as imagined and put into the system by Thomas Jefferson, measure across the grid as 6×6-mile tracts of land divided by the RSS, with each city thus divided into these 36-mile pieces of land. 

These 36-mile townships are still considered too big, so, they are further divided into small sections; 36 sections within a township equaling up to 1 mile per section, which brings the total upto 640 acres per section. Each of this section is laid out in a serpentine form; thus, if section 1 starts from northeast corner, the last section (section 36) will end at the south-eastern corner of the township. 

This helps with mapping out the land system of the region and also with the cadastral survey that is performed by the US Public Lands Survey, operating under the Bureau of Land Management. An estimated 1.5 billion acres of lands and millions of townships have been surveyed since the establishment of the Rectangular Survey System; and the bureau has since been the champion and pioneer of this system that has been used across the length and breadth of the USA since the late 1700s till now.

Even today’s modern GIS techniques and land topography still bases much of its data and assumptions from the land divisions and records set by the Rectangular Survey System; especially with satellite mapping technologies and modern GIS imaging techniques, which still require an input of data collected in the olden using methods like the Rectangular Survey method and other really old and outdated processes and systems.

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