Prior to modern survey and land ownership practices, early American land ownership was influenced by the feudal system in Europe, where people would pay land owners for the right to live on and use the land. The desire arose in early America for a land tenure system that allowed maximum individual control. Feudal burdens that were attached to land were soon outlawed and charges on land were reduced to taxes only, levied by a governing body as a fixed rate on all landholders. Land could then be owned by individuals, while still being subject to taxation, eminent domain, and public laws.
"The rectangular survey system extends across the land in huge networks of lines. These are not imaginary lines; they are real lines that have been surveyed by many men. They cross open prairies, swamps, canyons, and mountains. They are blazed through forests and cut narrowly through nearly impenetrable brush. They are marked by stakes, pits, mounts, marked stones or iron posts." (Cazier)
Most early Colonial American surveys were metes and bounds surveys (metes and bounds surveys are described in a following section). Then, authorized in the 1785 Land Ordinance, the U.S. rectangular survey system was established. The new system was designed to lay out square parcels over all of the Federal lands outside of the original thirteen colonies and their western territories.
The first rectangular surveys were conducted in Ohio beginning where the west boundary of Pennsylvania crossed the north shore of the Ohio River. By 1805 the survey system was stabilized and surveys spread westward. In 1812 Congress created the General Land Office to manage the surveying and focus on land conveyance. The first consolidation of officially authorized Federal surveying procedures, the Oregon Manual of Surveying Instructions was published in 1851. Nine subsequent revisions have led to the Manual of Instructions for the Survey of the Public Lands Of The United States, 1973, which itself is currently in revision. Today, the rectangular survey, also known as the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), is overseen by the U. S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management.
The PLSS is based upon three principles in land administration:
"Surveying, in general, is the art of measuring and locating lines, angles, and elevations on the surface of the earth, within underground workings, and on the beds of bodies of water. A 'cadastral survey' creates (or re-establishes), marks, and defines boundaries of tracts of land. In the general plan this includes a field-note record of the observations, measurements, and monuments descriptive of the work performed and a plat that represents the cadastral survey, all subject to approval of the Director, Bureau of Land Management." (Manual of Surveying Instructions, 1973)The twenty metes and bounds states which were not surveyed under the PLSS are: Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The PLSS states are the Public Domain states shown below:
(From Manual of Surveying Instructions 1973, p. 2)
The thirty states shown above created out of the public domain 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, Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Continue to Part One: Land Tenure And Land Interests
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Table Of Contents - Cadastral Information For GIS Specialists
Links to the other Cadastral Courses:
Learning The Cadastral Data Content Standard
County Recorders And The Cadastral Data Content Standard
Surveyors And The Cadastral Data Content Standard
Presented by the United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management, and
the Federal Geographic Data Committee Cadastral Subcommittee