Comments on the measurement of land:

A square deal:

Airline passengers crossing the United States can look out the window and see a patchwork of squares on the ground laid out along east/west and north/south lines. These squares mark property boundaries, and they are visible on the ground because of the roads, fence lines, and boundaries of different crops that are laid out along property lines.

The squares are usually sections, which are one mile by one mile in size and contain 640 acres. In the denser farming states of the Midwest it is usually possible to make out quarter sections of 160 acres,or quarter quarter sections of 40 acres. If the airplane is flying at 540mph, the airplane should fly over a section every 6 – 7 seconds.

Most of the United States is measured in the Township/Range system. A Township is six miles by six miles in size, and it contains 36 sections which equal 36 square miles. The measurements used in Township/Range were chosen because they are easily divisible. (A perch measured 16.5 feet. Two perches squared were considered the amount of land a man could work in a day. An acre contains 40 such day works. An acre was also considered the amount of land a man could work with a team of oxen in a day. Measurements that were divisible by four made it easier to calculate four sided fields.)

The Township/Range grid starts in western Pennsylvania. East of this point, the United States had already been mapped by metes and bounds.

Metes and bounds was the old English system. It uses features on the land to determine property lines. An example of a metes and bounds in a description from Wikipedia: "beginning with a corner at the intersection of two stone walls near an apple tree on the north side of Muddy Creek road one mile above the junction of Muddy and Indian Creeks, north for 150 rods to the end of the stone wall bordering the road, then northwest along a line to a large standing rock on the corner of John Smith's place, thence west 150 rods to the corner of a barn near a large oak tree, thence south to Muddy Creek road, thence down the side of the creek road to the starting point."

Stone walls, apple trees, rocks, and barns can change, so metes and bounds can become open to dispute. Township/Range is much better because it makes it easy to define the boundaries of a piece of land, thus lessening disputes and making it easy to buy and sell a property.

Most ranch land is in the western United States and is surveyed using Township/Range.

Township/Range is better than metes and bounds, but it’s not perfect. The early surveyors sometimes made mistakes. Also, because of the curvature of the earth, the top of a Township is narrower than the bottom of a Township, making adjustments necessary. Section lines often do not intersect and sometimes appear to be off-kilter. Sections usually contain more or less than 640 acres, for example.  Roads can sometimes reflect this. If a road out in the country suddenly turns right and then left again a short distance later, for no apparent reason, then this may be because the road is following section lines that did not intersect.

In Oregon, part or all of sections 16 and 36 of each Township were set aside for use by schools. Schools were sometimes located on these sections, or they sold the land and used the money to finance schoolhouses elsewhere. Today, the State of Oregon still owns land in sections 16 and 36 of some Townships.

In Central Oregon, when a settler homesteaded a property, he would have to improve it and hold it for five years. At the end of the five years, he could go to the county clerk and get a deed to the property.

This deed gave the owner an asset that he could continue to make use of or to sell if he chose. It became an asset of value that he could trade or use as collateral. This had immense importance because much of the nation’s wealth was in land. With the Township/Range system, banks knew exactly what they were getting as collateral, and the land could be easily understood by financial institutions located thousands of miles apart. Farmland in Oregon could be used as collateral to finance a steel mill in Pennsylvania.

Moreover, the person who had the organizational skills to homestead and then take ownership of land showed himself to be trustworthy, the type of person that companies could identify as a potential partner and banks could identify as a potential borrower.

Because land measurements were known, it was easy to buy and sell, and there were more opportunities for mobility – to move further west and claim and improve more land. By contrast, when a property is measured by metes and bounds, and if over time the boundaries become unknown, the owner may decide he needs to stay put in order to keep an eye on his land’s boundaries.

Modern boundary markers are metal pins or monuments with descriptions stamped in the head of the pin. There are usually three bearing trees located nearby on which yellow metal tags have been nailed. These three bearing trees help the surveyor locate the pin or monument.

In the early surveys, surveyors used anything at hand to mark corners. Blazes on trees, pieces of wood, and rocks were used to denote section corners and boundaries. When a surveyor today is looking for an old section corner, he looks for these pieces of wood and trees, and turns over rocks to look for markings.