When immigrants, farmers, women and freed slaves ventured into the areas opened by the Homestead Act of 1862, how did they find available land?

Answer: They followed the Public Land Survey System!

The Public Land Survey System (PLSS) is the surveying method used across most of the United States to divide up and identify land so it could be sold and settled. Also called the Rectangular Survey System (or Grid), it was originally proposed in the Land Ordinance of 1785 by Thomas Jefferson.

The PLSS was the first mathematically designed system and nationally conducted cadastral (real property’s metes-and-bounds) survey in any modern country and has been cited as “an object of study by public officials of foreign countries as a basis for land reform.”

The system of rectangular surveys fits the basic requirements to the curved surface of the earth.
The first requirement was a Principal Meridian, the principal north-south line used for survey control in a large land region. Second was a Base Line, the principal east-west “parallel” line upon which all rectangular surveys are based. The meridian meets it’s corresponding baseline at the point of origin, or initial point, for the land survey.

The map below shows the Principal Meridians and Base Lines used in the PLSS.



The basic provisions of the PLSS required that the public lands “shall be divided by north and south lines running according to the true meridian (Principal Meridian) and by others crossing them at right angles (Base Lines) so as to form “townships” six miles square.

From the “initial point” in a survey the boundaries running north and south are termed “range lines.” The boundaries running east and west are called “township lines.”


Townships are then subdivided into sections six hundred and forty acres each (one square mile). Sections are divided into quarter-sections of 160 acres (65 hectares) each and quarter – quarter sections of 40 acres (16 hectares) each. Sections provide a maximum number of parts (160-, 80-, and 40-acre units) or regular subdivisions of a section.


In the Homestead Act of 1862, one quarter-section of land (160 acres) was the maximum allowed to each settler.

A Typical Homestead Description

A typical description for a Homestead would be: SW 1/4 SE 1/4 SW 1/4, S7, T9S, R5E

A description is generally read from front (smallest) to back (largest). For example, the description above would be read “The southwest 1/4 of the southeast quarter of the southwest quarter of section 7, township 9 south, range 5 east.”


Homesteaders traveling to America or across the country after their arrival would usually have stopped by a land office to get an information booklet or a hand drawn plat map. The New York City land office on Ellis Island would have been stocked full of this information. States also issued these guide books as well as the railroads. Any potential homesteader would study these resources and decide where to go for their 160 acres of free land.

By the 1880’s it would have been very easy to obtain any one of these location resources. Most states with public lands as well as the railroads that were building on public lands also had offices in Europe to distribute the booklets and guide booklets to potential immigrants. So, even Europeans could get this information before coming to America!!

Once in an area preferred as a homestead, they would find a guide marker. This was generally left behind by the surveyors. Sometimes it was a post in the ground or a stack of rocks. Anything that would identify every 40 acre square within a township. Once a 160 acre tract was identified as a future homestead, a trip to the land office and filing of a claim was the next step in claiming their land.

Today you can see the outcome of using the PLSS when you look out the window of an airplane. All those squares on the ground, which most of the roads follow, are the result of using the PLSS to divide land into easily measurable pieces.

(Source for all images, DOI, Bureau of Land Management)