Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Parsing Minnesota: A history of the original U.S. public land survey system in Minnesota

The Public Land Survey System (PLSS), launched in Ohio in 1785, is the source of all real estate titles. Its measurements are sacrosanct in law, but recovering the original section corners presents a challenge. This article describes how the survey was done and reviews some of the most salient Minnesota case law.

When you fly west over the United States from Ohio and cross over Minnesota, you see one of the most remarkable achievements of humankind: fields, property lines, and roads predictably laid out along north-south and east-west lines. This is a visible testament to the original government survey of United States lands, referred to as the Public Land Survey System (PLSS).

This grid is how we all came to own the land. It is remarkably simple. The U.S. government divided millions of acres into small parcels that could be bought by settlors at a low price. With a simple glance at a PLSS map, a settlor understood what they were buying and where their boundaries would be located.

The PLSS was a big government operation and, believe it or not, it was designed principally by a committee and approved by Congress. The original idea of dividing land acquired by the United States into rectangles was probably Thomas Jefferson’s, but no one can take all of the credit.

Origins of the system

In the late 1700s, after the Revolutionary War, the United States government found itself land-rich and cash-poor. The Treaty of Paris granted to the United States most of the land lying east of the Mississippi River. But the young government had few resources to protect the land against European powers who still had designs on North America.

The simple answer was to sell land to raise cash, and to have the settlors become U.S. citizens with an interest in protecting the boundaries of their property against foreign intrusion. The question was how this could be done.

If you think about it, you cannot simply send surveyors out to square off land and sell it. The system had to start and proceed in an orderly and logical fashion. The system had to be simple and efficient to ensure it could be understood both at the time of sale and in the future.

Work on the PLSS started in what later became the State of Ohio under the Land Ordinance of 1785 with the laying out of the Seven Ranges. The idea was to divide the land into rectangles. Eventually, as the surveys moved west and into Wisconsin and Minnesota, the rules changed to divide the land into square miles called sections, with 36 square sections constituting a township. To divide the land, the government first laid out east-to-west baselines along a parallel of latitude, and then south-to-north meridian lines along a longitudinal line. The exterior township lines would first be surveyed off of these baselines and guide meridian lines. Later surveyors would return and divide the townships into the now familiar 36 square miles.

The south baseline for Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota is the Galena baseline, near the southern boundary of what later became the state of Wisconsin. This was called the 4th Principal Meridian (P.M.). The portion of Minnesota lying east of the Mississippi River is in the 4th P.M. All of the land in Minnesota in the 4th P.M., with the exception of the far north Arrowhead, lies west of the 4th P.M.

Townships and ranges in Minnesota were laid out in six-mile segments north of the baseline and west or east of the meridian. For example, the area that is today the portion of St. Cloud lying east of the Mississippi River (you drive through this area on U.S. Highway 10 as you go past the St. Cloud Reformatory) is designated as Township 35 North, Range 30 West, 4th PM. This means that the six-mile square township is laid out 35 six-mile segments north of the Galena baseline, and 30 six-mile segments west of the north/south meridian.

What is today the portion of Minnesota lying west of the Mississippi is in the 5th Principal Meridian, which was part of the Louisiana Purchase. The exception is an area around Fort Snelling, which was laid out under the 4th P.M. The baseline for the 5th P.M. is called the Clarendon Baseline, which runs through the middle of Clarendon, Arkansas. The 5th P.M. runs north through Minnesota to the Canadian border. The portions of Minnesota surveyed under the 5th P.M. are all Township North and Range West. As a reference, the segment of St. Cloud lying west of the Mississippi River, where St. Cloud State University and downtown St. Cloud are laid out today, is designated as Township 124 North, Range 28 West, 5th P.M.

The Sections in both the 4th and 5th P.M. were subdivided into 40-acre quarter-quarters by protraction, but not surveyed. To do this, the government surveyors first set the eight exterior section corners. Drawing straight lines north to south and east to west between the corners established the boundaries of the four 160-acre quarter sections. These quarter sections were then subdivided by drawing lines, again north to south and east to west, at an equal distance between the set corners. The boundaries of the 40-acre quarter-quarters were calculated and not surveyed.

Settlors wishing to claim the land would apply at a U.S. Government Land Office—in central Minnesota this was typically Sauk Rapids—where an agent would be authorized to enter into contracts for sale of quarter-quarter sections of land. The settlor was given preemptive rights and later would be given a land patent when the contract was fulfilled. Often, to buy the land, the settlor had to actually move on to and settle the land for up to five years. This prevented land speculators from buying large tracts of land.

Some land was given to the railroads as an enticement to build rail lines. Other lands were given to the state of Minnesota for schools—typically Sections 16 and 36 in each township. Lands were sometimes given to the families of soldiers who had served in past wars. In that case, the soldiers’ land was immediately sold to a settlor, with the money going to the soldiers’ families.

Surveying the interior lines of each township started at the southeast corner of the town, and proceeded west and north. Dividing a town into 36 equal mile squares (sections) presented a problem, because the world is round. To compensate, the remnant last quarter mile or quarter-quarter portion of sections along the west and the north edges of a town were laid out and sold as lots containing the number of remaining acres. The early surveyors would square off the end of the interior town lines and calculate the number of acres. This was called lotting—or later, government lots.

Surveying along lakes and rivers presented another problem. Permanent bodies of water were meandered or lotted. This meant that the surveyor would run lines to the water and, using a meander line along the shore, calculate the acreage of the government lot. Government lots were established by calculating the area in acres, created by intersecting the interior subdivision lines with the meander lines. Government lots can be exceedingly difficult to resurvey.

Lingering problems

This system is simple and it has worked well for the last 150 years. It mostly works well today. But we are still living with problems that date from the original work. As example, most sections are not a perfect square mile on each side.

In theory, the original surveyors placed markers at the SE, SW, NW, and NE corners of each section, with quarter corner posts placed halfway on the section lines between the four corner posts. Lines connecting the quarter corners made quarter sections with further subdivision, called aliquot parts, of 40 acre quarter-quarter section tracts.

Some surveyors did a good job of laying out the sections, but the work of others left much to be desired. The Cardinal Rule, still enforced today, is that the government corner is where the original surveyor placed it. This could mean that the original corner, when accurately located on the ground, is not in the location where you would expect to find it, or where the original surveyor notes claimed it was placed. All disputes on a PLSS corner are resolved in favor of the location of the original corner as placed.

There is one problem in applying that rule, however: In most cases the original corners were lost long ago. Today we are faced with the task of trying to relocate those corners, as accurately as possible, with the best evidence available, at the location originally set.

To make the job more difficult, the corners were set using wood, pits, stones, or whatever material might be available. The U.S. Deputy Surveyors were not trained surveyors as we know the profession today. Instead, almost anyone with some competence in pulling a Gunter’s Chain (a 66-foot-long chain consisting of 100 links) and using a compass could bid a job to be a deputy government surveyor.

The original idea seems to have been that after the government sold the land, it would be up to the settlors to protect their corners so their boundaries could always be determined. That sounded good, but over time the corners were lost. The federal government passed the responsibility of maintaining the original corners to the states, which in turn shifted the burden to the counties.

The original work was difficult to say the least. The southern and western Minnesota prairies included a lot of swamp land. Mosquitos were terrible. As the surveyors moved west, the Native Americans understood what was happening and often would disrupt the surveys. The northern Minnesota woods, brush, wetlands, and lakes must have been almost impossible to navigate with survey equipment. To accurately survey through the forest, trees had to be cut, and the terrain was harsh and hilly. Iron deposits caused problems with the magnetic compass. Thousands of lakes and numerous rivers had to be meandered. The surveyors were often hardly a step ahead of loggers who were trespassing and cutting on government land. The instructions to the surveyors were to do their best, but they were allowed to be off by as much as one chain (66 feet) in a mile.

It has been my observation that the original surveys done in southern Minnesota, mostly on the prairie, were probably a little more accurate than those in northern Minnesota with its forests and lakes.

As the PLSS surveys and boundaries have come down through time to us today, we find that some of the original corners were maintained, but many are open to question. Starting in the 1980s, the county surveyors in some parts of the state went on a mission to locate corners and accurately remonument them to the original PLSS survey records. This has led to problems.

Imagine that a section corner has historically been located in one place. Then the county surveyor comes along to excavate and examine the original records. The surveyor may find evidence—possibly even remnants of a cedar post, rock, or other marker set by the original surveyor as stated in the survey notes. The surveyor may find substantial evidence that the original location of a corner is 20 feet away from the long-used historic location of what was thought to be the corner. If your legal description is in the northwest quarter, as example, and the county surveyor relocates the NW corner to the original position, your boundary moves. Like it or not, you may have gained or lost land. This has led to many problems, and will continue to lead to problems as efforts are made to find the location of the original corners.

In the end, all land titles originate with the PLSS survey. All boundaries are subject to accurately locating and preserving the original corners.

In the courts

A series of interesting Minnesota Supreme Court decisions have helped clear up some of the problems.

Lawler vs. Rice, 147 Minn. 236, 180 N.W. 37 (1920):

At least from the perspective of the original government survey, this is what I believe to be the most interesting case. Rice and Goodhue Counties wanted to improve a road along an exterior township section line. The parties agreed on the location of both the northeast and southeast corners in Section 1, but could not agree on the east quarter corner—which, in theory, should have been placed on a straight line halfway between the northeast and southeast corners, or on a straight line at a prorated position (being in the north township tier). Rice County argued that the original survey notes showed the east corner to be exactly that, halfway on a straight line between the northeast quarter and the southeast quarter.

The property  owner in Section 1 did not want his land taken for the road. He brought in as a witness an old surveyor who had done survey work in the area right after the original surveys were laid out. The surveyor testified that he recalled seeing the east quarter corner approximately 1 1/2 rods east of the straight north south line between the northeast corner and the southeast corner. He said it was unusual to be that far off its intended location, but he remembered seeing the original pit, mound, and stake. While this case determined that the quarter corner was where the original surveyor put it, the more interesting part was the testimony from someone who actually saw the original corner set by the original surveyor.

Chan vs. Brandt, 45 Minn. 93, 47 N.W. 461 (1890):

This case involved the west quarter corner of Section 31 in a township, and the east quarter corner of Section 36 of the township just to the west. In theory, the quarter corner should be at the same location for each section and township. In fact, there were two quarter corner posts, one for Section 36 and one for Section 31.

The Minnesota Supreme Court decided that the original GLO surveys were never in error and that the Land Office would have corrected any error. The Court held in favor of the long-standing rule that the corners are where they were placed by the original government surveyor. The two quarter markers, though inconsistent, stood.

Kirwin v. Murphey, 189 U.S. 35, 23 S. Ct. 599, 47 L. Ed. 698 (1903):

This is one of the more interesting cases. The Howe brothers (U.S. government deputy surveyors) must have been very experienced surveyors. At some point while surveying in what later became a township in St. Louis County, they decided it was really too much work. It appears that they set corner posts at the southeast and southwest corners of Section 36, then quit work, sat in their camp, drank whiskey, and drew up survey notes for the entire township. The Government Land Office (GLO) used the notes to draw a town plat, and the land was sold.

It would have worked, except that a rough calculation of the size of Cedar Lake in the north part of the township turned out to substantially overstate its actual size. This meant that the government lots around the lake included much more land than was shown on the original surveys. The timber company, which bought the government lots, argued they should own the land, no matter the fraudulent survey. The government surveyor from Minnesota argued successfully that since the land had not been surveyed in the first place, the government could resurvey and determine the correct sizes of the lots. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government and said that the administration of public lands was vested in the GLO, and the courts could neither correct nor make surveys.

Schurmeier v. St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company, 10 Minn. 82 (1865):

Land along the Mississippi River in St. Paul was bought and owned by a private party. At low water, the land was a single parcel. When the Mississippi rose, part of the land was submerged, creating an island. The railroad claimed the island was public property because it was surrounded by navigable water. The railroad wanted to build a bridge on the island. The Court ruled that the meander lines along a shore of a government lot on the river were intended only to calculate the number of acres in the government lot. They are not a boundary. The Court said the landowner took title to the middle or thread of the river, subject to the state’s rights to retain the navigable waters. In this case, the island belonged to the private owner and he had riparian rights as the water level ebbed and flowed. This is why owners of lake shore in Minnesota almost always have lake access, no matter the water level.

Ruikke v. Nall, 798 N.W.2d 806 (Minn. App. 2011):

The original government survey map had a mistake. It showed a government lot with access to the lake for land that eventually was owned by Ruikke. The map was wrong because the meander lines on the PLSS plat did not accurately depict the lake. When the land was surveyed on the ground, it did not provide lake access. The Minnesota Court of Appeals decided that Ruikke bought lakeshore as shown on the original government survey map and he was entitled to lakeshore. The court carved out some of the neighbors’ property and gave it to Ruikke.


The Legacy of PLSS

Work on the PLSS began in the Minnesota territory in 1849, and was completed around 1907. By the end, most of Minnesota was in private ownership. Roads and drainage were the next problem, but that is a different story.

The PLSS worked as planned. Millions of people were able to own land and became United States citizens. European powers were never a problem. The United States border with the British Dominion of Canada was settled by diplomats and surveyors, not soldiers. Other unintended benefits of the PLSS were substantial and long term.

The surveys created enormous wealth in the new citizens. The ability to buy land at a low price, on easy payment terms, allowed people of limited financial means to create wealth. It was not preordained to happen this way. Historically, European governments had given large tracts of land to a few people. Allowing millions of people to buy and own in fee small tracts of land from the government was not the norm.

Landownership gave people access to capital in the form of mortgages. A landowner could mortgage their property to raise money to improve the land, farm, start a business, or buy more land. Like the property owners, the lender or mortgagee would understand the boundaries and value of the land taken as collateral. This unlocked credit markets for massive numbers of people.

Once the land was sold to the settlors, they needed transportation. The government used the land to entice capital to build rail lines into the interior of the country. This further connected the settlor citizens to their government.

This is not to say the PLSS worked out best for everyone. Certainly, the native peoples who lost their land did not benefit. The railroads, having been given land as an enticement to build rail lines, had no hesitation to use their rail line monopoly to charge high transportation prices. And, as recent history shows, there still are and always will be booms and busts in real estate.

The deputy surveyors not only measured and divided the land; they also made notes on native vegetation. This information helped settlors understand the land they were purchasing, and also helped Congress understand how likely it was that the land would sell.

In the late 1920s, the USDA took the field notes and developed a native vegetation map of Minnesota. This map has been updated by the Minnesota DNR. The unintended benefit of the surveys is that we have a good picture of what native Minnesota looked like prior to European settlement.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, giving a lot of people ownership of small parcels of land gives real estate lawyers like me a job.

For more information:
  • (use the link to historic public land survey plat maps).
  • (PLSS plats, field notes and land patents).
  • Stewart, Lowell O., Public Land Surveys: History, Instructions and Methods, Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors (1985) (Reprint of 1935 edition).
  • Linklater, Andro, Measuring America: How America Was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale in History (Walker Publishing Company, 2002).
  • Fant, Jesse E. Public Land Survey in Minnesota (Minnesota Land Surveyors Association 1970).
  • Manual of Surveying Instructions 2009 (U.S. Department of Interior, BLM, 2009)
  • Manual of Surveying Instructions 1973 (U.S. Department of Interior, BLM, 1973)

DAVID J. MEYERS is a shareholder with Rinke Noonan, St. Cloud. He is a Real Property Law Specialist, and serves as Examiner of Titles for six Minnesota counties.

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